The Value of an MBA in IT

  • Sid Childers (7/10/2008)

    Good Morning,

    In my opinion, the true value of holding an MBA and working in a technical position is the ability to fully understand and relate to the business challenges customers bring, as well as to develop solutions to meet such challenges. I see all too often situations where complex business problems are "band aided" by small technical fixes put in place by folks who don't fully realize the problem at hand.

    I challenge myself each day to put myself in my clients' shoes. That is, I feel that I need to fully understand their challenges and their problems. Once I have this understanding, I can make recommendations related to technical solutions to their problems.

    Good point.

    In a past job, I worked as a cog in the companies business. When I first started with the client, most of the task was manual. As I went along, I learned the business and its processes. It was then that I was able to begin automating the process. In the end, I ended up being a process expert as well a developer. I think hands on experience with a companies processes is often the best way to understand the clients business needs.

  • I spent over 8 years in IT before moving to the ISV commercial software world. During my time in IT I did a part-time MBA program (I went to school @ night). The total cost of the MBA was roughly $15-20K but my employer at the time paid 100% of the cost! What it cost me were taxes on the benefit and opportunity cost on the time. It’s too hard to quantify those. The $60K-120K number is a full-time program and likely covers living expenses as well.

    Is an MBA valuable for IT professionals? The answer is, it depends. I’ve always viewed technology as an enabler for the business or a means to the end. In that context having an understanding of the business I’m supporting was critical. If I worked on a tax reporting system I benefited from having a general understanding of corporate tax accounting, not to the level that I could replace a business analyst on the fly, but at least I could speak the language and understood how exchange rates, AR and AP all play into the picture. Is it valuable for an operational DBA, probably less so than an application developer. It won’t help with disaster recovery plans, backup plans, etc. It will help the DBA that is doing design work (schema design, warehouse design, data integration design, etc. Again it comes back to understanding the language and the intent of the business.

    Is an MBA valuable for anyone? I’ve found that my MBA has also helped me in general ways. Problem solving skills, strategic thinking skills, collaboration and working in groups skills, understanding why companies make certain decisions (um, tell me again why Microsoft wants to acquire Yahoo…), understanding stocks (what’s P/E Ratio again?), professional networking – I met a lot of interesting people in my program and had a few job offers from them.

    Does an MBA = Management? Absolutely not! I didn’t start manage people until almost 6 years after I finished my MBA. I know several people who have an MBA and don’t manage people. On the flip side I know a lot of people who manage people and don’t have an MBA.

    Do I earn more money because of my MBA? That’s a tough question. I didn’t get my MBA to earn more money. It was a personal goal to hold a higher degree. I was lucky enough to find someone who would pay for it – something which is rare today. I could have received a Master in CS, or in some other field. I chose an MBA because of my passion for the business world and my desire to see technology solve business problems. If I were more into the technology side I probably would have got a Master’s in CS. I do believe a Master’s degree gives a job candidate an added edge. If I’m interviewing two equally qualified candidates for a job one with a Master’s and one without I’ll lean toward hiring the one with the Master’s (depending somewhat on the school). The reason is not necessarily what they learned but the fact they took the initiative to do it. Whether you go part-time or full-time it takes undeniable dedication and commitment to finish the program. It means the person is goal-oriented and can take a longer-term view on things. These are excellent qualities. But just because you have an MBA doesn’t mean I’ll hire you!

    My Advice? Don’t quit your job and run out and enroll in an MBA program. Think through the reasons why you want an MBA or any Master’s degree for that matter. Talk to your manager about it. Talk to your mentors about it. Talk to your co-workers about it. Talk to your significant other about it. Once you’ve decided you want to do it find the school that fits you. It may be based on a particular area of interest, by location, or by budget. Just remember, if you spend the time and money on getting an MBA be sure you’ll be proud to put the school’s name on your resume. And don’t underestimate the time commitment. While school was in session I worked full-time and attended classes or did school work 4 nights a week plus at least 8 hours on the weekend. My wife adapted to being “almost” single again. After I was done she had to adapt at being married again.

  • Lots of good comments here. I am nearing the end of an MBA, fully paid for by my employer, at a 'non-name' school. I have degrees from two other schools, both 'name' schools, and I think 1) the quality of teaching at the MBA school is far superior to the other two I graduated from and 2) the general level of the students is lower. The first was a bit of a surprise, while the second wasn't.

    As has been pointed out, there are many reasons to get an advanced degree, and I think the most reliable, so to speak, is because you want to learn something new. Whether it translates into a positive cash flow over the short, medium or long term, can only be evaluated in hindsight. In general, though, it seems to correlate with higher income, but then again so does switching jobs.

  • I like Dan's notes here, and it's likely an EMBA is more than a regular one, but I was thinking of a degree I could pursue while working and the eMBA seems designed for that.

