An Engineer in B-School

McDonough School of Business

An MBA was always part of the plan.

Even as I wrapped up my engineering degree, I knew I wanted to pursue additional education. It was in that 4-5 year vaguely-planned horizon. And of course, those years just flew by. And now, I am halfway through the MBA experience. And looking back so far, the most interesting part of my current education is not the education itself, but my constant comparison to my undergraduate studies. I often have to remind myself of what exactly I am learning.

To give some perspective, my undergraduate education was four years digging intensely into a single, applicable skill. We learned how to code. We learned the theory of code. At the end of the semester, we had tangible products – some of which even worked. There was a natural sense that each class built on the previous and was working towards making you a competent computer scientist.

Now, to give you a comparison, an MBA is two years with a lot of breadth. In the core classes, you get a taste of marketing, a dash of accounting, and a smidgen of operations. Should you be inclined to stay focused with electives by taking only finance, or only marketing, you only get so much depth to the material given the sheer rate of speed of the course. 6 weeks per quarter, at 1.5 credit hours, can only provide you with so much material. Additionally, these electives are often stand-alone courses. There is less sensation of a building some cohesive whole. There is less of a sensation that at the end of two years, you trade your tuition receipt for competency as a generalist manager.

Now, its not that I am disparaging the education. I think it just has to be taken into account for what it really is. My argument is that you are learning and developing exactly two things with an MBA.
1. A Language

2. A Network

Ultimately, I am learning just enough accounting to not make a fool of myself talking to accountants and to get around a balance sheet. I am learning just enough operations and marketing to understand those memos and presentations at my company meeting. I am learning the language of business. Drop me into a foreign board meeting, and I will now be able to ask where the train station is and what to order for dinner. From this foundation, I can then develop the advanced vocabulary for my particular field of interest and work towards fluency. This is one of the primary things you get out of two years.

And obviously, the elephant in the business school is the network. Between cocktails, business cards, LinkedIn profiles, and general socializing, you are able to practice this language of business with alumni, interviewers, fellow students and professionals. Because, as with most languages, it is completely useless in a vacuum – just go ask that first guy that learned Klingon. A language is only as useful as the size of the group that uses it. So, hence the importance of the business school network. A large swath of people that can vouch that you learned the language and are an effective speaker of such.

So, a language and a network are plenty useful. As a computer engineer, I already know a handful of languages to boss a computer around, and I understand the inherit power of networks. However, as an engineer, the lack of a direct application layer still irks me. At the end of my accounting course, no one will ask me to be an accountant. I will have to speak with accountants, understand their work and their balance sheets at the end of the quarter. But, I will likely never write a journal entry. So, to be stuck at the end of it, holding the tuition receipt in one hand, the diploma in the other, and speaking in tongues, I will likely be wondering what I really bought.

As always when I give my opinion, I like to think what I would really want out of these two years. What could I possibly recommend that could improve these two years. My thought is that in that short time, you could easily teach me how hard it is to be in each position. How difficult is it to be an accountant? A global supplier? An entrepreneur? A marketer in a digital world of social marketing?

Increase Empathy
As a manager, I should be able to empathize effectively with every person I worth with and for. In 6 weeks, or even a semester, I will never learn how to be a top-tier accountant. However, I should be able to learn how tough that job is, what the intricacies are, the potential issues and the headaches. This will allow me, as a future manager, to better handle the pain points of my employees. For example, some of my classmates are learning this exact lesson with a Visual Basic (VBA) class. They are learning how hard it is to code. So, in the future, if they are working with a team of engineers and their code won’t compile, they have a greater understanding of these problems and should be able to manage them more effectively. And the best part is, this structure doesn’t detract from the language of business that we would still have to learn.

Increase Depth
I think I would also tweak the structure of the courses. We have had a single week-long course dubbed an ‘Intensive Learning Experience (ILE)’. At roughly eight hours a day, the goal was to go deep into a single subject (My class was Sales.) I would argue that this method could be utilized to get the depth required for every class. Taking a week or two of solid finance courses, would likely leave me in a much better place in regards to financial depth without worrying about other classes. Arguably, why are we using the 2-day a week method of classes? Tradition? Most full-time MBAs left a 40 hour work week, and it could be argued this blocking could still be effective educationally.

More Holistic Approach to Case Studies and Classes
Business schools love cases. Adore them. Kodak cases. Southwest, Harley Davidson, Google, oh my! I understand that these give us a way to practice and assess certain isolated aspects of a business, i.e. Financials assessments, Market segments, competitive strategies. However, I argue we often treat these like bubble gum (Bubble gum that costs roughly 5 dollars a pop). We prep a case, discuss it in class, acquire the flavor (the main point), and then move on to the next case, the next class, and the next point. This seems like a waste of potential (and hours spent reading). I would like to see us dive deeper into cases and really devour them, down to the marrow. By taking a holistic approach, we could look at the entire suite of business issues effecting a case. Real life managerial decisions do not live in a vacuum. Why does a case? A marketing segmentation is driven by financial situations as well as current and future competitive strategies. Why not take multiple classes (or a week) and fully explore every avenue in a case instead of asking one isolated question such as ‘Why is Southwest doing well?”, This seems a better way to use the business cases as opposed to bubble gum.

I think McDonough and other business schools are on the right track with more integrated learning. Our world increasingly doesn’t work in a vacuum. And the potential for change and success lies at the intersection points of a variety of business issues. We got a sample of this with a joint Micro-Economics and Strategy course. Sometimes this worked very well. Other times, the seams were very visible. However, I would recommend doubling down on this line of thinking. Going for a well-rounded view of business issues should produce better managers at the end of the day that consider the multiple viewpoints necessary for success.

Ultimately, as an engineer in business school, it has been interesting comparing and contrasting the results of each education. Now, I ultimately got this degree because I wanted to develop a complementary skill set. I wanted to be the person who could talk to the computers and to the board room. I think the degree has strengthened that ability. At the end of the two years, I think the degree will be helpful. Heck, my internship experience wouldn’t have been possible without it. However, to satiate that application layer itch, I am also taking a grad-level computer science course and am building a search engine – some parts of which work. Ultimately I recommend this to every engineer in business school that may share my feelings.

  • October 26, 2013