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Friday, August 29, 2008

Should You Get An MBA?

Should Product Managers get an MBA?

I had a chance to talk with one of my friends the other day who is a product manager working in the telcom space. Carol is basically happy with her job, but she's tired of always gathering requirements and she is already starting to think about the next step in her career - becoming a Director. She told me that she was thinking about getting an MBA; however, she had not made up her mind yet as to if it would be worth the time, energy, and expense required to get one. She wanted to know what I thought?

Just a little background info for you here: I've collected four university degrees. I've got a BS, MS, and PhD in Computer Science and then I went on and just for good measure I picked up an MBA with a focus on Marketing. All in all this took me about 15 years to do. Because of the time, energy, and expense that I've gone through I felt that Carol was talking to the right person!

The first thing that I asked Carol was where she wanted to take her career and what she thought that she needed to do to get there (besides getting an MBA). She said that she had been doing some studying of the last four or five IT people who had been promoted to a Director position. What she had found that they had all been at the company for at least 5 years, they had been associated with a successful project, they were well known to the Executive Director that they would be reporting to. She then said that only two of the five new Directors had an MBA - the other three had at least a Masters technical degree.

Carol had done her homework! We then spent some time talking about what you can expect to get if you get an MBA. Assuming that you can't take time off from your job to go to school for two years, then you are probably looking at going to night school for 4-5 years. I realize that there are other options such as the University of Phoenix and Executive MBA programs; however, my experience has been with the traditional butt-in-a-classroom-at-night approach. One of the first questions that I asked Carol was if she expected to be living where she was right now for the next 5 years - nothing could be sadder than moving half-way through a program! Carol said that yes, she expected to be in town for the next 5 years.

I got my MBA for two reasons: I wanted to have the vocabulary that was needed to work with the people who are running the business and I wanted to network with other people who were at the same stage of their career as I was. In the end, I feel that I got the vocabulary that I wanted. A lot of that vocabulary has to do with finance, organizational behavior, and marketing and these had been things that I didn't know much about before starting my MBA.

The networking with other folks who were working on their MBA didn't work out as well. When one attends the big Ivy League schools to get an MBA, you have the advantage of moving though your courses with your peers in lock step. The MBA program that I was in had more people in it and so we were spread out both over time (some people completed in 3 years, some took as long as 7 years) and in courses - there were a lot of courses offered each semester. This meant that few close relationships were formed that lasted more than a semester or two. In my case I moved out of town after completing the degree and so the value of the networking was even more minimized. All that being said, I believe that if you went into the program with networking as a key goal, you could build up a healthy LinkedIn network by the time you were though.

The final benefit of getting an MBA is that you get a chance to be exposed to a great deal of business information that you may have heard of, but never had a chance to study before. Depending on what your background is, this material may be very straightforward. Unlike technical degrees, an MBA requires you to work in teams, give in-class presentations and really doesn't have that many problem sets to turn in. Rather, questions require wordy answers - you have to memorize a great deal of information that does not have a formula or numbers associated with it. I found the studying to be easy because it was all new. It kept my interest and was easy to memorize.

After I had shared all of this with Carol, she decided to go ahead and take the GMAT in order to apply to enter an MBA program. What helped her to finally make her mind up is that she took a look at the people who would be her competition for the next Director position and decided that an MBA would set her apart from them.

What do you think about Product Managers getting an MBA? Do you think that it helps make them better Product Managers or is it just so much window dressing? At your firm, do people with MBAs seem to go higher, faster in their careers? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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