    In 96-97, I actually started coursework for an MBA and then dropped out as work was a higher priority. I didn't enroll formally, but took the 2-3 classes that I could without starting the program. I'm not sure I learned anything that directly helped me with my job or made me more valuable, but I learned quite a few things I didn't know. It also made me think differently and view problems, issues, and potential solutions from a different mindset.

    In that way, I think it's incredible valuable. It's similar to what I think of undergraduate education. In many ways it's designed to teach you to think and to teach you how to learn things and adapt to different situations. My 8 semesters of calculus have never directly helped me outside of school, but I'd like to think they helped exercise my brain and allow it to grasp strange concepts.

  • I like Steve's comment on how getting an MBA can make you view things differently. My company paid for my MBA otherwise I don't think I would have pursued it. I'm very grateful they did because I believe it did help me view my job differently. Now that I have changed jobs to a senior DBA position, I think it helps me view my job more strategically and allows me to provide better input to my boss when implementing new systems or applications and deciding on what will be best for the business overall. Instead of just looking at it from a technical perspective, I can look at it from a business perspective as well.

  • Some of my first computer courses were taken at a local community college near Philadelphia years ago. That year there was an interesting study of area nursing students. Students from the community college scored higher than students from the University of Penn (Ivy league school).

    Of course, students in an Ivy league school may be there for different reasons than the community college students (aiming at research, government, etc.), but the study still demonstrated that the school alone and the degree alone don't prove anything. A student from a "top school" may statistically be a better student, but that doesn't make them a better resource in your company.

    If there is a specific instructor in a specific program somewhere that draws you to a school, fine. If you're choosing a course of study because of your passion for excellence, great. Otherwise, the fundamental point of the article is very valid: It's important to measure the cost/benefit ratio of any program.

    “Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason.”

  • Steve Jones - Editor (7/10/2008)

    I like Dan's notes here, and it's likely an EMBA is more than a regular one, but I was thinking of a degree I could pursue while working and the eMBA seems designed for that.

    There is actually a distinction between the EMBA and the PMBA.

    The EMBA is an executive MBA designed for (you guessed it) executives. Mostly C-level folks, directors etc. EMBAs are usually conducted one Friday a month and weekends or something like that. These programs are harder to get into because they expect you to be at a specific managerial level already, and they tend to have more focused programs that target what executives need to know (i.e. not a lot of electives).

    PMBA is a professional MBA where the people are general working folks, and the classes usually meet at night. You tend to have more flexibility in picking your specialization, but since many PMBAs are financed by their employers, some schools won't offer the same level of career finding assistance to their PMBA students. (My ex had this issue with Tulane's PMBA program - he wasn't allowed to use any of their career resources.)

    My info is a few years old though so things may have changed since I was looking into MBA programs.

    Regarding the whole pedigree issue - I got my masters at an Ivy League school. I didn't think the teaching was any different, though there were a lot more scientists that were considered top of their field than your average no-name school. From my perspective as a TA it seemed there were only two types of students (at the undergrad level): those who had worked hard to get there, and worked hard when they got there, and the trust fund babies who wanted to be able to ditch class to go play Lacrosse and have me pass them anyway. The "average" student there seemed about the same as the average student I studied with as an undergrad in the University of California system. At the graduate level in my department, there were not all that many students and most of them were pretty sharp. We were all there on fellowship, normal folks and not spoiled rich kids.

    All that said... I am 100% sure my pedigree has gotten my foot in the door at many of my jobs, even though my degrees are not in IT. Because of the perception of those schools, employers look at someone coming from a top school and assume they must be smarter than average. If you are in a consulting environment, it is a huge plus because your firm will love to show your resume to clients who will also feel that they are getting the smartest folks out there.

    The moral of this story... if you can get a pedigree without paying out your eye teeth for it, go for it. If not, you'll probably do fine and learn just as much, but you may be at a slight disadvantage in the job market to those who did.

    Anye Mercy
    "Service Unavailable is not an Error" -- John, ENOM support
    "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." -- Inigo Montoya in "Princess Bride"
    "Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice." -- Will Durant

  • I got my MBA before entering the IT field. I got it because I wanted the necessary credential to be able to teach at the college level. I think of it as a way to make some extra income teaching once I retire.

    After entering the IT field, I have focused on the technical aspects of it, because that is what I love. I have had opportunties to go into management, but so far, have avoided it as I prefer working with technology directly.

    Even though the MBA in on my resume, I don't think it has affected my job opportunities or salary. During job interviews, or even after getting jobs, the subject of me having an MBA has never come up with my managers, so I assume that it hasn't meant much to them. Of course, none of these jobs required an MBA.

    A couple of times, when interviewing for jobs, I was worried that having an MBA might think that I was too "over-qualified" for the job. But this does not seem to have been the case, as I have gotten every job that I applied for and really wanted.

