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

Field Course: Product Management 101

Course Number 6701

Professor Thomas Eisenmann
Fall; Q1Q2; 3 credits
Weekly early-evening 90-minute workshops
Enrollment: Limited to 45 by application

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 smartphone application that is either self-sourced or assigned to them. In addition, students attend weekly sessions featuring skill-building workshops led by outside experts and peer-to-peer feedback on project work-in-progress.

PM 101 is designed for students who lack prior product management experience but 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.

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 tremendous 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 approaches (e.g., project planning software, face-to-face meetings, etc.) do PMs use to track progress and coordinate their team's efforts?
  • What does a PM need to know about technology, e.g., model-view-controller architecture, APIs, databases?

Last year’s syllabus for PM 101 is available here. This year’s course will cover roughly the same content as last year’s fall semester sessions. Readings are sourced largely from blog posts by practitioners. None of PM 101’s sessions will entail case discussion.

Working mostly in pairs and coached by mentors (HBS alumni and volunteers from the Boston Product Management Association), students will deliver six end-products during the term: 1) a plan for researching user needs for their proposed application; 2) a Market Requirements Document; 3) wireframes for their proposed application; 4) a Product Requirements Document, with detailed specifications; 5) weekly “snippets” briefly summarizing their progress; and 6) a blog post reflecting on lessons learned from the course.

Projects and Application Process

Students will initially work in pairs on a software application. If a team concludes, after researching user needs, that their application idea is not viable, its members will be reassigned to another PM 101 project already underway. Most projects will be student originated and will relate to students' startup ideas, although other good candidates for student-originated projects might include applications for a company, a non-profit organization, or the HBS community. Some projects will be sourced by the instructor and typically will relate to applications under development by HBS's IT staff.

The course's design thus requires an evenly balanced number of students who originate their own project ("originators") and students who work on a peer-originated project ("auxiliaries"). 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 at the same time.

Ensuring an appropriate mix of projects and participants requires an application review process. On July 15, an online application form will be posted on this course description web page with detailed instructions. Applications, which must be submitted by August 15, will then be reviewed by Prof. Eisenmann and the course team. Applicants will be informed of enrollment decisions on or before September 1, that is, before add-drop period commences a few days later.

Successful applicants will be asked to commit to the course by noon on September 2 and will then be enrolled; students will then use the Add/Drop process as needed to adjust other credits for the term. In the application, students who propose projects (i.e., originators, who may apply as a team of up to two students) will be asked for details on their idea's status and, if their proposal is not accepted, whether they wish to be considered as auxiliaries. Auxiliary candidates will be asked for to submit a paragraph explaining why they are interested in the course. Please note that applications will not be accepted from students who have worked as full-time PMs prior to HBS. This rule does not apply to students' who worked as summer interns in product management while at HBS.

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.

Winter Term Options

PM 101 will develop skills required to evaluate and define a new product, 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 should consider either an Independent Project or Field Course: Launching Technology Ventures (HBS course number 6750).