Field Course: Product Management 101 - Harvard Business School MBA Program

Field Course: Product Management 101

Course Number 6701

Senior Lecturer Julia Austin
Teaching Fellow Prashanth Bungale
Fall; Q1Q2; 3 credits
Weekly late afternoon 90- or 120-minute workshops
Enrollment: Limited to 45

Overview and Career Focus

Product Management 101 (PM 101) is a project-based course that uses a learning-by-doing approach to build basic product management skills. Students evaluate user needs and specify functional requirements for a new web or mobile application. Students attend weekly sessions featuring skill-building exercises led by outside experts and peer-to-peer feedback on project work-in-progress; none of PM 101's sessions will entail case discussion.

PM 101 is designed for students with limited or no prior product management experience who wish to work in that role after graduation, either in a big tech company or in a startup. Aspiring founders who want to gain a better understanding of the product development process also should benefit from the course. Please note that students who have worked as PMs for more than six months are discouraged from enrolling, because they are likely to be familiar with the concepts and basic skills covered in the course.

Students enrolled in CS50 (Introduction to Computer Science) should find PM 101 to be complementary: there will be almost no overlap in course content, and CS50's final project, which requires students to write a software app, could be used as a PM 101 project. Likewise, the overlap between PM 101 and Design Thinking and Innovation (HBS course number 1344) is minimal. In particular, Design Thinking focuses more attention than PM 101 on the earliest stage of the product development process, which entails "problem finding" and creative ideation.

Course Content and Deliverables

Product managers can have a big impact on a technology company's performance. PMs define a product's functional requirements and then lead a team responsible for its development, launch, and ongoing improvement. PM 101 aims to build understanding of the PM role and develop skills required to perform the role by addressing the following issues:

  • What does a PM do and with whom do they work at different stages of the product life cycle? What are the attributes of successful PMs?
  • What techniques do PMs use to understand customer needs and validate demand for a product?
  • What does a PM need to know about user experience design?
  • Why do some tech companies require PMs to write detailed product specifications while others do not?
  • What is the difference between waterfall and agile software development methods, and when/why would firms chose one over the other?
  • What does a PM need to know about technology, e.g., model-view-controller architecture, APIs, databases?

Course content will mirror last year's syllabus.

Working in teams of 2-3 and coached by mentors (volunteers from the Boston Product Management Association), students will deliver five end-products during the term: 1) a plan for researching user needs for their proposed application; 2)a Market Requirements Document (MRD); 3) wireframes for their proposed application; 4) a Product Requirements Document (PRD), with detailed specifications; and 5) a blog post reflecting on lessons learned from the course. Students will regularly present work-in-progress in class, and will be asked to provide written feedback on other teams' work.

Project Selection Process

Most projects will be student originated and will relate to students' startup ideas. Some projects will be sourced by the instructors and typically will relate to applications under development by HBS's IT staff.

The course's design requires a balanced number of students who originate their own project and students who work on either a peer- or instructor-originated project. Likewise, PM 101's design requires that project ideas initially be at roughly the same stage of development, so students can all work on the same tasks in the same sequence. This sequence of tasks starts with our first class session; hence, we want to have project teams ready to start working when the term starts. To that end, we will run a project selection and team assembly process during the late summer. In early August, pre-registered students will be asked if they wish to propose projects and, if they do, for some project details. Based on the criteria below, the instructors will select 15-20 of the proposed projects for PM101. In mid-August, a list of the selected student-originated projects, plus several instructor-originated HBS IT projects, will be distributed to all pre-registered students. We will encourage students who are not project originators to approach originators about forming a team, or to express interest in one of the instructor-originated projects. We will allow student project originators to decide who they wish to work with, but the instructors also reserve the right to assign students to teams if they have not joined one by the end of add-drop week.

Student-originated projects must meet the following criteria:

  • For product concepts not yet launched, some effort has been made to understand customer needs and explore potential solutions, but hypotheses have not yet been fully validated. The ideal project still requires a lot of market research, iterative design work, and MVP testing.
  • For a product that has already been launched, a major change in product features/functionality is being considered, and determining how to proceed requires a lot of market research, iterative design work, and MVP testing.

Based on past experience, students who already have a working application and who are convinced that they have found the best solution to a strong unmet need should not propose working on this app in PM101. Students in this position may be frustrated by PM101's requirement that teams complete customer discovery work, UX design, usability testing, and requirements specification. We want to avoid a "been there, done that" reaction.

When ranking PM101 in the EC course lottery, students whose interest in PM101 stems principally from a desire to work on their own startup idea should consider the possibility that their proposed project might not be selected. In this scenario, pre-registrants could either drop the course during add-drop week or enroll, but work on a different project. For reference, during each of the past two years (when PM101 relied on an application process rather than the EC course lottery) an average of 90 students applied for 45 spots in the course; these 90 students proposed 48 projects, of which 20 were selected.

Spring Term Options

PM 101 will develop skills required to evaluate and define a new software application, culminating with the presentation of a Product Requirements Document (PRD) specifying use cases and functionality. Students will not move projects into their build and launch phases during PM 101. Students who wish to develop product management skills relevant to those phases can do so through the Spring Term field course, Product Management 102 (HBS course 6702), which is described in a separate course catalog entry.

All students who successfully complete PM 101 are automatically eligible to enroll in PM 102; they do not need to apply separately. Subject to an assessment of students' fit with skill and project requirements, a few students who did not take PM 101 may be enrolled in PM 102 through an application process that will commence in mid-December.