Should You Do An MBA?

Every couple of months, one of my (usually techie) friends asks me for advice on an MBA. The form of the question itself varies (“Hey, what did you think of your MBA?”, or “Do you think an MBA is a worthwhile use of my time?”), but the underlying themes are the same: reassure me that this is the right, best, easiest, or most sure-fire way to get me more money, status, or success. Rather than handle these requests one-on-one, I figured I might as well post my thoughts here and save everybody some time.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I was somewhat bitter with my own MBA program. Perhaps it had something to do with the 321% increase in fees. Or the 20% of my fees that went to pay the tuition of someone who was likely in no worse a financial position than I. Take my advice, as always, with a grain of salt.)

After a year in the workforce, I can’t say that the education provided by my MBA was especially insightful. While the program and its material certainly provide a framework for thinking about business problems (hint: everything can be expressed as a two-by-two matrix), if you’ve got a good head on your shoulders and can think in a critical fashion, then the MBA won’t hold many surprises for you. If your background is science or engineering, or you have a healthy appetite for reading and thinking, the MBA is a breeze.

That said, there are a few key things I learned in the MBA program that I will share with you:

  • Nobody can write to save their lives: It’s shocking, but most people simply can’t string together sentences in a clear, concise fashion while presenting a position on a given topic. Everybody has a weapon of choice that they wield mercilessly against the English language: run-on sentences, improper punctuation, improper capitalization, incorrect use of homophones (for example: there, their, they’re), and just plain bad grammar. My advice? Start a blog and write regularly – at least you’ll end up sounding more intelligent, even if you haven’t increased the amount of knowledge in your noggin.
  • Nobody can use a computer: Despite the fact that people my age were supposed to be the Computer Generation, I can assure you that this is simply not the case. Most of my classmates were hopeless with a computer. Nobody could use Word or Excel to their maximum potential to execute a task as easily or as quickly as possible. It does make one wonder: how much of the productivity “savings” promised by computing have been eroded by the overhead caused by operator error?
  • Most people can’t manage their time: Half the time, people in my class were running around like loons trying to get their homework done at the last minute. A little bit of planning and regular execution can go a long way. You don’t need an MBA program to learn this.
  • A significant proportion of the population can’t present to a group: Presenting is an art – it takes time to master, and regular practice. Did you know most people fear presenting more than they fear death? Sign yourself up for Toastmasters or an acting class. Half the battle is gaining self-confidence.

Looking at these weaknesses, I actually have a greater appreciation for my undergraduate engineering degree at SFU. The Engineering Science program at SFU specifically taught us how to present, how to write, how to interview, and numerous other life-skills that I don’t think most students obtain in their undergraduate degree, nevermind an MBA program. Special recognition is deserved by Steve Whitmore and Susan Stevenson for their efforts.

Despite my disappointment in my own MBA program, would I do it again?

As reluctant as I am to say it, I would have admit that even knowing what I know now about the MBA program, I would still do it again. Sure, the program doesn’t live up to its expectations. It’s certainly not the ticket to guaranteed success that it once was. But, frankly, if you’re looking to cross the chasm between one career and another (technology and business in my case), this is probably the best route. I’m not saying it’s the only route – you could always just pull yourself up by your boots and hope you get the right experience to get where you’re going – this one at least comes with a piece of paper that people can easily recognize.

That’s it, I hear you saying, a piece of paper?

Yes, if nothing more the MBA will get you a piece of paper that will allow an employer to more easily classify you when you apply for a job. You see, it’s not about being better than other applicants for a job – employers have little, if any, ability to discern between the resume of a good employee and that of a bad employee. If it comes down to you and another applicant of equal skill, and he has an MBA and you don’t, guess who gets the job? Unfortunate, but true. If you’re lucky, it’ll give you a little extra life experience, some exposure to people from other backgrounds, and some time to think about where you want to go in life once you’ve received your newly-minted MBA. And even if you’re bucking for an entrepreneurial life, an MBA is a nice backup plan to have in case your dreams of being the next Bill Gates turn sour.

On that note, it’s probably best to give some parting advice to those who still wish to pursue an MBA:

  • Know what to expect: The fact that you’re here means that you’re doing some research. That’s good. Talk to people from the MBA program you intend to attend. Try to find people from all different backgrounds to get a balanced view.
  • Prepare for a lifestyle change: Depending on the length of program, you could be in school for between fifteen and twenty-four months. That’s twenty-four months where you’ll probably put a lot of the rest of your life on hold while you attend school. Think about it. Talk about it with your spouse or significant other.
  • Understand the whole cost: People look at the price tag of a typical MBA and balk. But that’s just the beginning. Don’t forget books. And rent. And booze. And student fees. And the opportunity cost (you won’t be working, remember?). Taking the program is a serious undertaking, and you need to be prepared to carry it through. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.
  • Understand why you want to do an MBA: I would recommend you don’t consider an MBA until you’ve got at least three or four years of work experience under your belt. You’ll need that experience to shape what you hope to achieve by taking an MBA. I would also warn against focusing on the short-term. You’re not going to step out of the MBA and be handed the CEO position. You probably won’t even know how to manage people. You’re going to be back to square one, just like when you came out of undergrad. The only way to avoid this disappointment is to have a game plan on where you want to be in five, ten, or fifteen years, and view the MBA as a minor detour on the road to your inevitable future success. If you have to, write a retirement speech to figure out where you want to go in life.
  • Do something new: When choosing a specialization in your MBA (if there is such a thing in the program you attend), try doing something with little or nothing to do with your undergraduate degree or work experience. Why pay for what you already know? If you’re a technologist, avoid IT or “e-Business” specializations. Nobody likes paying $20K just to learn HTML. This goes double for those with a commerce or business undergrad degee (in fact, those with such a degree should probably avoid the MBA altogether – nothing new to see here, move along).

And one last thing – all MBA programs are the same, as far as I’m concerned, in all regards except one: the network of alumni they offer. If there were one piece of advice I would give a prospective MBA student, it would be to heavily research the alumni network of the MBA program to which you’re applying. While the MBA programs themselves may not differ, the opportunities afforded by past graduates vary greatly and are probably the one thing that differentiate the programs and their ability to shape your future success. Choose wisely.

Learning Together

One of the few benefits of the MBA that I will admit without too much coercion: it exposed me to a lot of people from different backgrounds. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that, outside the MBA, the major failing of the current form of university education is its narrow focus on a single field or discipline.

Think about it: the main purpose of university is to bring in smart people, separate them into silos, and then equip them with an exclusive vocabulary known only to peers in their own discipline. Once their degree ends, they’re shipped off into a heterogeneous world where no one but their immediate peers speaks their language. And we wonder why it’s so hard to get anything done, be it in the corporate world or the public sector.

By and large, we never actually teach people how to work together. The majority of their education is spent being trained to only be responsible for their own work, their own success. Team projects in the world of higher education are hardly representative either – after all, you’re all in the same degree program!

What I wonder is why we don’t see universities creating courses that bridge disciplines? For example, why not have a course that brings together engineers and business students? You could have the business students write a product spec based on market research, have the engineers design and build it, and then have both present the project from a technical and business standpoint?

Maybe if we had these kinds of project courses, companies wouldn’t spend as much time learning and re-learning as an organization how to span the individual specialties. It seems to me like so much of my early career has been spent trying to figure out why every company always seems to encounter similar problems. Then again, maybe I’m completely off base with this approach. It could just be that people are non-linear, and no amount of formal education will provide a solution to the problem.

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