How to Go from an MBA to a Tech Job

From an interview I did with my alma mater, the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Go Blue! :)

 

Jeremy Schifeling (MBA ‘12) is the founder of Break into Tech (www.breakinto.tech) - a resource site for all students exploring tech careers, even those with non-technical backgrounds. Prior to launching the site, he interned on Apple’s iOS team, led LinkedIn's student marketing group, and served as the VP of Marketing at Fidelis Education, a VC-backed edtech startup. As a former kindergarten teacher and nonprofit staffer, he's happy to help any and all students make the journey into tech!

 

How did you end up founding Break into Tech?

The idea for the business really started with my experience at Ross. Even though I and so many of my classmates wanted to work in tech, it really seemed like the whole industry was a second-class citizen to more traditional MBA employers - consulting, finance, CPG, etc. Whereas those fields had cut-and-dried recruiting approaches (e.g., case prep), students who wanted to break into tech pretty much had to make it up as they went along. And as someone without a technical background, it seemed like the odds were especially long.

What I realized, however, is that tech recruiting is just as much a “game” as any other field. There are “rules” that, no matter how invisible, really do influence how likely you are to win. And so once I figured some of these rules out - both as a candidate and later as a hiring manager - I just felt compelled to share them. Maybe it’s the fact that I started my career as a teacher but, no matter how cool it was to work on exciting tech projects, I always found myself gravitating towards the coaching side of things - managing my team, mentoring the next generation, etc.

And thus, Break into Tech is my way of doubling down on this natural passion. I feel lucky every single day to get to chat with current students at Ross, MBAs from around the world, and even alumni who are hungry to break into this space. Because just like I counsel my clients, the most important thing about tech careers - or any career for that matter - is understanding what actually motivates you.

 

Can you elaborate on this idea of identifying your motivation?

This is a critical point for anyone - but especially for MBAs. That’s because the MBA experience is such an intensely social one. Unlike, say, a PhD, where you’re locked away by your lonesome, MBAs are constantly huddled together, doing team projects, networking, etc. And so the natural outcome of this togetherness is a constant state of comparison: How am I doing vs. my peers? Who’s got the best offer? Is my internship cool enough?

The result then, is that MBAs tend to make critical career decisions via peer-referencing more than self-referencing. Instead of focusing on what you really want and what truly makes you happy, you end up taking the job that your peers value. It’s no wonder that 30% of MBAs switch jobs a single year after graduating.

 

OK, so how do you actually find a job that you’ll love?

Because too many MBAs focus on superficial things (brand, perks, etc.), we’ve got to bring it back to basics: What are you actually going to spend your time on all day? After all, that’s going to have an outsize influence on your satisfaction.

So sure, if you’re a professional cocktail party-goer, having a swanky brand on your resume could be a great asset. But assuming that you’re spending 100x more of your waking hours actually at work than bragging about it, it seems like there are only two things that really matter:

  1. The work that you’re doing

  2. The environment that you’re doing it in (people + culture)

Thus, your goal should be to optimize for each of these points above all else.

 

Starting with #1, how do you figure out what kind of work you’ll love?

At its most basic, it’s a 3-step process:

  1. Imagine a spectrum of jobs from highly analytical (e.g., consulting) to highly interpersonal (e.g., sales).

  2. Reflect on the kind of work you've done in the past that's brought you the most satisfaction. A good test is to think about a time when you were so immersed in what you were doing that the hours just flew by. Were you trying to solve an equation, lead a spirited team meeting, or something in-between?

  3. Locate that kind of work on the spectrum below and then find its match within the tech world.

Of course, this presupposes a certain level of knowledge about the arcane titles that the tech world uses. While that’s too in-depth to cover here, you can read a longer treatment of all the roles - from BizOps to BizDev - on my website:

 

What about #2, finding the right cultural fit?

Just like with function, nailing down the right company starts with introspection:

  1. Reflect back on your own work experiences to determine which organization fit you best. Here's a great question to help you laser in on the answer: When were you the most excited to get out of bed every morning and get down to work?

  2. Once you've got a past job in mind, try to focus on the context that surrounded you:

    1. How big was the organization? Were you on a tiny underdog team up against a giant corporate Goliath? Or were you on a large, diverse team, helping to forge consensus across many different perspective?

    2. How much time did you spend at the office vs. home? Did you burn the midnight oil for weeks at a time - and love the camaraderie and sense of accomplishment that came with it? Or did you feel proud of the work that you did during the day - but still relished the time you spent with friends and family during the evening?

  3. Now, plot yourself onto a chart like the one below and compare yourself to the companies you're considering. Is there a fit or a disconnect?

Note: I’ve gone ahead and graphed some of the most popular MBA employers in the tech world. But here’s my methodology, so you can do the same for your own dream companies:

First of all, I've focused on the two biggest influencers of workplace happiness:

  • Size of company

  • Work/life balance

As you'll see on every single company's Glassdoor page, those two factors impact just about every major pro and con:

And so I charted them with this approach:

  • On the x-axis, I've plotted size based on the most recent publicly-reported number of employees (note, this isn't exactly to scale due to the wide gap between the three smallest firms - all under 10K - and the rest - 60K and above)

  • On the y-axis, I've plotted work/life balance by subtracting the negative mentions on Glassdoor from the positive ones and standardizing based on company size (so the companies in the upper-half have more positive mentions than negative and vice-versa below)

 

Are there any caveats to this approach?

For sure:

  • First of all, never assume that you know what a company is like without doing your homework first. While you might think that a 30-year old tech firm is going to have great work/life balance, there are lots of other criteria at play in shaping culture (B2B vs. B2C, competition in their industry, etc.). To help you dig in, I’ve covered those factors in-depth here.

  • When it comes to doing company research, obviously, you can't just take companies at their word. But nor can you just talk to current employees. That's because they might suffer from choice-supportive bias - i.e., they need to rationalize their most recent career decision in the same way that you need to justify the $500 you just dropped in Vegas ("It was an investment in learning statistics!"). So a better move is to find former employees who now have the psychological distance to give you the straight scoop.

  • While companies can have very different cultures, the same is also true of teams. So, whenever possible, don't just settle for understanding a company - dig deeper to get to know who you'd work for and what their team is like. After all, you're going to spend half or more of your waking hours with these actual people, not just some abstract brand.

  • And just remember, contrary to what your friends or the media might tell you, there really is no such thing as the "perfect company" - just better or worse-fitting companies for you! So don't get caught up in the FOMO machine; stay true to yourself and find an organization where you really belong.

 

How can students get help with their own searches?

While these are good tips for getting started, again, my whole goal is to help folks avoid the pitfalls that I made in my search. So I’ve put together a bunch of free, in-depth books about both specific tech companies and roles. Students are welcome to grab those at www.breakinto.tech/books.