Why Aren’t There More Technical MBAs?

This weekend I was listening to the latest episode of the Art of Network Engineering podcast featuring Russ White. Russ is one of those guests that has a breadth of knowledge outside of technology that colors the way he looks at things in the realm of enterprise IT. Plus he’s a fun interview.

One of the questions he asked was around the idea of technical MBAs. For those that might not know, MBA stands for Masters of Business Administration, which is a post-graduate college business degree. An MBA is widely regarded as a way to put yourself on a track to be a manager for a company in some capacity. An MBA is punching a ticket to be a future CEO. Why does it seem like the number of MBAs coming out of prestigious business schools don’t have a technical background then?

Where the Action Is

I’m going to quote liberally from a book I’ve been reading called The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman. In it, Kaufman lays out the reasoning behind using his book to study the principles behind the information given in MBA classes instead of spending $200,000 to go to a business school for two years for the same material. The layout of the first few sections gives a great overview of the way that most people think about MBAs as well as how most MBAs view the business world.

The original reason to get an MBA was to apply scientific reasoning to management. The goal was to have managers for factories that looked at the numbers and made sound decisions based on facts and not hunches. In theory that was a great way to get started. However, the numbers started to change in favor of a newer, more exciting way to apply numbers. Instead of crunching them to make people more productive, MBAs started moving toward ways to apply that analysis to make the company rich.

In the past 50 years the number of business school graduates going into finance and consulting has exploded. Per Kaufman, something like 60% of the people getting MBAs have moved toward finance as their preferred area of management. When you think about it that makes all the sense in the world. Finance is where a company can get bigger and more profitable. Value creation can be heavily impacted by workers that are looking to invest profits and reduce costs across the board to increase return to investors. Likewise, investors more heavily reward managers that make them money. This feedback loop means the easiest way to pay off your MBA debt is to go into finance and make the company rich.

On the flip side of the discussion, do you think of value creation when you think of IT? I can remember way back in college when getting my BBA in MIS and being taught that I was going to be spending a lot of my time convincing management that IT departments were not just cost centers. Sales generates revenue. Marketing supports sales. Accounting makes sure we’re actually making money. IT? Well, we ask for stuff and then install it and then fix it when it breaks. We don’t actually do anything to make money.

I know a lot of my readers are probably shouting at their screens right now talking about how IT supports the business and enables the value creation that other parts of the organization do. You’d be absolutely right in your assertion. However, the stigma that IT has is that we take money and don’t give any back to the organization directly. Kind of like how plumbers and electricians are still seen as “dirty” or “low brow” kinds of jobs. Despite evidence the contrary IT is drag on the whole organization. IT doesn’t do the hard work of making money through emails or apps or ensuring databases are up and running to search through for customer leads.

Given that IT is a cost center and the real rock stars all go to finance to keep the shareholders and investors happy is it any wonder that MBAs want to work on spreadsheets instead of Excel? If you had a choice between limiting your career trajectory while also having a lot of business school debt to pay off would you do it knowing tech is a much more exciting role? The question pretty much answers itself.

Promote From Within

Let’s look at the second major reason that MBAs are always technical disciplines. Who is in charge of your IT department now? Is it an MBA? Is it a manager that came from accounting or sales? Or is it someone technical that got promoted a few times and now finds themselves in charge of all the IT teams? Does that manager have a formal background in management or a degree? Or do they learn the ropes as they go and feel a bit rough around the edges?

In many IT organizations that I’ve worked with and worked for the management in those areas tends to be promoted from the bottom up. Instead of a more formalized structure of managers trained to be managers and hired into the organization to manage, IT is more about enabling intelligent and qualified individuals to maintain the department. You see far more people with advanced technical certifications or years and decades of technical experience working to keep the lights on as opposed to the lessons of quantitative analytics from business school being applied to streamline operations.

Admit it. You’d rather work for someone who knew the tech as opposed to someone that had been trained to be a manager right? Is there anything worse than walking into a meeting with the head of the IT department knowing that they won’t understand the challenges of a new hardware installation or implementing a new protocol that could impact operations? The nerve of those people! If they would just get someone technical in that seat that you could talk to things would be different for sure. This place might even run right for once!

