Do Techies Need an M.B.A?

Date:   Wednesday , May 03, 2006

There are still a few things left that Google can’t search, software can’t solve and mortals don’t understand. One such mystical thing is the perfect career. When it comes to something as important as your career, there is plenty of advice on offer and yet, there really is no sure shot at success. We at The SmartTechie have often wondered if management training was one way to ensure a good career?

Do techies need a Master in Business Administration (M.B.A) degree? Who better to answer that question than the gurus themselves…the people who have done the same thing you did, a little ahead of your time and went on to do wonders in the IT industry—the same industry that you probably work for.

Our findings were stunning: More than 80 percent of the bigwig techies or the gurus managing Indian and multinational IT companies do not have an M.B.A. Just one percent of the total IT jobs for engineers require M.B.A. And finally yet futuristically, with IT companies starting to offer product to Indian market, the MBA trend will snowball.

However objective and eye-rolling the data is, there is truly a sense of subjectivity lost in the entire process. And that’s exactly what Jack Welch of GE and Louis Gerstner of IBM called the Getting Executed (GE) factor. When it comes to success in business, an M.B.A degree might be optional. But a GE attitude is mandatory. Any successful techie, or for that matter a successful human being, is not without it. So, there we go picking thoughts on how much of an M.B.A is optional and, how much is real or GE based.

1990: India is a now a great services country. Its engineers just out of schools are all jet set with their new careers as programmers, developers and coders. They call themselves techies. All are gung ho about graduating to become team leads, project managers and so on in the next five years. Managers, they think, belong to the higher echelon of tech companies; coding would be a place for the new entrants. This feeling emphasised the need for management education. B-Schools, they believe, will mold them as the crème de la crème managers.

2006: By now, several information technology companies have established their centers across the sub continent. With ever more complex work being sourced in India by Indian companies and MNCs alike, employees began to see career paths and opportunities they didn’t believe possible just a few short years ago. Hard core technologists, who earlier saw just two or three rungs on a technical ladder, are now seeing many rungs that could possibly even take them to CEOs chair. And an M.B.A is becoming a necessary tool, as you get closer to the CEOs cabin.

The notion that the technical ladder is less lucrative is a misconception. In India there is still a widespread perception that career progression happens only in the managerial path and an M.B.A is an asset for this career path. Research reveals that the number of jobs requiring just tech skills far exceeds the number of jobs requiring management degree along with an engineering background. For a do-it-yourself-method, any quick search on various job portals in India will reveal that the requirement for software engineers with an M.B.A, constitutes just one percent of the total IT jobs for engineers. Bobby Mitra, Managing Director of Texas Instruments (India) concurs with this data. “The percentage of jobs requiring an M.B.A should be in low single digit compared to all other IT jobs,” he says.

Go a little below the surface and you will see two different categories of employees in any given IT company. Most often it is this classification, which simply adjudges if he/she needs an M.B.A or not. First category, which doesn’t need an M.B.A, consists of Engineer-to-engineer (developer community) and Technology Managers’ roles. The next category is the customer Facing and Strategic Management roles, which do need an M.B.A. It is the customer facing role that needs a much higher percentage of M.B.As, than strategic management, simply because they are directly involved in finance, marketing, and business content. Vinod Mankala, HR Manager at Cisco Systems (India) says, with a gut feeling, “that 15-20 percent of such customer facing roles in the Indian IT industry need professionals with an M.B.A.”

Just being B.E
It is clear that an M.B.A is not a requirement for engineering roles. Often engineers at the developer roles do not involve themselves in understanding and enhancing the business needs of an organization. “If an engineer has an intense desire to learn more about business side of the organization, then perhaps he should move on to do an M.B.A,” says Himanshu Singh, Executive Director, India & SAARC, Cadence Design Systems, who attended a four-month certificate program in management from Xavier Labour Relations Institute (XLRI), Jamshedpur. He feels it gives a comprehensive understanding of businesses.

It is necessary to understand that a mid-rung position within an IT organization is often the forte of technology managers. These technology managers who handle responsibilities of project management and team leads need to have a strong footing on program and project management techniques. So, often a project management course is of greater use than an M.B.A.

Employees at the technology management level most often need great people management skills, which does not really need an M.B.A. Obviously implying that for the role of a project manager or operational manager, and people management skills can be acquired on the job too. Managers who go out to do an M.B.A at this juncture, come back to add value to their companies. Although the value is immense, they often lose out on the other aspects of a management degree like finance, business law—eventually forgetting due to non-usage. If they learn immediately after B.E.

Venkatraman Shankar, Director and Head of Product Management for Sasken’s Network Business Unit, concurs with this view—he doesn’t hold an M.B.A. “A Management degree is not essential when you head a business unit or product management kind of function. Management theories are good. It gives you a lot of theoretical perspective. Business aspects can be gained through practical exposure. But for roles such as mine, having a strong technology footprint matters most,” he says.

Argue a little with Shankar and he retorts, “Engineering managers have a responsibility towards project level profitability. In a sense they have a P&L responsibility. Theoretical knowledge of P&L can be gained. I don’t need a degree for that.”

