Thursday, November 04, 2004

Reader Advice: Do I Get an MBA?

I received an email today from a reader asking about whether he should pursue an MBA:
I have a few years experience in the semiconductor capital equipment industry, and have moved up the ladder on the engineering department up to the level of Program Manager. I'm interested in pursuing an MBA, but have second thoughts regarding whether it will payoff in this particular industry? I'm interested in moving into product management.

My undergrad was in EE (Electrical Engineering), followed by a couple of years working in electronic design. I then did an MS, also in EE...

I've spent 5 years in the semiconductor capital industry. My program management job is as an engineering manager. Managers also double as developers, so about 50% of my time goes to (engineering), and the other 50% into actual management activities.

Though I've remained within the engineering department, I've had the opportunity of interacting with customers to identify their needs and come up with ideas for new products. My impression is that I'd be more valuable to employers - and have a more fulfilling career- if I were to make a complete move into marketing, dealing with understanding what customers want/need, figuring out which products we can develop for them, preparing specs, coordinating their development and production.

What would you recommend I do?

My gut response: skip the MBA (or maybe consider an online MBA). My own experience within the tech industry is that an MBA doesn't open up many more job opportunities than if you didn't have one. Getting the MBA in this case will just take two years away from the industry (or limit your working hours if you do it part time), and in this case I think you have the pieces to get the job you want without the MBA.

Marketing managers like myself understand that the MBA gives you a good theoretical background and fills out your financial skills, but what we are really looking for in product managers are people who understand the technology, understand the trends within the market, know the competition, and can easily work with customers. An MBA does't give you any of these. I'll hire an engineer with these abilities in a heartbeat over some Rice MBA without any industry experience. It's a lot easier to teach an engineer the few financial things he needs to know than it is to teach some MBA an entire market.

Note that the opposite may be true for strategic marketing managers, where a theoretical background is needed and it sometimes is helpful NOT to know the market since it brings a fresh perspective.

So for the position you want, I think you have the experience and background needed, and an MBA won't buy you anything. What you need to do is leverage your current work experience and contacts into the job you want. Here's some suggestions:

Talk to Your Current Company's Marketing Director or VP - The best bet is to transfer into the job you want within your current company. There are two ways to go about this: talk to your current engineering manager or talk to the top marketing guy. Each case is different, but in most cases I would talk to the marketing guy first. Your own boss probably doesn't want to lose a resource and may end up being more of a hindrance than a help. It really depends on your situation, but either way it will require some delicate political maneuvering.

In addition, even if you don't swing a transfer, the marketing guy could become a good contact and mentor - and he may find something for you eventually.

DON'T go through your company's HR - it will just get back to your current manager (my hate of HR departments is well documented, so I am biased on this).

Talk to Your Competition - If I had a talented engineering manager from my main competitor walk into my office and ask for a product marketing job I'd give it to him immediately. You know your own company's strengths and weaknesses, and your new employer would send you in whenever your ex-company was in heated competition at a customer. The trade-off is losing your five years of tenure and contacts within your current organization, where you may want to stay. There are also cultural issues to going to a competitor. Within some industries it is no big deal to move back and forth between companies, while in others you find you will lose long-time friends if you go to a competitor. This is your call.

Talk to Your Headhunters - If you know what you are dealing with, headhunters can be helpful, but in your case only if you can find one that specializes in your segment. Go this route only after you have exhausted your own resources and contacts.

The bottom line is that I recommend you network yourself into your next position. Even customers could be a resource. But an MBA is not needed. Just keep in mind that it will take time, but if you were willing to spend 2-3 years on an MBA, be willing to spend 1-2 years networking to find the job you really want.

There are times when an MBA makes sense from a career perspective, but this isn't one of them.

Any different opinions or comments from other readers? Leave in the comment section.

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