If You Want to Break into Tech, Should You Get an MBA?

As a technology career coach at the Ross School of Business, prospective MBA techies often ask me if business school is right for them:

  • “I work at Google already. Will an MBA help me rise the ranks faster?”
  • “It would be awesome to work at a hot startup. Will an MBA help me get my foot in the door sooner?”
  • “I want to launch my own startup. Will an MBA help me get started more quickly?”

And my answer, perhaps surprisingly, is often: “Nope!”

Because tech is weird when it comes to business school. Even though there are lots of MBAs in this space, two expensive years of graduate education is often looked down on compared to two years of:

  • Building real experience at Google
  • Hustling to meet and influence startup founders
  • Taking that $100K of tuition money and using it to launch your own venture

And that’s because, more than most industries, tech is a “show me” field. As in, “What can you actually do to help my company succeed?” Not just, “What credentials do you have?”

But there is one scenario in which I wholeheartedly recommend business school to would-be techies. And that’s because it’s the one I’ve lived myself: Being completely stuck on the outside of tech, looking in.

 

The Story of a Young Nerd

That’s where I found myself seven years into my career. Because even though I had grown up as a tech addict – I remember my mom yelling at me to get off the phone line when I spent too much time on CompuServe (“It’s only a 9600 baud modem, ma!”) – I never thought my hobby would have any connection to my profession.

And so, after getting my start as a kindergarten teacher in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, I was firmly on the education/nonprofit track. But no matter where I went in that field, I never lost my childhood passion for all things tech. In fact, whether I was building a blog for my classroom or managing databases at Teach For America, I found myself gravitating to the very nerdiest margins of my role.

So after years of deferring this passion, letting it rattle around in my subconscious and stir up all sorts of occupational fantasies, I decided it was finally time to take the plunge into tech. After all, how hard could it be to get a job doing what I loved and was good at?

Hard, it turns out. Really, really hard.

I’ve since lost track of exactly how many applications I submitted to Google and its peers over those years of frustration but, suffice it to say, I became very familiar with one particular email:

 

Because this is the only email I ever got back. And I got it a lot!

So there I was, stuck on the outside of what appeared to be an amazing tech party, peering through the window and feeling lonelier with each passing rejection.

 

Surprise, Surprise

Now fast forward 12 months. I’m about to finish my first year of the Ross MBA program. And I’m suddenly juggling offers from Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft.

Say what?

Let’s rewind the tape a bit.

After finding myself stuck in a professional rut, I broke down and took the b-school plunge. Not that I really knew anything about MBAs as a former kindergarten teacher, but it seemed like the career equivalent of taking out a balky Nintendo cartridge and blowing all the crud out. Like I said, I’m a pretty big nerd…

And sure enough, within weeks of arriving in Ann Arbor, all the same tech firms that wouldn’t even send me a single personalized rejection email for years, now wanted to talk to me.

Which meant that all those generic “dings” started to get replaced by much happier “ding, ding, dings!”

Plus, the sweetest email of all was the one I actually sent to Google when they finally did reach out to set-up an interview:

 

Three Little Letters

So what happened? How did I go from total tech wannabe to tech wanting me?

The first clue is the speed with which tech firms approached me and my classmates. Given that I had barely set foot on campus when the recruiters appeared, it’s not like I had the time to undergo a full Cinderella-like makeover. I was very much still the clueless applicant/former teacher I had been just months before.

So clearly, the campus itself was the only plausible explanation; specifically, the expectation that this campus would bestow upon me three little letters.

But to understand why “M.B.A.” means so much to a recruiter at Amazon or Microsoft, you have to understand what they’re up against.

Because unlike a startup recruiter, who may have to find just one, perfect Product Manager all year (and so who’s wary of MBAs without a proven track record of tech success), a big tech company recruiter usually has to fill at least a dozen such roles. And so, in many ways, they have more in common with their brethren at McKinsey or Procter & Gamble than at their smaller tech counterparts.

Which means they really only have three choices to achieve scale:

  1. Filter through thousands of random applications from the unwashed masses (since, like me, everyone wants to work at these big-name companies) and hope they magically come across a dozen diamonds in the rough

  2. Poach top talent from the competition, entering into a dozen bidding wars against well-financed foes

  3. Go to just 10-15 campuses a year, pick from a talent pool that’s already been pre-screened against a high bar, and have all their recruiting done 3-6 months in advance

Now which of these options sounds better to you?

 

A Happy Ending + A Warning

And so, as much as I’d love to say that I was just that special, just that charming… what I really was, was lucky. Because, in going to b-school, I had inadvertently stumbled into the one part of the tech labor market that had established a marriage of convenience with the business world.

Put simply: Big tech firms need MBAs just as badly as MBAs crave big tech firms.

But what about all those typical prospective questions I get – the existing tech worker who wants to climb higher, the wannabe startup employee, the future entrepreneur? Can’t an MBA be the answer there, too?

While it’s true that business school can enhance your skills, build your network, and give you a safe space to try your hand at entrepreneurship, the best answer lies with the decision-maker in each situation.

Because if you’re a Google VP, would you rather promote someone who’s proven themselves time and again against your toughest challenges? Or someone who’s just analyzed case studies of those challenges?

If you’re a startup founder, would you rather hire someone for that one critical role who you’ve gotten to know through repeated Meetups and contract work? Or someone who looks good on paper but is basically still a stranger?

And if you’re a VC, would you rather fund an entrepreneur with a track record and existing customers? Or an entrepreneur who’s won a lot of pitch competitions but only has a business plan?

So the moral of my story is actually this: Don’t be like me. Don’t go blindly off to b-school with tech dreams dancing in your head.

Instead, put yourself in the shoes of the techie you ultimately need to win over. And think about how they’d view your investment.

Because understanding your audience is the surest path to the tech promised land. And the surest detour around yet another “We’ll be in touch” email!

 

Click here to get the free, step-by-step course that I followed to go from teaching to Apple, LinkedIn, and startups.