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Should tech pros get an MBA?

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

By , Network World
October 13, 2011 01:35 PM ET

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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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