Before I get started I should point out that I am not an MBA and I don’t play one on TV.  The closest I ever came to a business class was when I took Accounting I at the nearby community college in 1990 or so.  I’m an engineer through and through. That all changed due to a chance encounter in 1998 when I was recruiting at Harvard undergrad for computer science majors and somehow ended up making a guest appearance in a business school class that was discussing the development of Microsoft Word.  One thing led to another and I spent the fall of 1998 as a visiting scholar at HBS helping to teach a second year class “Managing Product Development” and I even wrote up a case study.  The experience was a real eye opener and it definitely taught me where the MBA mindset and experience can be a great member of our product and business teams.  This post is my perspective on where MBA graduates can have a big impact at Microsoft.

As with most of the jobs at Microsoft, there is some slight variation depending on the business group you join.  The overall results are the same—bring great products to market and reach customers in a world class manner—but the division of responsibilities across the different jobs is where the variation is usually.  I will offer some views that are biased towards the Business Software Division or Platforms Software Division (Office, Windows, Server and Tools). 

If you have a background in engineering or technology, or just a strong passion for technology, prior to getting an MBA and enrolled in an MBA program to make a career change that builds on your technical experience/background but takes you in another direction then this post is for you!  For those of you that want to pursue finance, corporate controller careers, or development (if you dream job is CFO, for example) then the best place to learn about the possibilities is from your recruiter or http://www.microsoft.com/mba

The two core jobs that can be quite interesting for you if you have a technical passion (not necessarily a technical education or background) and an MBA or are interested in focusing on products and technologies are:

  • Product Planner
  • Product Manager

A product planner is a member of the product team that is out there ahead of the current R&D efforts.  Your role is to be defining new product scenarios that we might want to build in the next generation products and understanding the customer and business rationale for going after the market.  Success is measured by seeing these ideas implemented in the product or by the research you undertook driving the product to a specific set of scenarios.  Like all things at Microsoft, you will have very strong executive support but your data and research and the case you build is what changes things.  In the Office team the product planning organization reports directly to the Corporate VP for Program Management.

The role is one of learning, researching, and communicating.  The focus is on competitive products, new technologies, new businesses, and above all customers.  You will use a variety of techniques from analytical research, qualitative research, analyzing third party research, competitive product analysis, on site customer visits, etc.  The job is one that requires creative and out-of-box thinking since the goal is to inform the development team about possibilities that are not necessarily linear extrapolations from the current product line.

A fantastic example of the role of planning for the next wave of products called Office “12” is how we approached the question of “workflow”.  This is a technology area that has not made it into mainstream products in any broad way and technically has been a real challenge for our industry—there is a strong customer demand, but the products have not materialized.  Partnering deeply with program management, our product planning team led the development of a model known as “document lifecycle” or DLC.  The DLC model turned workflow on end and instead of thinking about the steps of the process, looked at how documents move through an organization. So instead of focusing too much on process, the planners looked at how end-users think about their own work products and how those work products move throughout the organization.  Through dozens of multi-day in-depth customer engagements the planners developed an extremely detailed model of the flow of documents across a broad set of industries.  This had really not been done before and was a great example of pioneering work.  And as if that wasn’t enough, in the course of this research the US law Sarbanes-Oxley was passed which changed the landscape of the problem.  The planners were able to reach out and develop and adjunct model around “compliance” and from that came a whole additional set of features that are part of Office “12”.  

We recently announced the whole area of Enterprise Content Management at the Professional Developers Conference in LA and it was incredibly well received.   The work would not have been possible without the contribution from product planning.

As a product planner you will join the Redmond-based team made up of planners in major countries around the world.  The planners coordinate their worldwide research because our products need to be great around the world (for example, these document lifecycle features will likely span time zones and languages for a single work product).  You will be mentored by a fellow product planner and have frequent access to the senior leaders of the product team who will seek you out for competitive intelligence and views on broad product trends.

 

 

A product manager at Microsoft is responsible for defining and executing the business strategy.  You can think of this as the “go to market” strategy for our products.  With products based on intellectual property this is incredibly complex and why your MBA background will definitely help you hit the ground running and able to make a contribution quickly.  The Office business at Microsoft is $10 billion, selling to hundreds of millions of customers, with product offerings in over 40 languages, and dozens of primary SKUs that cover programs, servers, and services.  You will be responsible for equipping a worldwide field sales organization of thousands with the tools necessary to be successful at communicating the value of the products to customers and the press. You will do all of this within a team that is about the size of your business school section.