The fact is that most technical professionals prefer someone that understands them over someone that is good at managing others. They would rather spend time talking to a promoted tech resource that understands the differences between SSL and TLS instead of someone that was trained in how to go to management and ask for more budget this quarter. We’re more comfortable with people that understand the things we do. It’s the same in accounting and finance and sales. We want to be managed by people that know how to deal with our special areas of expertise.

Extend that to the business school. MBAs go into finance so most finance people are managed by MBAs. IT is managed by people that worked in IT, which is more focused on certification and practical knowledge rather than formal learning in universities. The divide grows each time a new class of business school graduates starts applying for roles in a company. Would you take an interview with a cost center department full of people that automatically don’t like you because they think you don’t know the difference between a switch as an access point? Or would you rather talk to people that “get” you in the finance department?

There have been attempts to bridge this gap. In the above episode AJ Murray mentioned a hybrid degree that offered training in IT and in business. I too looked at the possibility of obtaining an MBA and a MS in MIS from my graduate school. As mentioned by AJ that major was the least popular option at his school and it didn’t last too long at mine either. That’s because the amount of work that you have to do for both degrees is far above what you’d have to do in order to get just the MBA. And there isn’t a lot of crossover either. You could be in a quantitive analysis class for finance on Monday and writing Python code on Tuesday for a program that was due at the end of the semester. It just doesn’t make sense when most of the candidates would prefer one over the other.

Tom’s Take

Russ wondered why there aren’t more people with a technical background getting an MBA. My answer is that the ones with a technical background don’t want it and the ones that want it don’t want to deal with tech. Management doesn’t care if you can manage a team of high-performing nerds to streamline operations for the business. They do care if you can cut costs and use financial wizardry to make the company more profitable. Why do you think so many people who are CEOs are former CFOs and not former CTOs or CIOs? The MBA is a degree to teach people to manage and the roots of it go back much further than enterprise IT as a discipline. As much as we might hate to admit, MBAs are focused on the business, not the departments. And as long as the road to the CEO’s chair involves making money for the shareholders you won’t see many technical people in that chair any time soon.

Presenting To The D-Suite

Do you present to an audience? Odds are good that most of us have had to do it more than once in our life or career. Some of us do it rather often. And there’s no shortage of advice out there about how to present to an audience. A lot of it is aimed at people that are trying to speak to a general audience. Still more of it is designed as a primer on how to speak to executives, often from a sales pitch perspective. But, how do you present to the people that get stuff done? Instead of honing your skills for the C-Suite, let’s look at what it takes to present to the D-Suite.

1. No Problemo

If you’ve listened to a presentation aimed at execs any time recently, such as on Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den, you know all about The Problem. It’s a required part of every introduction. You need to present a huge problem that needs to be solved. You need to discuss why this problem is so important. Once you’ve got every head nodding, that’s when you jump in with your solution. You highlight why you are the only person that can do this. It’s a home run, right?

Except when it isn’t. Executives love to hear about problems. Because, often, that’s what they see. They don’t hear about technical details. They just see challenges. Or, if they don’t, then they are totally unaware of this particular issue. And problems tend to have lots of nuts and bolts. And the more you’re forced to summarize them the less impact they have:

Now, what happens when you try this approach with the Do-ers? Do they nod their heads? Or do they look bored because it’s a problem they’ve already seen a hundred times? Odds are good if you’re telling me that WANs are complicated or software is hard to write or the cloud is expensive I’m already going to know this. Instead of spending a quarter of your presentation painting the Perfect Problem Picture, just acknowledge there is a problem and get to your solution.

Hi, we’re Widgets Incorporated. We make widgets that fold spacetime. Why? Are you familiar with the massive distance between places? Well, our widget makes travel instantaneous.

With this approach, you tell me what you do and make sure that I know about the problem already. If I don’t, I can stop you and tell you I’m not familiar with it. Cue the exposition. Otherwise, you can get to the real benefits.

