Should tech pros get an MBA?

IT pros who earn MBA degrees are valued for their hybrid technical-business skills

Technical experience combined with business acumen is an appealing package, particularly for senior IT management roles such as CIO and IT director. But earning an MBA is no golden ticket for IT pros, staffing experts caution.

Michael Morris, 36, had a decade of networking and communications experience (including four years as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army) under his belt when he decided to go back to school to earn a Master's of Business Administration degree, or MBA. An IT manager at a $5 billion tech company, Morris leads a team of engineers responsible for data networks, storage area networks, IP telephony and security. His certifications include Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) and Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE).

So why business school?

"My technology background is networking and telecommunications. I'm good at that. The problem is, if I want to go and run application groups -- which is where a lot of senior IT managers and CIOs come from -- they're going to look at me and say, 'You're a network guy. Why would we want you to run our Oracle platform?'" says Morris, who earned his MBA with a concentration in corporate finance from North Carolina State University in December 2010. "The theory is that [the MBA] will open up doors in other parts of IT that my technology background can't take me to."

In his current role, Morris says his knowledge of corporate finance is an asset.

"The best thing the MBA gives me from a skills standpoint is the ability to really look at business decisions, quantify them from a financial perspective, apply certain principles, and derive an ROI from any type of activity. That's key, because there aren't a lot of IT people who can really do that."

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IT staffing experts agree that technical skills combined with business acumen is an appealing package, particularly for senior IT management roles such as CIO and IT director.

"In general, we see a big push toward tech professionals who have insight into cost structure, customer behavior and emerging trends - business IT," says Tom Silver, senior vice president, North America, at tech jobs site Dice.com.

Project managers and business analysts also benefit from business administration skills, though earning an MBA is by no means a requirement for these positions.

"Today, we still see the MBA as preferred vs. required. However, I do think we're heading in the direction for more required master's degrees," Silver says.

John Reed, executive director at Robert Half Technology, agrees. "If someone is doing it now, they're probably ahead of the game," says Reed, who expects it will become increasingly desirable for IT pros to earn an MBA. (See 7 open IT jobs that prefer MBA candidates.)

"Having an MBA isn't mandatory, but it's certainly advantageous, particularly if you're looking to be in a leadership capacity. A candidate who brings an MBA to the table -- many times that separates you from the pack," Reed says.

In particular, an MBA can be a differentiator for job hunters looking to climb the IT ladder.

"If your ultimate goal is to be a high-ranking technology leader, such as a CIO or CTO, those roles are very difficult to get and there's a lot of competition," Reed says. "You're going to need some sort of advantage when competing."

Morris honed his leadership skills in the Army, where he managed 32 people as part of a telecommunications team that supported forced-entry parachute assault brigades. "The soldiers would jump out of airplanes for a parachute attack, and my guys would jump with them and provide all the radios and telecommunications gear," he recalls. "My job was to make sure those 5,000 soldiers could communicate, and my 32 guys made sure that happened."

He hopes his technical skills, leadership experience and business education will together form a compelling package that differentiates him from his peers as he looks to move up the IT management ranks. "Having [an MBA] on my resume can open up opportunities for me, perhaps earlier than they would have been otherwise," Morris says.

Say goodbye to free time

While having an MBA isn't commonplace in IT, the trend for IT pros to acquire business skills is well established. People who think strategically and can translate business goals into technical requirements, while at the same time building a return on investment around IT systems, are in demand.

"Tech professionals at every level need to understand the basics of financial analysis. They need to be able to build effective cross-disciplinary teams and excel at personnel management," Silver says. "If you want a seat at the table, you need to bring leadership, strong interpersonal and communications skills. Some of that can be honed both academically and through work experience."

While pursuing an MBA can certainly build up an IT pro's business skills, candidates need to weigh the investment in time and money.

Morris was able to complete his MBA in 28 months, while keeping his full-time job. "It was two nights a week for classes, and then homework on the other weeknights. Usually one day a weekend I'd have to do a full day of homework to keep on top of things," Morris recalls. "It certainly took away from my free time -- I didn't play much golf -- but it was manageable."

Cost was a big factor in Morris' choice of graduate schools. In addition to N.C. State, he was accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University. Duke's MBA program, while highly ranked, is far more expensive than N.C. State. (U.S. News says tuition at Duke's graduate business school is currently $47,960 per year for full-time enrollment, compared to N.C. State's $13,483 per year for full-time enrollment for in-state residents.) 

Morris considered the cachet of a Duke MBA -- which can open a lot of doors in finance, manufacturing or retail industries, for instance, where alumni networks and expectations about leadership pedigree are long established. But that's not the case in IT, where the attitude towards an MBA is more "as long as you've got one," Morris says. Given his career plans, N.C. State was a better fit.

IT staffing experts likewise say an MBA is regarded -- and rewarded -- differently in IT than in other industries.

Having an MBA in the IT field doesn't command an automatic pay increase like it might in a business management position, where there's immediate value associated with an MBA degree. "If you're looking to capitalize on a higher-paid position in a technical field because of the MBA, you're not going to get it on the entry point," says Jack Cullen, president of IT staffing provider Modis.

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Companies today are very rate-conscious and they have firm expectations about what they want to pay to fill an open position. "If we introduce a candidate who has the skills and we try to put a premium on the MBA, we're not seeing it. It's not moving the needle," Cullen says.

However, earning an MBA can provide leverage if an IT professional is looking to negotiate a bump in pay from a current employer, Cullen says.

Reed of Robert Half Technology agrees. "Can you command more money because you have an MBA? Not necessarily," he says. "But because of the additional skills it adds to your repertoire, it certainly puts you in a position to make yourself more valuable to an organization, and to do more for an organization. And when you do that, it typically leads to increased opportunity and increased compensation."

From a recruiter's perspective, an IT pro with an MBA is a highly marketable candidate, but the degree won't make up for a lack of technical skills. "A hiring manager is going to look at a person's most actively used skills and actual experience on the work site, probably ahead of the MBA," Cullen says.

In other words, getting an MBA is valuable, but it's no golden ticket.

"Nothing trumps great work experience," Cullen says. A candidate who has the right technical skills, experience working with relevant applications, and industry-specific domain knowledge is going to stand out to prospective employers. "That drives up value more than the certifications, more than the education."

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