One should know that in the IT industry, management is not just management of business per se but technology management also. Typically in a technology product company about 20 to 25 percent of its revenue is spent on research and development, which is counted as engineering activities such as coding, customer specification, designing, architecture amongst others. Hence, there is great opportunity for technical-managerial roles with the rest 75-80 percent. But an M.B.A is not a must.

Customer dating roles
As you grow within the organization, it is a clear sign that the organization is growing too. No longer would one just be doing isolated technical functions, like they did in start of their career. Seven years, on an average, after commencing an IT career with a pure technical role one would definitely be involved with clients and delivery. When one touches those boundaries, it is often advisable to take up an M.B.A.

For techies moving onto higher responsibilities it all boils down to people and time management, along with resources and cost management. Clearly these demand a different skill sets acquisition than pure technical knowledge.
For roles such as tech marketing, where customer interaction is their bread-and-butter business, an M.B.A will add a significant value.

After four years of working on the engineering front, Raghavendra Prasad of Sasken felt an inclination towards business development. He enrolled himself for a three-year evening M.B.A programme at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Today as a Technical Marketing Manager, Prasad emphasizes sales and marketing in a tech industry is all about selling the technology idea. If you perhaps don’t have sufficient understanding as a technologist then you are probably losing out in the game of selling technology. And his early years on the engineering side helped him gain the technology dimension, which is really important. “M.B.A helped me get the bigger picture,” he says.

Usually customers don’t clearly communicate in terms of what they want and how they want to get implementations done. So there are always options in terms of how you are going to execute the programme, what is the pricing that you choose, what is the profitability that the order will give you? When such things arise, an engineer with management degree would be in a better position to give big picture, which is required in technology selling than an engineer alone. At times an M.B.A will have an edge in exploring any cross-selling options for the customer.

Even in roles such as a delivery manager, an M.B.A is a plus point. To execute a project with the right delivery processes, a thorough knowledge of contract negotiations, and margins is required.

Kiran Natarajan, Senior Consultant at iFlex Solutions, who manages development partners and delivery streams, was reluctant to do an M.B.A from the beginning. However, after a decade of work in the industry there was a mindset change. Natarajan witnessed his company growing and building clients and partners and his need was growing more on the business side of the company. In 2003, he went to pursue an intensive one-year M.B.A from the TCS Institute in France. Today, Natarajan says, “It is more exciting to balance the two hats of technology and management in a techno-management role.”

But for some like Phaneesh Murthy, CEO of iGATE Global Solutions, it was not much about being a better manager or a techie in those days. It was about enjoying each day at work and experiencing challenging work. So Murthy went ahead and chose to be marketing personnel. “The things I like about management over a techie is that you often have to make calls with insufficient information—which I think resembles real life more—you can tweak and evolve it more than the engineering side,” says the IIT, IIM Ahmedabad graduate.

M.B.A, for Murthy, teaches new set of skills particularly on the soft side. Such things will help one function better in an everyday job. And gives an understanding and appreciation of things like finance and economics, which are usually, a clueless-catch for techies. “And these learnings will give the key to success in senior executive positions,” he says.

The Strategic Managers
And the last level is of strategic management that consists of senior managers. At the strategic management level when one is dealing with customers, companies, business models and has business and marketing responsibilities an M.B.A qualification is a must and will make a difference. An M.B.A adds layers of dimension on how you look at a problem from the finance and marketing angles, which a sole engineering education cannot give.

Mitra of Texas Instruments, decided to do an M.B.A from the University of Austin, Texas after considerable years of experience as a pure technologist. “I realized that when I look at a problem with a technical only background I could see things only on a single vector. But with an additional M.B.A degree one can add onto the technology vector which is very crucial. Problems looked only from the technology vector will look very different,” he says. The M.B.A helps you picturize solutions to customers’ problems from the marketing, finance, operational, and legal aspects. “Not going to a B-school is comparable to learning yogic asanas on your own without a mentor. Not that we can’t learn and handle ourselves, but just to do it in the most accurate and faster possible way. Now that is exactly how a B-School helps a senior guy.”
M.B.A is a crash course on various business dimensions within a short period of time. The learning’s of the course should be practiced and applied in real life situations. The tools and techniques learnt must be worked upon after the course is over. The course is clearly a fast-forward in understanding business management concepts.

M.B.A: not the name of the game
But not everyone in the strategic management role has an M.B.A. There are leaders who are managing business strategically but have no M.B.A. Sudheer Koneru, MD of SumTotal Systems India, explains how majority of the senior management working in Microsoft did not hold an M.B.A during the 90s. “If you want to make a career within hardcore R&D then the requirement of an M.B.A is minimal,” says the Indian Institute of Technology alum, who heads the India operations for SumTotal.

Vijay Anand, MD of Sun MicroSystem R&D, leading a team of 800 people, has no M.B.A or any formal management training outside Sun. Anand a full time programmer, coded regularly till 1999 until co-incidence pushed him into the manager’s role—which was vacant and he was the only person eligible. But, that role was purely based on his programming knowledge, which his senior management felt would be a merit to cling well with the team. In fact, his prior experince helped him to understand what his engineers do, relate to them closely and also help brainstorm solutions to some of the problems they work on. “And this is really what I’m enjoying being a leader today,” says Anand, who still codes on AJAX and tries to look for leaders with a strong technology background at a tech company like Sun.