2. Why Should I Care?

Execs love to hear about Return on Investment (ROI). When will I make my investment back? How much time will this save me? Why will this pay off down the road? C-Suite presentations are heavy on the monetary aspects of things because that’s how execs think. Every problem is a resource problem. It costs something to make a thing happen. And if that resource is something other than money, it can quickly be quoted in those terms for reference (see also: man hours).

But what about the D-Suite? They don’t care about costs. Managers worry about blowing budgets. People that do the work care about time. They care about complexity. I once told a manager that the motivation to hit my budgeted time for a project was minimal at best. When they finished gasping at my frankness, I hit them with the uppercut: My only motivation for getting a project done quickly was going home. I didn’t care if it took me a day or a week. If I got the installation done and never had to come back I was happy.

Do-ers don’t want to hear about your 12% year-over-year return. They don’t want to hear about recurring investment paying off as people jump on board. Instead, they want to hear about how much time you’re going to save them. How you’re going to end repetitive tasks. Give them control of their lives back. And how you’re going to reduce the complexity of dealing with modern IT. That’s how you get the D-Suite to care.

3. Any Questions? No? Good!

Let me state the obvious here: if no one is asking questions about your topic, you’re not getting through to them. Take any course on active listening and they’ll tell you flat out that you need to rephrase. You need to reference what you’ve heard. Because if you’re just listening passively, you’re not going to get it.

Execs ask pointed questions. If they’re short, they are probably trying to get it. If they’re long winded, they probably stopped caring three slides ago. So most conventional wisdom says you need to leave a little time for questions at the end. And you need to have the answers at your fingertips. You need to anticipate everything that might get asked but not put it into your presentation for fear of boring people to tears.

But what about the Do-ers? You better be ready to get stopped. Practitioners don’t like to wait until the end to summarize. They don’t like to expend effort thinking through things only to find out they were wrong in the first place. They are very active listeners. They’re going to stop you. Reframe conversation. Explore tangent ideas quickly. Pick things apart at a detail level. Because that’s how Do-ers operate. They don’t truly understand something until they take it apart and put it back together again.

But Do-ers hate being lied to more than anything else. Don’t know the answer? Admit it. Can’t think of the right number? Tell them you’ll get it. But don’t make something up on the spot. Odds are good that if a D-Suite person asks you a leading question, they have an idea of the answer. And if your response is outside their parameters they’re going to pin you to the wall about it. That’s not a comfortable place to get grilled for precious minutes.

4. Data, Data, Data

Once you’re finished, how should you proceed? Summarize? Thank you? Go on about your life? If you’re talking to the C-Suite that’s generally the answer. You boil everything down to a memorable set of bullet points and then follow up in a week to make sure they still have it. Execs have data points streamed into the brains on a daily basis. They don’t have time to do much more than remember a few talking points. Why do you think elevator pitches are honed to an art?

Do-ers in the D-Suite are a different animal. They want all the data. They want to see how you came to your conclusions. Send them your deck. Give them reference points. They may even ask who your competitors are. Share that info. Let them figure out how you came to the place where you are.

Remember how I said that Do-ers love to disassemble things? Well, they really understand everything when they’re allow to put them back together again. If they can come to your conclusion independently of you then they know where you’re coming from. Give them that opportunity.

Tom’s Take

I’ve spent a lot of time in my career both presenting and being presented to. And one thing remains the same: You have to know your audience. If I know I’m presenting to executives I file off the rough edges and help them make conclusions. If I know I’m talking to practitioners I know I need to go a little deeper. Leave time for questions. Let them understand the process, not the problem. That’s why I love Tech Field Day. Even before I went to work there I enjoyed being a delegate. Because I got to ask questions and get real answers instead of sales pitches. People there understood my need to examine things from the perspective of a Do-er. And as I’ve grown with Tech Field Day, I’ve tried to help others understand why this approach is so important. Because the C-Suite may make the decisions, but it’s up the D-Suite to make things happen.