Are MBAs still worth it for IT leaders?

Are MBAs still worth it for IT leaders?

Should IT leaders still invest their time and money in a traditional MBA program? Or has that degree lost its power to supercharge your career? Let’s examine both sides of the debate.

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June 17, 2019

The resumes of today’s rising IT leaders look a lot different than those from previous generations. With many opportunities out there for career advancement, the path to the top looks less like a straight ladder and more like a rock-climbing wall. And today, fewer people than ever are reaching for the rock labeled MBA. According to a survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council, 70 percent of full-time MBA programs in the United States saw a drop in applications last year.

[ Are you making progress toward a CIO or CDO role? Read also: 5 digital leadership lessons from the trenches. ]

Is it still worth it for aspiring CIOs and other IT leaders to invest their time and money in a traditional MBA program? Or, in the fast-moving world of IT, is hands-on experience the best teacher? If you decide to forego an MBA, what skills or opportunities might you miss out on that can’t be earned in other ways?

Read on for 10 opinions on both sides of this argument and weigh the ROI for yourself.

PRO: Get your MBA for the network that comes with it

David White, founding partner, Menlo Coaching: “Online learning programs such as HBS Online can help IT executives learn finance, accounting, and economics in a flexible format at a much lower cost than traditional MBA programs. For executives who need to build only these specific functional skills, online programs are a clear win.

This MBA network can help IT leaders find new career opportunities, learn quickly about other industries, and even recruit staff.

“However, the true value of an MBA is the credential and the network that comes with it. For example, Wharton has invested heavily in building its tech industry network by opening a San Francisco campus, which is used both by full-time students and by executive MBA students who come from companies including Google, Facebook, Salesforce, and Adobe. This MBA network can help IT leaders find new career opportunities, learn quickly about other industries, and even recruit staff for their own teams. The in-person format also provides a more effective way to practice skills like giving and receiving feedback, negotiating, and public speaking, which are exactly the skills required to advance into a CIO role.”

CON: MBAs don’t fix culture issues or help businesses gain agility 

Leon Adato, head geek, SolarWinds: “Despite their popularity, I have not seen the prevalence of MBAs have any measurable impact on the world of IT. Specifically:

  • Managers (whether they’re former IT pros or not) continue to fail to find ways to effectively and efficiently translate business requirements into technical specifications, nor to help translate gaps in technical teams into business justifications.
  • The presence of MBA-owning IT staff (whether they make the leap to management or not) has failed to create a culture of appreciation for business justifications among rank-and-file IT professionals. IT pros continue to storm the C-suite with long-winded tales of technical derring-do (or looming disaster), unaware (or unwilling to accept) that this will never get them what they want or need.
  • IT professionals are quick studies when it comes to seeing what skills translate to measurable gains in their paycheck. They dutifully maintain and upgrade network certifications. They’re positively flocking to cloud training. But the fervor within the IT community for MBAs cooled to sub-arctic levels almost a decade ago. IT pros have seen no real benefit from spending that kind of time and effort.

“But more than anything, MBAs are seen as unnecessary by the business (and thus waning in terms of delivery) because the business itself isn’t seeing any lift. MBA-trained staff (whether IT-originated or from elsewhere in the company) aren’t making a measurable difference in terms of quality, quantity, agility, or differentiation.”

PRO: Business skills trump technical skills for IT leaders

Alan Zucker, founding principal, Project Management Essentials LLC: “I hold a masters degree in economics and strongly believe that most people that aspire to leadership roles in technology organizations should have a grounding in a non-technology field such as an MBA. I have worked with many brilliant software engineers and technologists. These analytic and technical skills have made them very good in their current roles. However, as technologists move into management and leadership, they need to have a broader view of their organization, its mission, goals, and the interlinkages across different domains and frontiers. They also need to develop interpersonal skills as they collaborate with their business partners and lead their teams.

“I have witnessed many strong technology leaders go down the rabbit hole by being enamored with the latest, newest technology without an understanding of how that will enable their business. I have also seen technology leaders that make fundamental management and leadership mistakes, creating dysfunctional organizations because they have not learned how to manage even small teams, let alone large organizations.

“Conversely, I have seen great leaders in technology organizations who had their roots in business. These people lacked the technical skills to actually code software, but they understood the business and how to work with people and manage their organizations. These people did not need to know or keep up with the latest technologies: They had the right people on their team to help them make those decisions.”

CON: Specialized education programs can be just as effective in advancing careers

The point of an MBA isn’t dead. But most of the programs will continue to fade.

Alexander S. Lowry, executive director, Master of Science in Financial Analysis, Gordon College: “I’m a professor of finance at Gordon College and also the director for the school’s Master of Science in Financial Analysis program. I launched this program for several reasons: (1) People still need an advanced degree to advance; (2) This degree focuses on analysis, which is essential in IT projects; (3) People need the skillset of an MBA but don’t want to spend two years and a high cost. So the point of an MBA isn’t dead. But most of the programs will continue to fade.”

It depends: Carefully consider your own ROI

Meg Ramsey, vice president, cloud services product management, Sungard Availability Services (Sungard AS): “Without question, continued learning is key for IT leaders to remain relevant. The question of what type of learning, whether it be short, topical courses online or longer, accredited courses like an MBA program, depends on the resource, their experience, and their aspirations. If this is an experienced IT leader who only needs to brush up on a new technology or business process, then a short, specific online course may be all that is required. However, for an aspirational IT leader who hopes to parlay their technology background to a more prominent position in the business, you can’t beat the education learnings and relationships an MBA provides. In addition, more and more MBA programs are offering analytics certificates that allow for a blend of both.

Quality of school, program, and peer group are critical to those seeking top advancement.

“Pursuing an MBA helps IT professionals broaden their experience and provides them with a holistic view of how businesses operate. They learn about the business drivers and levers that can be used to help accelerate the business and grow revenue. It could also result in faster career advancement, but the speed of their advancement depends on the quality of the MBA they pursue. Quality of school, program, and peer group are critical to those seeking top advancement, and you must balance that with the cost of the program in factoring your ROI.”

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Carla Rudder is a writer and content manager on The Enterprisers Project.

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