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Do You Really Need an MBA to Succeed in the Tech World?

Aug. 29, 2016 Huffington Post

MBA skills are becoming increasingly more important, but getting an actual MBA may not be the best way to get those skills anymore.

There are actually two things that I want to address:

  1. How important are the skills you learn in an MBA?
  2. Is an MBA the best way to acquire those skills?

How important are the skills you learn in an MBA for the tech and startup industry?

As a startup founder myself, I strongly believe that the type of skills you’re expected to gain through an MBA (sales, marketing, strategy, leadership) remain critically important to the tech and startup industry. In fact, these skills may be more important than ever. Today, most tech startups are no longer successful because of pure technological innovation, with the exception of outliers like TESLA or Oculus. They are successful because of the way they leverage technology to upend business models. Just look at Airbnb or Dollar Shave Club or Warby Parker: they are disrupting their respective industries by using existing technology in a smart and innovative way to solve a specific need for their customers.

The tech industry needs more business leaders who not only understand technology (even if they’re not technologists themselves), but can also spot opportunities to apply that technology in new ways to improve business models. Then comes the really hard part of developing sales and marketing programs: acquiring new users and customers. Even with the greatest engineering team in the world, if a company doesn’t have enough customers or can’t differentiate their product among competitors who are all offering the same thing, it will have a hard time staying afloat.

Is an MBA the best way to acquire those skills?

Like many degree programs, an MBA has (or should have) two main benefits:

  1. Skills that will help you to be successful on the job in the future (which I touched on above)
  2. Access to the school’s network and brand

The second benefit only really applies to a subset of elite MBA programs, though I’d argue that pedigree is generally becoming less of a differentiating factor in the workplace. Plus, the Internet now enables so many new and powerful ways to network in business, such as accelerator programs like Y Combinator, which arguably rival the networks of some of the best MBA programs.

Having worked with hundreds of hiring partners at Flatiron School, I know that what really matters to employers is whether you have the skills to succeed in a role – regardless of whether those skills are acquired on the job, through traditional higher education or via an accelerated type of education like a bootcamp.

The challenge then becomes assessing those skills. For technical roles, such as the ones we prepare students for at Flatiron School, they’re fairly straightforward to evaluate (although there’s still room for improvement in the hiring process for developers). We know our Full Stack Web Developer program prepares grads to be operational as junior developers on day one. But for roles in sales or marketing, it’s much harder to assess someone’s skills, and that’s why some employers still rely on a degree or credential to demonstrate that a candidate has, at the very least, completed coursework that’s relevant to the job.

But is that a good enough reason for you to invest a lot of time and money into an MBA? Is it the most efficient way to acquire relevant business skills? I’m not sure. In fact, based on my experience running Flatiron School and helping hundreds of grads find jobs, my gut tells me no, it’s not.

That’s not to say an MBA is not the right option for some people (I went into a huge amount of debt for my MBA and can confidently say it was more than worth it). Where we go wrong in education is assuming that there’s only one path to success. In my experience, a one-size-fits-all approach in education is rarely the answer. I imagine new types of business training programs will begin to emerge (if they haven’t already) that will give people more options when deciding where to invest their time and money.

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