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I am an Engineer: Should I do a MBA?

Sumit Gupta
July 2011

Lots of engineers in the silicon valley are considering a move to marketing or sales.    I wrote earlier about what product managers do and also about making the move from engineering to product management.

The other big question engineers have is whether they should do a MBA and if it will in the move from engineering to product marketing.   Frequently, folks are considering doing an executive (weekend) MBA program while they continue to work.

What does a MBA buy you?

First, lets examine what a MBA buys you:
  • Theory behind what is business management, marketing, and sales.   A formal business school program is excellent to get a solid background in everything about business, including reading balance sheets, profit and loss, various aspects of marketing -- including product management, branding, advertizing, public relations, and an overview of sales and sales management.
  • Builds your resume.  There is no doubt about it; if you are serious about making a change in your career, there is nothing like showing your dedication by going back to school and also, hiring managers appreciate the fact that you will at least have the theoretical background about business management.
  • Gets you ahead of the crowd.   There are lots of engineers trying to make a change to marketing / business management.    A MBA degree gives you an edge over the rest of your peers.
  • Networking.   I believe this is a bit over-rated, unless you are doing a full-time MBA.   If you are in an executive MBA program, I have not seen the networking aspect pay off too much.   Your mileage will of course vary.
  • Confidence: There is no doubt that most engineers are more confident after they finish their MBA.  I think this has to do with a few things.  One is the degree itself gives folks more confidence in their skills.   More importantly, the experience, the interaction, and the challenges do really add to your personality.  

Sounds like a slam dunk, right?

This all sounds pretty good, right?   So, what is the downside? 
  • A MBA does not get you a job.    In fact, once you finish your MBA, you will be competing with 100s of fresh MBA graduates -- including many who are many years younger than you (especially if you did an executive MBA program).   Your engineering experience helps some, but it does not really speak to your abilities as a general manager / product manager.
  • You could have spend the same time and effort in getting real life experience in business management.   A MBA is expensive and is very time consuming.   Also, instead of 2-3 years of doing the MBA, you could instead have made a transition to any marketing, sales, business role and started gaining experience.  Instead of taking classes in the evening and weekends, you could have instead done marketing for a non-profit and gained experience that will directly help you get a job.
  • You can get the same theoretical background by reading the business books on your own.   In fact, its likely your personalized reading list will be much more focused on your career move than the broad MBA programs.
  • Often folks do a MBA without a plan for the future (see "Have a plan after the MBA" below).   
  • If you want to network, join a professional group -- there are tons in the valley, usually targeting entrepreneurs (like SD Forum,  TIE, et cetera).

Have a plan after the MBA

The biggest mistake that I see folks make is not having a plan after their MBA.   Often, folks think, "Let me get a MBA, and then
somehow magically, my career will take off".    The most important thing to figure out is the plan after the MBA.  Do you intend to
quit your engineering job and look full-time for a marketing / business management / investment job? 

If not, are you just doing your MBA to advance in engineering management?   If so, have you checked with your company or others, if they value engineers with MBAs? The answer in my opinion is that they don't.   I have never seen someone get promoted to an engineering manager, because they got a MBA.  In fact, doing a MBA takes some much time and energy, it might actually make you step back in your engineering career.

A MBA is a means to get to some end.    Its just a step towards what you want to do next.   So, plan your next step before getting into a MBA.

So, should I do a MBA?

This is a personal decision based on tons of factors.  But you probably should do a MBA if:
  • If your plan is to move into investment banking, finance, consulting, product marketing in a non-technology company, or some other completely different management role.  It is in fact required for many of these roles.   If your plan is to move into product marketing in a technology company, then its harder to justify doing a MBA.  
  • If you don't believe you can self-educate yourself by reading books, etc and need a formal program to get you to learn.
  • If you aren't good at networking and believe that a MBA program will help build your social skills as well (this is a red flag if you want to move to marketing by the way).
  • If you don't even know where to start even in terms of volunteering or just don't believe you have the natural aptitude to do marketing or business development.
The most important thing in making career changes is to do them as fast as possible, once you have decided to do them (read my article on moving from engineering to product management to read more on this).

Good luck!

You can learn about marketing (in particular in startups) from some of the articles I authored.

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Sumit Gupta
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