How Useful is an MBA?
Earning a Business Degree Can Open New Doors
By Rachelle Crum
A master's degree in business administration may be the most valuable asset for a computing professional eager to climb the corporate ladder, get back into the workforce faster or keep a startup chugging along.
Yes, the stately glow of the letters M-B-A on your resume will help your chances in the marketplace. In its 2009 Year-End Follow-Up Poll of Employers, the Graduate Management Admission Council noted that it expects a slight increase -- from 65 percent in 2009 to 69 percent in 2010 -- in the proportion of companies hiring new MBA graduates.
Then there are the countless success stories about how hobnobbing with accomplished fellow alumni is a resourceful method to get a foot in the door. In GMAC's 2009 Alumni Perspectives Survey, 21 percent of respondents said they secured a job through school alumni networks.
However, what's on the surface can only take you so far in your career -- until you have to actually open your mouth and solve some business problems on the job. It's then that the refined skills and knowledge acquired in business school can guide you toward better decisions and help you become a stronger leader.
"The learning that you do in an MBA program is different and opens your eyes up to the management-type issues and challenges," notes Cheri Butler, president-elect of the National Career Development Association and associate director of career services at the University of Texas at Arlington.
A Path to Prominence
Take Lee Congdon, CIO of the open source giant Red Hat, for instance.
After obtaining bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from Purdue University, Congdon began his career as an operating system developer at IBM.
He was in his first management position at Big Blue back in the '80s in Chicago when he realized a need for additional schooling in management and finance. Congdon then qualified for the company-paid MBA program at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, and subsequently completed his course-loads in the evenings to balance out his tech-heavy experience with high-level business acumen.
Following several posts of increasing responsibility at IBM, Congdon went on to executive technology solutions roles at Citicorp, Nasdaq, and Capital One before landing at Red Hat.
Without his ingrained business education, "it would have been harder to get to where I am," Congdon says, and "the knowledge would have been much more difficult to develop on my own."
Specifically, his international business, strategy, economics, and marketing courses were "very critical and very valuable," Congdon notes, adding that the insights he retained from them have been perpetually beneficial.
A Synergistic Match
Additionally, the combination of skills and knowledge acquired through a bachelor's in computer science or computer engineering curriculum along with an MBA program creates a high-value employee, according to the Job Outlook 2009 published on the National Association of Colleges and Employers' career development site JobWeb.com.
Technical, analytical, and computer skills all ranked in the top 10 skills/qualities employers desired, and the MBA ranked as the top degree in demand on the master's degree level, according to the outlook.
Meanwhile, here's what the top degrees in demand look like for bachelor's degree level:
- Mechanical engineering
- Electrical engineering
- Computer science
- Business administration/management
- Information sciences and systems
- Computer engineering
- Management information systems
- Marketing/marketing management
The synergistic quality of the computer science and MBA curriculums has led to the creation of combination programs over the years, allowing students to expedite the learning process and narrow their focus.
There are dual-degree programs for a master's in computer science/MBA at universities spanning the United States, from the UCLA Anderson School of Management to the University of Michigan-Flint and the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
And then there's the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (named after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation CEO, who is also a former Microsoft division president and Nebraska native). The school combines computer science and business at the undergraduate level and offers an accelerated, one-year MBA program.
"We avoid the issues of which discipline is more important. We put equal emphasis on each discipline and develop an integrated view," says David Keck, who serves as director, professor of business administration, and professor of computer science and engineering at the Raikes School.
"Our grads major in one discipline and minor in the other," he points out. "The minors are very extensive – about 30 credit hours each. So our business majors are outstanding software developers and the CS majors understand quantitative business topics and have management and communication skills."
An Upgrade in Thinking
Many Raikes students stay on to pursue the MBA, Keck notes, "since the business college works with these students to develop a custom program that usually allows them to replace introductory business courses with more advanced courses in each required area."
One such graduate is Cameron Colby Thomson, co-founder and CEO of the Lincoln-based financial software firm Allied Strategy.
"All three of our founders stayed on campus to participate in the MBA program while we launched the company," Thomson says. "Our fellowships covered our costs, the MBA added relevant skill, and [it] served as a backup plan if we failed to get launched. It was really a very good deal."
Without their MBAs, Thomson and his co-founders would have needed to hire a CEO or CFO, he points out, "and may not have had the business knowledge to fully develop our business plan [and] negotiate investment terms.
"We also may not have known to fire our first four accountants and lawyers. It's hard to put an exact value on an upgrade in thinking," he concludes.
(1 February 2010)