High-tech MBAs target the IT pro

Reaching the next level in a global environment means integrating constantly changing technology into core business functions

With 16 years’ experience doing everything from coding to systems management, Scott Nease thought he was ready to step up to the big chair. But when he enrolled in a six-month executive education program geared for teaching business skills to IT pros, his worldview changed.

“I thought IT was all 1s and 0s, and the CIO was just the person with all the answers on the technology side,” Nease says, information systems manager at Axis Dental, an equipment manufacturer. “But being CIO is really about how to manage the business from a technology standpoint, and determining the right tools and solutions to implement. [The courses] opened my eyes to a level of IT structure I didn’t know existed.”

Nease was one of the lucky ones -- his employers sent him to Technology Leadership Essentials, a 12-course program offered by Carnegie Mellon University and Tatum Partners in 35 U.S. cities. When most IT pros go back to school, they do it on their own. According to a survey by the Computing Technology Industry Association, 88 percent of IT pros pay for all or part of the training themselves, and four out of five aren’t compensated for the time they spend in class. Not surprisingly, more than half say they’re looking for better jobs with other employers.

Some, like Nease, go back to school seeking the business acumen that will allow them to reach the next level. Others hope to develop the skills to survive in an increasingly global IT environment. That includes both learning how to manage employees spread halfway across the globe, and making themselves more marketable in case their own jobs end up being outsourced. 

The MBA payoffs

More and more, getting ahead in IT means hitting the books. And although an MBA may be essential for getting that C-level job, an increasing number of schools -- like Carnegie Mellon, Northeastern, and Walden University -- are offering specialized high-tech MBAs. 

Designed for students with heavy computer science backgrounds and work experience, these programs focus on the unique challenges presented by integrating constantly changing technology into core business functions.

At Northeastern’s College of Business Administration in Boston, which offers a high-tech MBA degree, a typical student has been working at least seven years, has a degree in computer science or electrical engineering, and is already managing a small team at work, says Marc H. Meyer, one of the MBA program’s three directors and the school’s Matthews Distinguished University Professor.

“The beauty of the program is that half of our courses are project-based,” Meyer says. “Students can apply what they learn to real live projects inside their own companies, and not to some generalized Harvard Business School case.”

John Tremblay, vice president of marketing for Tatara Systems, says he picked Northeastern for its IT-centric focus.

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“I had a strong engineering and technology background, and didn’t want an MBA program where we studied toilet paper companies and things not relevant to my expertise,” says Tremblay, who received his MBA in 1998. “There’s a range of problems specific to how fast technology moves, whether you’re in business development or launching new products, that a classical MBA wouldn’t teach you.”

After stints at a couple of small wireless startups, Tremblay took his tech MBA to Tatara, where he helps companies such as Disney and ESPN package content for cell phone customers.

“You need to understand technology but also have the skills to work the business case,” he says. “You need to be able to tell Disney why convergence is important, how much revenue it can generate, and how it fits into their existing technology.”

From cost center to thought center

In some industries, the need for business as well as tech skills is being driven by a shift in the traditional role of technology -- from the infrastructure that supports a company’s operations into a service the company can sell.

“Most of the products financial service companies create and sell are based on information systems,” Meyer says. “Our students feel limited if they don’t understand the marketing, market development, and sales processes behind the IT-enabled services their companies are making.”

Telecommunications is another industry where IT can become a revenue center. For example, several of Cingular Wireless’s offerings had their start in back office billing systems, says Cingular CIO Thaddeus Arroyo.

“We can’t activate or sell any service in the absence of a working IT system, so IT has to be a core competence of our service offerings,” Arroyo says. “We realized there were things we could do with our billing system to create a strategic advantage over our competitors, to give our customers more choices.”

Arroyo, who went back to Southern Methodist University to earn his MBA after several years in the tech trenches, says forward-thinking companies consider IT a “thought center” where new ideas and new revenue is generated. To succeed in such an environment, however, requires a different mindset than your typical software engineer.

“When I entered the tech market, people tended to build their careers moving down one path -- such as a programming language like Cobol --  or up the technology infrastructure stack. In today’s market, with sourcing that can come from anywhere, you need a skill set more oriented toward problem solving and business management,” Arroyo says.

“Just because I got an MBA didn’t drive me to the next promotion level,” Arroyo adds. “But it helped me develop a set of skills early enough in my career to get a bump and get to positions faster than my peers.”

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Think globally, enroll locally

For Alecia Hoobling, a firmware engineer at Hewlett-Packard, a high-tech MBA program represents insurance against the migration of tech jobs offshore.

“At the time of my decision [to go back to school], there was a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about offshore outsourcing and if that would replace U.S. engineers,” says Hoobling, who is currently a student at Walden’s online program. “I thought an MBA would make me more marketable in other industries not turning as rapidly toward offshore outsourcing.”

A 2005 survey by the Society of Information Management found top IT managers much more likely to outsource technical functions such as telecommunications. Eight of the 10 skills managers deemed “critical” for keeping in-house were business or project management skills such as business process design, project planning, and change management.

“IT professionals who only do very narrowly defined technical tasks are more vulnerable to having their work done somewhere else by people with lower wage rates,” says Thomas Malone, author of The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style and Your Life and occupant of the Patrick J. McGovern chair at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “If you can combine technical knowledge with a broader knowledge of how technology can help your business, it’s much harder for your job to be outsourced.”

Such people are likely to be called on to manage those teams of programmers in India or the help desk in Costa Rica. At Walden’s High-Tech MBA program, students must enroll in a Global Competitive Environment course that deals with issues as diverse as international law, virtual teams, and distance management, says faculty chair Rebecca Sidler.

“By the time they get through the global course, students will have had a lot of practice managing across time zones and cultures and dealing with individuals they will never meet,” Sidler says.

Still, managing across continents involves new challenges that are not easily met, warns Mark R. Beckstrom, a human-capital-management consultant at IBM Business Consulting Services.

Particularly challenging areas include knowledge transfer, communications across multiple time zones, and managing handoffs in companies that use the ‘follow-the-sun’ model of software development, where coders in Asia work while their counterparts in the U.S. sleep, Beckstrom says.

“You need one set of project management skills for planning a project where your team is located in the same place you are, and a different set of skills to plan projects that use the follow-the-sun model,” Beckstrom says. “How do you pick up something someone else has been working on for the past 16 hours without losing your time advantage? That’s not something that happens automatically. It’s a skill that has to be culled.”

Join the culture club

Other aspects of globalization that often receive too little attention are the enormous differences between cultures, says Yong Zhao, director of the U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence at Michigan State University. 

“One might think IT is universal, but how IT industries are managed, how products are made, and what appeals to different people are quite different,” Zhao says. “One major difference between the U.S. and China is the concept of hierarchy. Many U.S. managers may find that many of their Chinese team members do not speak out at meetings and thus think they are either ignorant of the topic or in agreement with the ideas presented.

“In reality, the Chinese team members may have a lot to say but are uncomfortable offering their opinions, especially when they do not agree, because they respect authority and seniority.”

Zhao says he’s not aware of any programs that specifically focus on training IT pros in how to manage across cultures. Beckstrom says that although big companies often offer cultural training for executives on overseas assignments, they rarely do so when the manager of an overseas team in India never leaves his or her living room in Indiana.

But even the best education can only go so far. At a certain point, IT pros may simply have to jump in and learn on their feet.

“People working in increasingly global organizations need to develop new skills in managing across cultures and working remotely with virtual teams in other locations,” says MIT’s Malone. “There’s no substitute for actual experience.”

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