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Is an MBA worth it for IT professionals?

PLUS: Matthews' MBA report on lessons to be learned from TiVo's strategic failure in NZ.

Paul Matthews
Fri, 27 Dec 2013

Much is said about the value of a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree; indeed it’s a topic everyone seems to have an opinion on. But how relevant is an MBA from a tech perspective?  Institute of IT Professionals CEO Paul Matthews recently completed an Executive MBA at the University of Auckland and looks at it through an IT lens: where does technology and business collide and is an MBA of value to those working in IT?

Mr Matthews' work toward his MBA included a report on lessons to be learned from TiVo's strategic failure in New Zealand. Read it here.

People do an MBA for a number of reasons, not always the right ones. From my experience over the last two years, I’d have to say that an MBA won’t teach you how to manage a company or be an entrepreneur. And I say that as someone who has managed organisations for around 15 years and successfully created and built companies from scratch in that time – before doing the Executive MBA.

But what’s become very clear is that a good MBA does something far more valuable: it changes how you think about and approach things – not just business – and in doing so it equips you with tools that will prove massively valuable as a manager or entrepreneur. That’s a really important distinction, but not always obvious.

This isn’t altogether dissimilar to other fields.  A Computer Science degree isn’t the best or fastest way of learning to write code, but a good Computer Science degree will change your mindset into that of a software developer, which is far more important. Ditto most other fields.

The experience
So what was the Auckland MBA experience like for someone from a tech background?

There are two important, but different, contexts on that. One is the actual MBA programme itself and how technology folks are likely to find it, and the other is whether completing an MBA will actually help advance your career in the IT industry.

Let’s start with the doing. Technology people are a little “different”; we generally live our lives online as much as offline and that’s not something that necessarily easily translates to classroom-based executive education. We live in a mostly paperless world. This worked well for most of the MBA as almost all readings, slides, notes and interactions were available electronically and most – but not all – textbooks had eBook versions. From my understanding this is fairly common across most NZ MBA programmes.

However there were occasions where the rigid and inflexible University environment wasn’t really compatible with the new digital world. The biggest example are the exam regulations that require hand written scripts in a two-to-three hour exam setting. That didn’t go down well with executives.  

But to the Business School’s credit, most papers shunned exams and had a more practical assessment regime more conducive to the modern world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the old-school Law paper was the one that insisted on an exam setting. Having said that, after much cooperation (read: lobbying) between the Business School, University hierarchy and MBA cohort, that paper became the first ever formal exam within the University of Auckland to be undertaken on laptops. Nice.

So all in all, I’d give the Auckland Executive MBA an A- on compatibility with the digital world. A policy that required an eBook version for any course prescribed textbook would lift it, as would a permanent move to allow exams on laptops.

If I was to pick the most disappointing aspect from a technology perspective, it would be the lack of focus on ICT in learnings. Some lecturers got it and some didn’t, but it would be good to see a more concerted focus on “technology in business” across the board to better equip those from other sectors for the digital world. Just a B- on that one.

Revelance to tech issues
One of the great things about the MBA is how readily you can apply it in the context of your own work, whether in IT or not.

In my case, I completed research and projects on tech topics as diverse as TiVo’s strategic failure in New Zealand, the impact of various procurement models on software procurement, and undertook an international trip to Chile to undertake a detailed market analysis of Health IT in South America. And that was on top of the usual bread and butter business topics such as fiscal policy, finance, accounting, marketing, law, etc.

This flexibility and relevance absolutely earns the MBA programme an A+.

MBA value in the IT industry
Which brings us to the far more important question: is an MBA worth doing in the IT industry and is it likely to be beneficial for those in, or wanting to move into, technology-related senior or executive positions?

Let’s consider the industry first. IT is no longer just about technical skills; these days it’s about business. In fact when the Institute of IT Professionals asks employers what they’re looking for in IT teams, technical skills are often down the list. To succeed in IT you do need some technical nous, but that won’t get you far without good communication skills, problem-solving skills, an ability to work as part of a team and a strong understanding of business.

And guess what four things an MBA focuses on?

Classroom-based MBAs are built around teamwork and communication and are focused heavily on problem-solving. All of this is delivered in a business context, and the learnings and mind-shaping nature of an MBA heavily complements an IT background.

If you’re in the IT industry, don’t do an MBA to learn how to run companies or to prep you to become an entrepreneur – if you want to do those things just go and do them. Do it because it will build strongly on the skills you already have, permanently change your mindset for the better, and provide context far outside your own perceptions. And these things are hugely valued in our field.

In short, it’s a journey of personal and professional growth.

And that’s probably why MBA-like qualifications are becoming more and more recognised in our industry. For example, when tech darling Xero recently advertised for a NZ country manager they raised some eyebrows by requiring a business qualification such as an MBA. But that type of requirement is likely to be seen more and more often as others catch on to the intrinsic link between IT and business.

So is an MBA worth it in the IT industry? You bet.

Paul Matthews is Chief Executive of the Institute of IT Professionals NZ and completed the Executive MBA, an intensive two-year executive education programme, at the University of Auckland in 2013.

Mr Matthews' work toward his MBA included a report on lessons to be learned from TiVo's strategic failure in New Zealand. Read it here.

Paul Matthews
Fri, 27 Dec 2013
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Is an MBA worth it for IT professionals?