In last week’s Careers newsletter, I asked whether readers thought engineers should bolster their technical education with a more business orientated degree, like an MBA.
The responses (flooding my inbox all week) have been quite staggering and run the gamut from strong agreement to vehement rejection of the notion.
For those who don’t receive our weekly Careers updates, I asked whether you felt that supplementing your engineering degree with an MBA would boost your job prospects and propel you to the top of the career ladder or waste your precious time?
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My question was prompted by a recent survey from tech career recruitment website, Dice, which claimed that nearly a third of its 3,121 respondents (32 percent) reported seeing an MBA as important for future tech employees, while more than half (52 percent) saw it as unnecessary.
The firm said requests from employers for candidates with an MBA as a prerequisite or a preference were relatively rare, but that despite this, perceptions about the need for an MBA among non-MBA-holder tech professionals continued to lag.
Tech pros who had opted to get an MBA believed it would give them the potential to achieve higher pay, allow them to move more easily into management within the technology department, obtain employment at a preferred company or land work in a new, business-oriented technical role.
Dice reported that technical MBA holders were still few and far between, making them a rare commodity, but whether or not the degree actually helps employees do their job better is very much up for debate.
“MBA’s are a dime a dozen. You are better off identifying an allied technical field that is in high demand and then get your Masters Degree in that,” wrote one reader, John Kiekhaefer, in an email response to me.
“A Technical MBA is a worthwhile pursuit only if your employer pays for it,” wrote another reader, Brian Bissett, a holder of both an MBA and MSEE. Bissett said an MBA could open doors and be used as justification by senior management to upgrade an engineer’s position, but that effectively, the only new things an engineer would learn in an MBA program were how to give effective presentations, and enhance one's writing skills.
“For people involved in the execution of product development, I don’t think an MBA is helpful,” chimed in chief architect at Radisys, Chuck Hill, but added that for people who wanted to be more involved in the creative side, it was actually very helpful. “The execution doesn’t happen unless someone first turns loose some of the money,” he noted.
Neil Farukhi, a materials and process engineer at Geospatial Systems said he got his MBA not because it would have any direct impact on extra money or career status (although he agreed that would have been a bonus) but because he wanted to understand his business orientated bosses better.
“What the degree has given me is the understanding of how the business works,” he said, adding that this helped him focus in on what he needed to do, how things moved through the system and who the key individuals were to get things done. “This results in becoming a key resource for everyone,” he explained.
What do you think readers? Is an MBA a worthwhile academic pursuit or a total waste of precious time? I would love for you to continue the debate in the comments below.
"We, engineers arrive at the scene at the bottom of the chain and just mindlessly follow directions;"
Wow, I'd say you need to change jobs!
I fully concur with Frank. And it's not just about making profits on some new CE device. Not all of engineering is just making hand held toys, as seems so often to be the assumption in these discussions.
Management needs to be guided by engineering every bit as much as the other way around. From the very start of any project.
"How many times engineers before starting a new projects thought about the rationale for doing this project?"
The answer should be "every time" -- because no engineer wants to be associated with a business failure.
As a working engineer, you don't necessarily need to know the marketing data, the gross margin calculation, etc. to the same level of detail as that hierarchy of leaders you mentioned -- but you do need to know it well enough to be able to recognize a product plan that has "very high risk" and probable disaster written all over it.
It's your career, and nobody really cares if you designed a brilliant circuit on a product that failed miserably and cost the company lots of money. Far better to have designed a more mundane circuit on a product that made a fortune.
In larger companies, you often have internal mobility and can leave a sinking ship without leaving the company. In cases where you don't have that option, there's the great big world out there of companies developing products that could use your skills & experience.
I'm not suggesting that engineers should be disobedient -- simply that they should be mindful of their own careers, and that includes understanding the business they're in -- and when to run not walk away from a project that smells like failure. Sometimes that means changing jobs.
If you don't do that, it's hard to imagine how can you get excited about going to work every day, when that little voice is telling you "there is no way this thing is ever going to make a profit, if it ever even makes it to production."
How many times engineers before starting a new projects thought about the rationale for doing this project? I am sure many will agree that they did the project as their manager told them to do so. But their managers would have got this info from his boss, who is directed by a corporate team to pursue the project as the the combined belief of the strategy, finance and marketing team is that such a product would crack in the market. We, engineers arrive at the scene at the bottom of the chain and just mindlessly follow directions; however, such a mentality would be challenged in the long run. The importance of management is mostly undermined by most technical engineers as they believe that technical work and management work are completely different. I disagree to this as management forms the framework for everything. Management is a science that attempts to do normal things in a better way and it also questions why we are doing certain things the way it is currently done. I believe that having a MBA degree adds value to the engineers as the engineers can better appreciate the importance of its work in terms of revenue, risk profile and reach to the customers. I have around 8 yrs experience in consumer electronics firmware development and currently I am pursuing management at a business school. It is great conviction, I recommend engineers to pursue a management degree. It definitely adds a new perspective of looking at things and best question it answers most of times is "Why this thing is done this way".
