Should You Get an MBA?

The pressure is on IT leaders to prove their business savvy, and job postings are asking for an MBA. Do you really need one to make it as a CIO? We asked two IT executives for help assembling arguments for and against pursuing the degree.

To get an MBA or not to get an MBA—that is the question for many IT professionals today.

With all the weight companies are placing on needing business-savvy IT leaders, IT professionals who don't already have the prestigious degree are considering obtaining it.

"The emphasis on getting an MBA is even stronger today [than it was four years ago] because CIOs are that much more involved in strategy, business operations and business transformation," says Mark Polansky, North American managing director of executive search firm Korn Ferry’s IT Center of Expertise.

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For proof of the increasing requirement that candidates for IT management positions possess advanced business degrees, consider the prerequisites for several positions advertised on CIO.com:

Requirements like those are creating anxiety for IT professionals, who worry that not having an MBA will eliminate them from job opportunities and severely limit their prospects for career growth. Of course, that concern is reason in and of itself to go for an MBA. But many IT professionals remain resistant because earning the degree requires so much time and money.

Recruiters such as Polansky and Carl Gilchrist, the North American leader of Spencer Stuart's Information Officers practice, say that having an MBA is a plus because it speaks to two of the top criteria for CIO positions today: leadership ability and business acumen. But they also say that not having an MBA won't necessarily eliminate you from a search.

Gilchrist says his firm can easily identify which CIOs in its CIO database have MBAs and which don't. "We do track. We do care, but it's not a knockout," he says. "There are plenty of great CIOs who don't have one," he says. (For a short list of high-profile CIOs who do and don't have their MBAs, see Top CIOs: Who Has an MBA and Who Doesn't. You may be surprised by who does and who doesn't.)

To help you figure out what's best for you, CIO.com invited two IT professionals to weigh in on the MBA debate—one on each side. Thomas MacKay, the assistant director of IT at Christopher Newport University, a small, private liberal arts school in Newport News, Va., represents the pro-MBA side of the coin. James Clark, the CTO of EpicTide, a provider of security software for the health-care industry, represents the opinions and concerns of the IT professionals who don't have their MBA.

MacKay earned his master's degree in two and a half years from a regionally accredited online MBA program about 12 years ago while working for the College of William and Mary as its IT director. He decided to pursue his MBA because he realized he needed to know more about business to do his job effectively.

"I was in charge of all systems that tracked fund-raising for the endowment office, which had a strong marketing and sales orientation," says MacKay. "I started to realize that having a more sophisticated understanding of the business would greatly lend itself to my ability to use IT to make strategic differences in the way the fund-raising office operated."

Though he's not anti-MBA, Clark, like many IT professionals, isn't seized by a strong inclination to get the degree, though he has considered it. Yet at the same time, he's concerned that not having one will be a strike against him in a future job search.

"If having an MBA is not going to be a pre-screening criteria, I wouldn't think it would be necessary that I have one, but it does seem to be more and more part of the screening process," he says. "If the determining factor in my career and where I go from here is whether or not I have a business degree, then that will be something I have to make time for."

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