    On the other hand, having an MBA has helped give me a better understanding of the "bigger picture" of running an organization, which in turn helps be a better DBA. The more a DBA understands about the business they are in, the better prepared they are to help the business accomplish its goals.

    Brad M. McGehee

  • I started my career in IT in the late 70’s, just out of college working as a “computer operator” for a large beverage distributor in southern California. One day the Honeywell DPS6 mini-computer crashed and dumped thousands of orders. No one knew what to do. To me it seemed obvious: just restore from the system’s tape backup. I nervously went to the operations manager and suggested this – we did it – and things were back to normal. Two weeks later I was promoted to “Director of Data Processing”. That simple title change wound up (at the time) doubling my pay when I left the company – because I could leverage the title in the next job I took.

    A couple years after that I joined a startup software company where I was given the title of “Vice President”. Sounds good huh? Well, the company had 3 employees at that time: The President, me, and our receptionist. So I was company Vice President, but I was also Janitor, and in charge of such vital things as the coffee machine and making sure the men’s room had adequate supplies of toilet paper. I spent 8 years there and we grew to 15 employees, had some good successes, but when I left that company, it was really the title of Vice President that once again leveraged me into more pay.

    I went to work for a large Hotel chain where my incoming VP title just about doubled my pay again. Along with the big pay boost, that company paid 100% reimbursement for attaining an MBA, so I took advantage of that and got my MBA/CS.

    I learned lots of theory and a little bit of good business practice but I would suggest that less than 10% of what I learned has been of any direct value in the day-to-day of my work. None the less, I got the degree and to this day it looks nice on my resume but I deem hardly as nice as my titles.

    When younger folks have asked me if my MBA has been “valuable” my response is pretty stock; Not as valuable as having a “power” title. That is, I make more money today than I ever would have imagined, but that is largely because of the titles that I have stumbled into – and I do mean stumbled into, and I cannot recall a single time in any interview that any one has asked about my MBA/CS in any detail, although they have asked about how I “rose” to the level of VP.

    What I think gets lost in today’s business world is that the generations that came after mine seem to have forgotten something that was an axiom with most companies in my earlier days. That is, “You hire people, not paper.”

    I have hired lots of developers, analysts and managers in my career and the best of them were not necessarily those with the most knowledge, let alone degrees. MBA’s are nice when I review a resume, but I want to meet the person and get a feel for what they will take on – how they will react during difficult times or tough projects – what they are made of as people, not paper. And indeed, I have hired plenty of wet-behind-the-ears-just-out-of-college “kids” who went on to be great and highly valued employees without any MBA.

    Of course, I can’t speak for everyone hiring at any given company, but I look more for excitement, drive, patience during high pressure times, team attitude, and a “I will learn what I have to learn to get it done” attitude in a prospective employee far more than I look for degrees, or what college they went to. And I authorize pay raises for people based on what they do in the day-to-day trenches, not how much education they’ve paid for.

    So for me personally, titles have been a gold mine, the MBA is glitter, and people with a desire to achieve and learn as they produce results get the bucks they are worthy of.

    Or, as a very successful and wealthy mentor of mine once said; “I will always take an idiot with a desire to learn and a no-fear attitude, over an expert who knows so much they have stopped learning and are consistently telling me what I can’t do.”

    There's no such thing as dumb questions, only poorly thought-out answers...
  • I reduced my programming hours (and pay) to 20 hours/week and got an MBA going fulltime in 1984-1986. No regrets. After getting the degree my university programming job salary nearly doubled (for the same job, but nicer title). Then the salary jumped to triple my pre-MBA money in less than 6 years after 2 job changes. Both times I was told one of the reasons I got the new position was because of my advanced degree.

    Two more job changes later I was a Senior Manager, although I had never managed people before, because I had an MBA. I have since decided that "herding cats" is for folks more patient than me, so I went back to a 100% DBA technical job without any direct reports. But barely 20 years later I make 5 times what I was making as a fulltime university Systems Analyst. The MBA was far from the sole reason for this trajectory, but it was always a nice asset. And I did learn more about the business side of things than what a typically techie sees in a lifelong career.

    P.S. I graduated bottom of my class. No one has ever has about my 3.05 GPA, all they care about is that you have the advanced Management degree. If you have the time (always more important than having the money) I recommend you get an MBA. And there's no thesis to turn in!

  • Where I live (New Orleans) Executive MBA programs can cost twice as much as traditional MBA programs. At UNO the EMBA is $28,000 whereas the MBA is $3600 per semester, roughly $14,400. At Tulane U the EMBA cost $60,000. But at either institution employers may cover all or part of the cost. Many of my colleagues have gone the MBA route, for free. Since I already have an advanced degree I have never been tempted by the MBA.


    To speak algebraically, Mr. M. is execrable, but Mr. C. is
    Edgar Allan Poe
    [Discussing fellow writers Cornelius Mathews and William Ellery Channing.]

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