There are many responsibilities that you will potentially have as a new member of the product management team.  Over your career at Microsoft, it will be important to gain a well-rounded set of experiences in several of these core competencies.  Generally speaking, early in your career you will dedicate yourself to gaining in-depth experience and success in one area.  As you progress through your career you will gain experience in other aspects of product management and/or other product lines.  As a product manager in Office you would report into the organization run by our Corporate VP for product management who reports to the President of the Business Software Division (my boss too!)  Two of our three divisional presidents started as product managers at Microsoft.

As a member of the development team, I am in daily contact with one function of product management which I thought I would talk about which is the role that orchestrates product messaging and the overall value proposition.  We work on products that are enormously complex compared to things like consumer goods, cars, snack foods, or advertising supported products like magazines.  There exist literally no other products you can buy that do as many things in one “package” in as many different ways as Microsoft Office.  Yet just like all products we have a short time to get a message out there and we must do it in a manner that is in touch with customers, scales globally, and drives success for our business.  For Office “12” product management has delivered a very compelling messaging framework known as The New World of Work (NWOW).  This campaign was kicked off by Bill Gates and represents the cornerstone of our messaging for Office “12”.  Of course you can see the connection to the above document lifecycle scenario, as the NWOW is a campaign built around those scenarios that typify the new capabilities we have developed to deliver customer solutions.

If you have a more analytical bent in your background or aspiration, another key aspect of the product management career path is delivering marketing leading and customer satisfactory pricing and packaging.  Because we are products based on intellectual property there are seemingly unlimited combinations of features and price points upon which to base your business models.  With the expansion of our product line to cover the NWOW we have opportunities to be even more creative with what we offer to customers, balancing our revenue aspirations with customer wishes as you always do with packaging and pricing.  The sheer breadth of our product line, worldwide presence, and our industry’s ability to create product categories seemingly overnight, the ability to be a step ahead and have a strong sense of where the market will be is a key strength in this role.  A great example of successful product manager work in this area has been the offering of “Student and Teacher Office” which was an end-to-end product management offering consisting of packaging, pricing, distribution, and the campaign partnering with our Academic sales channel and our Retail channel.  The product has been responsible for a significant up-tick in incremental revenue for our business and has been featured numerous times in the Wall St. Journal as highly customer satisfying offer.  So great product management yielded a great business opportunity and satisfied customers.

Many MBA graduates ask about "owning a business" -- this is always a reasonable career aspiration.  The typical decision point for a new MBA is a really about what size organization you want to be part of and what size business you want to work in.  Obviously with a business like Office no one person owns the business end-to-end (unless you count our CEO).  There are all sorts of real-world complexities such as managing a global sales force (subsidiaries are managed by in-country GMs and the sales people report up through our global COO).  Within our organization we have some enormously successful end-to-end businesses including Project, Visio, FrontPage, OneNote, and our server products under the SharePoint brand.  In total these represent over $1B in revenue worldwide.  We have product managers that own these businesses and equip dedicated field sales and marketing resources around the world to achieve the revenue numbers.  A great example of this type of product management experience is working on our SharePoint family.  This business is a cornerstone of the "Office System" and is a major corporate-wide strategic initiative.  The product management team, in concert with the development team, own the end-to-end business around this effort and have grown the business from a startup of $0 to...well a pretty big number and faster than any other business in Microsoft's history.   

As a product manager you will join the Redmond-based team and develop the worldwide strategy for the business. You will have frequent access to executives as you develop your strategic contribution. Of course you will work with many different external parties as well including the press, partners, customers, and developers. Because many of our business offerings cross Microsoft businesses you will partner with product managers in other parts of the company, extending your network as your career advances.

Product management and product planning are “adjacent” careers in that it is not uncommon for people to move between the roles.  In fact the leader of product planning for Office was previously a product manager (and an MBA).  If you are potentially interested in a career path that leads to general management you might read my post on that topic.

Well that’s all for now.  If you have any questions or comments please let me know.  If you’re at HBS I’d love to get a chance to meet you on October 5th.  I will also be in a few classes during the day so maybe I’ll see you there as well.

--Steven