Tech pros getting MBAs: Necessary or not?

IT roles that could benefit from an MBA include CIO, business analyst, and project manager

Earning an MBA can help tech pros to bridge the gap between business and IT, but it's no guarantee of career success, nor does it automatically translate into a bigger salary.

Earning an MBA can help tech pros bridge the gap between business and IT, but it's no guarantee of career success, nor does it automatically translate into a bigger salary.

So when does it make sense for an IT pro to get a business degree? It's very position-dependent, says Jack Cullen, president of IT staffing specialist Modis.

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At the top of the IT hierarchy, CIOs have become more involved in corporate strategy, business operations and business transformation over the years, making the role attractive for MBA-holding executives.

"We're seeing in many cases a lot of less technical but very business savvy CIOs being hired, and the MBA is a very strong lead for companies that are looking for a business-savvy approach to technology," Cullen says.

Project manager and business analyst are two other titles that can benefit from having an MBA. Database administrators, while less directly involved with business strategy, also could make a case for getting an MBA. "There's value in the MBA [for database administrators] because they can look at the business the company is running, what they're trying to do from a business perspective, and make sure the entire workflow and database architecture of the company is tied into that," Cullen says.

At global electronics giant Philips, having an MBA is useful for certain roles that require a high level of both technical and business expertise, says Maridan Harris, director of IT at Philips North America.

"A lot of the IT roles we have are geared towards increasing value, reducing cost, improving efficiency, etc., so an MBA proves quite helpful. These people will have likely come up through the technical ranks and grown to be a 'business person,'" Harris says. "The MBA helps them make a quicker and smoother transition."

One current example is in Philips' supply chain group, which has a project manager role to fill and is looking for candidates with an MBA as well as engineering or operations experience. "Being able to combine their technical expertise with strategic, analytical, and project management skills that they have refined within their MBA program is a key differentiator for the role," Harris says. "It enables the individual to bring a level of credibility with both technical leaders and non-technical business management functions, where influencing the strategic direction of the business is required across diverse disciplines."

Back to school

The emergence of technology-driven MBA programs at business schools "says a lot about the importance, respect and consideration that are being given to MBAs" in the tech world, Cullen says.

BACK TO SCHOOL: 10 tech-centric MBA programs

Yet he cautions, "I wouldn't jump out and think I've got to get an MBA to have a successful career in IT." It all depends on where you want to go in IT. "The closer you want to be to the business side, the more value you're going to have with an MBA," Cullen says.

On the money front, job seekers need to set reasonable expectations. Cullen says that typically once a client has defined the criteria for a position and set the salary range it's willing to pay, finding a candidate who has an MBA isn't likely to move the needle. "It isn't going to get you another $10,000 in salary," he says. "Coming in the door, many positions are fixed."

The perceived importance of an MBA often depends on who's doing the hiring and what that person's background is, Cullen adds. For some hiring managers, certifications such as Project Management Professional (PMP) or Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) are more important than a business degree. "A lot of it has to do with the person in the hiring seat and what they have," Cullen says.

Mike Rosenbaum, CEO of Catalyst IT Services, hasn't found evidence that having an MBA will make someone a top performer -- and he's amassed a lot of data on the qualities of top-performing IT pros. Catalyst IT Services uses an analytics-based approach for hiring IT workers and building Agile development teams.

"We collect large amounts of data on people, and then build algorithms that allow us to tell whether or not someone is going to be a high performer on a particular team," Rosenbaum says. "Graduate degrees generally tend to be statistically insignificant in determining whether or not someone is going to be a high performer on a development team."

But while graduate degrees "generally do not predict success," Rosenbaum acknowledges there are some skills associated with graduate degrees that are very relevant. "At the very top of the list is being able to write," he notes.

For an IT pro who's looking to change career paths, the value of getting an MBA might be in the exposure the person gets to all aspects of business -- finance, accounting, supply chain, project management -- while in the program. For example, an IT pro with an infrastructure-heavy background could learn about apps, business processes and project management in an MBA program. "It's no guarantee they're going to get where they want, but it's a good path to train their mind on what they need to know," Cullen says.

Ann Bednarz covers IT careers, outsourcing and Internet culture for Network World. Follow Ann on Twitter at @annbednarz and check out her blog, Occupational Hazards. Her e-mail address is abednarz@nww.com.

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