By Ilana Kowarski,
Early-stage and established tech companies differ in how they perceive MBA degree holders, experts say.
BUSINESS SCHOOL applicants who dream of entering the tech industry are often wary of a stigma against MBA degree holders, and industry experts say there is some justification for that concern.
Many tech industry insiders say tech startups aren’t usually eager to hire individuals with MBA degrees, since these startups are heavily focused on fine-tuning the technology of their products and less concerned with management issues like finance and marketing.
“For early stage startups, it’s difficult to find a position for someone with an MBA – and they likely won’t be appreciated as much as they could be elsewhere,” David Cancel – the co-founder and CEO of Drift, a tech company that provides a digital platform for marketing and sales to businesses, and the entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard Business School – wrote in an email. “However, as companies grow and scale, the skills team members with MBAs bring can be invaluable.”
Tech industry executives say there are many job opportunities for MBAs at large, established tech companies.
“I’ve found that as tech companies grow, the perceived need for candidates with an MBA grows as well,” Adam Rodnitzky, the vice president of marketing at Occipital Inc., a company which designs and sells cellphone software and sensors, wrote in an email.
Rodnitzky, who earned an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, says the contributions of people with MBAs are just as important as the work done by engineers. “After all, a tech company needs more than just a product to grow,” he says. “It needs a market as well. Once a product finds a market, the complexities of doing business become manifold and can quickly eclipse the experience or resources of a founding team.”
“Having someone with an MBA can not only free up technical founders to refocus on what they do best, but that person can also provide critical thinking to help guide the business through legal, financial and marketing challenges that have the potential to sink or accelerate a tech company’s progress,” he says.
Nick H. Kamboj served as an executive at Microsoft, Accenture and Xerox and an MBA admissions committee member at Booth before establishing MBA admissions consulting firm Aston & James. Kamboj urges MBA hopefuls whose goal is to become leaders in the tech sector to gain work experience in the tech industry before heading to B-school.
Kamboj says tech companies are reluctant to hire managers who lack hard skills, so MBA grads who spent some time working as a programmer or engineer before attending business school are more attractive candidates for management positions at tech firms than MBA degree recipients without that experience.
While an MBA isn’t necessary for a job as a programmer or engineer, it is absolutely an asset for senior leadership roles at tech companies, he says. “One needs the foundation of business acumen to set strategic direction appropriately and to ensure that the company is technologically moving in the right direction,” Kamboj wrote in an email.
Harj Taggar, co-founder and CEO of the Silicon Valley tech staffing firm Triplebyte, says the tech industry is dominated by engineers, many of whom are deeply skeptical about the value of an MBA degree. “The technology sector is largely an engineering driven culture and engineers in general are skeptical of studying the ‘theory’ of business. … There’s also a more broad stigma that MBAs, while often smart and capable, will be overly entitled and expect to go straight into senior management and leadership roles after graduation,” he wrote in an email.
Still, despite the doubt with which some hiring managers view MBAs, experts say this skepticism can be overcome by grads who are able to communicate the practical skills gained through their MBA program.
Liz Arnold, associate director for tech, entrepreneurship and venture capital in the Career Management Center at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, says MBA programs are transforming to account for the tech revolution. Arnold says B-schools are increasingly emphasizing hard skills that tech companies value such as predictive analytics, as well as more project-based learning opportunities to help MBA students gain valuable work experience and real-world insight during their MBA program.
“When students are looking for MBA programs, they should really dig into the curriculum,” Arnold says.
She adds that prospective B-school students who want to work in tech should look for a school that offers courses on innovation and how to start a successful business. “I also encourage all students interested in tech to build their entrepreneurial skill set, to really understand how to take the initiative on their own to go from idea to launch,” she says. “I think that particular skill set is relatively … valued at most tech companies, because the tech companies want students to be autonomous and take projects and run with those ideas and move them forward.”
Experts say that in an era when swift technological progress is reshaping nearly every industry, there is strong demand for MBA grads who understand how technology works. Prospective MBA students who want to become executives at tech companies should know that these businesses seek managers with technical expertise as well as business acumen.
Demand for tech-savvy business professionals exists not only at firms that produce and sell state-of-the-art technology, but also at companies that use cutting-edge technology to deliver nontechnical products and services, experts say.
Greg Layok, managing director of the Chicago-based tech business consulting firm West Monroe Partners, says people who have a technical background and management expertise are very marketable for high-profile, tech-related business jobs.
MBA grads with hands-on technical work experience should understand that they have valuable credentials, Layok says. “Regardless of what school you go to – you’re very sought after … by consulting firms, technology firms and Fortune 500 firms, because of that kind of uncommon blend that you bring of technology and business,” he says.
Nearly every business in the 21st century is looking for leaders who are capable of differentiating between potentially revolutionary and flawed technology that is unlikely to transform society; candidates who can continuously adapt to rapid changes in technology will be the most marketable.
Jon Falker, the director of marketing for Glidr, a Silicon Valley tech firm that designs software to help companies determine whether their products and business models are viable, says today’s corporate executives often pivot their technology strategy quickly.
“In software and (tech) services, you’re dealing with product cycles that are weekslong instead of monthslong or even yearslong in older industries,” says Falker, who holds an MBA degree from University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.
Falker says MBA students who aspire to become managers in the tech sector should attempt to learn as much as they can about both business and technology, so they can contribute to corporate discussions about technological product development.
The fast pace of the modern, tech-driven business world is both demanding and exciting, experts say, so a solid MBA program is one that teaches its students how to thrive in a business environment that is constantly in flux. Experts say MBA students should also learn how to speak both the language of business and the language of tech so that they have the ability to communicate with both executives and engineers.