"For presentation skills, I found a much more useful course in showmanship...clown college."
-Now that's maybe the most interesting thing in this entire trail because it presents a low-cost work-around to getting an "effective MBA". And I'd bet that it carries some weight in an interview.
I'll offer another one: join an MLM - Amway, ACN, etc. It doesn't matter which one. Once you experience the interaction you'll get from your neighbors and lifelong friends after asking them for that initial "investment" into your new world-beating business opportunity, you'll have learned all you need to know about human nature. And success in business is all about learning how to quickly asses, time and capitalize on human behavior.
I have hired a lot of engineering and science people over the years (with and without MBA's). Most of these people were heavily tested by the induction program and interestingly, the majority of MBA's (no correlation to the MBA school) did not do as well as they thought they would. In almost every case, they and their teams (over several years of my observation) took far longer to solve the case study problems and often solved for the wrong problems. The most common error was determining what is the real life problem that needs to be solved? They can do analysis and manipulate spreadsheets and powerpoint like wizards and would stay until 3:00 am working on a problem they started at 10:00 the day before, often jumping straight to analyse the data before thinking the overall picture through. If you haven't discovered (and can't) identify the problem that needs tackling first, in any issue,science,engineering, management or life in general then all the analysis and simulation is "sound and fury, signifying nothing", to borrow from William Shakespeare. Ultimately it is dependent on the person but over 12 years, I have seen only two who appeared to have developed "value adding" skills and knowledge that they could attribute to their MBA program. The majority were worse off for being out of the daily technical mainstream for the period of their MBA program.
I am a 25 year career guy in Semiconductors with a BSEE and I did the "lobotomy" as some ridicule and got my MBA about 5 years ago. Most completely misunderstand what an MBA does for you. And most engineers have a complete misunderstanding of what Marketing really is, or should be. I know because I was one of those. Here are the two key lessons and what I literally had to untrain some really bad thinking from being an engineer:
1) Marketing is about discovering what people want and are willing to pay for and then aligning development to deliver it. This is why engineers hate Marketing because they think Marketing is mucking up their "baby" and Marketing loathes engineering because they don't want to listen to what a customer will pay for.
2) The real world is about decisions and tradeoffs. There are no "perfect" products and perfection is not required to make good business. As I often bemoan when engineers go into what I call hyper-optimization mode, I ask the critical question: will anyone pay extra for all that work? And that's what decisions and trade offs are all about and goes so against the grain of most engineers which is why it feels like a lobotomy.
Some understand this naturally, others have to be trained. I was one of those that had to be trained and hence I recommend it but ONLY if you go into with the mind set that you will truly learn and be open to looking at the world of technology in an entirely new way. When you can do that and bring BOTH disciplines together you have something neither disciplines alone can deliver: A rationale view of how to make business by creating products that are different and worth paying for.
But to hear the business press describe the situation, you'd think the whole purpose of the US operating this enormous higher education system is solely to educate foreign (mostly Asian of course) students, that the problem is just that we don't have enough work visas to keep them in this country once they get their advanced degrees. If you try and point out that this doesn't leave much of a chance for the US engineer, they fire back that there really AREN'T any competitive US engineers in the STEM courses because the primary and secondary education systems here are so poor, and if you stand up for the ones who managed to "make it through" anyway then YOUR problem is you're just a Neanderthal racist! Heck how is the US going to participate in the next big technology challenge (mission to Mars or whatever) if US engineers can't afford to give their children a competitive education? Yes these ARE too many questions for this entry but I'd sure like to hear some leaders (or politicians - although the progress of thee current races tends to show that perhaps the intersection of those two groups is an "empty set") begin to address at least some of them.
Robert, there are a lot of other questions that your post brings to mind. I have seen too many situations, in my experience and others', where individual engineers would question whether their closest manager was effectively "supporting the process" as he was making it difficult to impossible to access the resources that the design engineers felt were necessary to get the project completed. It's even more distressing to see that a policy of "easy credit" for federal student loans has actually help drive UP the cost of tuition at the same time engineering jobs in this country (and you would need to continuously hold one down to pay those funds back) are so hard to find because outsourcing has been rampant without some kind of "domestic jobs policy", leading to the international salary-lowering contest known as the "race to the bottom".
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.