Bachelors, Masters and the Leaders
In tech companies ideas are of two kinds: Business ideas and technological ideas—both of which are fundamental for a company success. So it is the idea generators who are respected and desired in any company. Like, Revathy Ashok, Chief Financial Officer at Syntel Inc., puts it, “Ideas are not categorized as to whether they are coming from M.B.As or otherwise. Moreover the most difficultly arrived solutions may not emanate from the M.B.As. Organiza-tions don’t make the difference if the innovative solutions come from techies or from M.B.As to accept or reject the same.”

Vivek Mansingh, a hardcore technologist who has published more than 85 technical papers consciously took an Executive Business Management Program for Growing Companies from Stanford University, to understand sales and marketing. Later on when he started his own company the knowledge of finance gained from the course was of great value. Today Mansingh, Country Manager and Director of Dell India R&D Center, says, “M.B.A is no guarantee that you will turn out to be a good leader and cannot clarify your career strategy. One has to build up a career using an M.B.A as a building block; an M.B.A cannot build you.” In real life, there is simply no correlation between getting an M.B.A and being a successful corporate leader. “The reason,” says Santanu Paul, GM of Virtusa, “business schools are better at teaching ‘management’ than ‘leadership’.”
In any organization you cannot expect to be treated differently because you are brand M.B.A. People will essentially relate to you because of the ideas you put forth and how you tend to influence and inspire others. It is each individual’s potential to get things executed that makes them better leaders. The getting-stuff-done factor is more important than any degree or qualification. Some who can get these things in place will be called the pioneers. To name a few such leaders or pioneers is like talking about the big daddies of India’s IT industry: N.R. Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji, Shiv Nadar and so on.
For whom the GE (getting executed) factor springs internally. Like Shiv Nadar, Founder HCL, Chairman and CEO HCL Technologies, puts it: Do not treat failure as a full stop, only as a comma. And move on in life with or without degrees.

Where to begin?
Killing your technical instincts just for some buzz surrounding managerial roles is often the biggest mistakes techies do. Avoiding herd-mentality and deciding whether you are fit for the technical track or management track is the call techies need to take. And this call, techies should understand, is based on ones aptitude and more importantly attitude.

Simple test for techies
Are you in love with the technology you work with? Are you inspired by the Bill Joys of Sun, Jerry Yangs of Yahoo, Sergey Brins and Larry Pages of Google? Do you love being part of the international techie community where you stand for something and love being recognized? If a techie nods the head in affirmation, then the candidate should continue doing what he’s doing and look for advanced technical degrees, especially in a particular technical domain and be the worldwide expert in that domain.

“Examples of Andy Grove, Craig Barrett of Intel will tell you that in high-tech industry it is not an M.B.A that counts but a PhD,” says Chinnu Senthilkumar, MD of SanDisk India, who does not hold an M.B.A. PhD gives you a great focus and specialization in one particular field, but M.B.A makes one a jack of all and master of none.
If the above doesn’t hold true for you then you are inclined towards business and M.B.A is a good option.

SWOT test
The other way to analyze what you need to be doing is a SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunities and threat) analysis. That is a good sign of knowing oneself better and being more adroit in handling themselves. But don’t forget to count your passion in.
Dr Vivek Mansingh, head of Dell R&D (India) advises to have a plan for your life like every organization has a plan with measurable timeframes. Follow the plan with perseverance and correct it when needed. Manage your own Inc. Collect the skills to make your Inc. succeed. The professional world is a complex collection of unique individuals, all struggling to advance their careers at all costs. But the successful ones should walk backwards from their vision and let not MBA be the end of the vision.

How does one know that he/she is a better manager than a techie?
"This can only happen via two basic processes. The informal intuitive one leads a person on to a path that defines itself over time. It comes from within. The other is a formal one where an organization or a mentor/tutor provides feedback that defines what you are and where you will go. Neither are perfect. Finally only time will tell," Shiv Nadar, Founder HCL, Chairman & CEO HCL Technologies.

Does MBA mean higher pay scale?
The different pay scales for engineers possessing MBAs and those not in IT companies have been a hotly debated topic. There is a general perception that most Indian companies offer higher compensation to engineers holding an MBA. At the entry point a differentiation has to be made because of the additional qualifications possessed. However once the person is on the job it depends on how they deliver.

There are techies who earn more than some managers do. Some like Vijay Prasad, a senior developer at Siemens believes that management guys get paid double to that of a techie with the same experience. However, Raghavendra Prasad, Technical Marketing Manager at Sasken strongly disagrees that money doubles with just another management degree beside one’s name.

“IT engineers with an engineering and M.B.A degree will command 20 percent of premium 8 to 9 years after their entry into the industry. This was the same in Bay Area when I used to work a couple of years back,” says Vinod Mankala, HR Manager Cisco Systems India. And some of the country heads, without an MBA, earn close to Rs10 million (Rs 1 crore) annually!