As frequent readers of this column can attest, I am an outspoken advocate of the MBA as an important professional credential?and candidate differentiator?for CIOs and other senior IT leaders. But before you ask, Should I get an MBA? you need to ask another question: What are my primary areas of interest, and what are my career goals and aspirations?
For business application builders and future chief information officers?even for sitting CIOs (it is never too late)?an MBA demonstrates a serious attitude toward learning and self-improvement, and substantiates an interest in and an aptitude for business issues. It also establishes an academic foundation for what CEOs expect from CIOs: proactive leveraging of technology for the competitive and operational advantage of the enterprise and its bottom line.
In particular, if your baccalaureate education was technically oriented, complementing that background and bolstering your business knowledge with an essential understanding of management, economics, finance, marketing, manufacturing and distribution will set you apart from the pack. It will also increase your marketability and promotability, and enhance your earning potential by opening the doors to more and bigger opportunities. However, if you are currently the top-ranked IT executive at your company but are functioning less as a CIO and more as an IS director, you must reevaluate your strengths, weaknesses and career objectives before answering the MBA question. There may need to be an important job change on your professional agenda first.
Q. Will a master’s degree do?
A. Supplementing a technical bachelor’s degree with an MS degree in any major will tend to further brand you as a techie. If you started out with a sheepskin in the liberal arts, social sciences or business, there’s not much point in getting a second BS or even an MS in a technical discipline. Instead, move forward and upward toward an MBA, perhaps in a very business-oriented IS concentration. Your on-the-job experience?supplemented by carefully chosen seminars and MBA electives?will likely be more than sufficient technical training to reach a CIO career goal. In this case, use your job as your technical school while you get the advanced business training needed from your MBA experience.
For technologists and future CTOs who are more comfortable reading product specs than corporate business plans, the graduate degree of choice is more likely to be an MS in information systems. Unless you are a die-hard techie, judiciously use elective courses to expose yourself to business subjects in order to prepare yourself for meaningful participation in issues resolution and alignment of technology, and for the CTO’s ultimate responsibility of architecting and deploying an enterprise infrastructure to support the CIO’s strategic IT plan.
Q. How should I get my MBA?
A. Having made a positive MBA decision, there are several choices for how to proceed. The options include: 1. take night classes at a local college or university; 2. find an executive MBA program that usually runs biweekly on Friday or weekend combinations, plus a residential on-campus week or two during the summer; 3. take time off to go back to school full-time; or 4. find the newer distance or “distributed learning” programs of courses at locations remote from your school of choice, or in the comfort of your home via the Internet.
The most common choice is the part-time approach. It saves time, is cost-effective, and employer sponsorship is usually available. Select a reasonable “stretch” school that will challenge you. Obviously in this scenario you are constrained by the choice of local institutions that are within easy commute.
If your company does not have much experience with executive MBAs, your biggest tasks will be to convince management?and yourself?that you can juggle your workload and to assure the company that it will get its money’s worth for the investment it makes on your behalf. Traveling to executive programs for long weekends will expand your institutional possibilities. Many of the executive MBA programs at the better schools are highly regarded and hold as much weight as full-time degrees from midtier schools.
Alternatively, options 3 and 4 yield choices of schools that may be otherwise unavailable by virtue of geography. IT professionals who leave the workforce and return to campus to earn their MBAs full-time, as is almost always the case with top tier B-schools and typically in entrepreneurial programs, often do not reenter IT after graduation. Instead, they find themselves able to parlay their strong combination of technology experience and a gilt-edged MBA into excellent business opportunities. Those that do return to IT generally find themselves on the fast track to CIO and beyond. This is clearly the most expensive way to go, but the ROI in knowledge, network building and rŽsumŽ market appeal is highly bankable.
Lastly, ever since the online-only school, Jones International University, became the first “college without walls” to receive official accreditation as a graduate business school, several traditional institutions and consortia of highly regarded schools (for example, Cardean University, www.cardean.edu) have followed with their own brand of bricks-and-clicks MBAs. However, these programs are relatively new, and there is reluctance on the part of recruiters and employers to give them full respect. They also lack face-to-face peer networking.
Q. Should I specialize in one particular area?
A. Most B-school graduate programs require the selection of an area of concentration; choose one that is particularly interesting to you. Go with an MBA in IS only if the curriculum is highly business focused or if you already have a bachelor’s degree in business. You can opt for the more general MBA in management if you don’t have a favorite topic. Regarding electives, a good rule of thumb is to balance your undergraduate degree and your career experience with learning that covers new ground. For example, if you earned your BS in IS and came up the ranks as a manufacturing application developer, take at least one course in finance and in marketing.
Your elective courses are perhaps the most significant curricular decisions to be made. I recommend taking the foundation-level or survey course in each of the major categories, such as finance, economics, marketing and management, to obtain a broad base of business knowledge. As you make your way through the smorgasbord of 101 courses you have selected, you may discover a personal passion and elect to concentrate or take additional advanced courses in that field.
Q. Will it be worth it?
A. Having the discipline to follow through on your decision to get an MBA is an impressive and winning character trait. It’s true that any journey begins with the first step. So start researching your options to make your resolution a reality. The personal and professional rewards are waiting for you.