Career advice for MBAs looking to go into tech : the first 90 day plan

With technology on a strong run, and hints of bubble 2.0 many upcoming MBA graduates are looking increasingly to get into tech after graduation. I have an MBA, no engineering experience, and I’ve worked in technology for a decade. Actually, when I started at MSFT in 1998, I was in the Windows Server group. On Day 1, I wasn’t quite sure what a server was. Since then, I’ve worked closely with engineers in all phases of software development. I’ve read, heard and experienced directly some of the negative biases people in the tech industry have towards MBAs who lack technical degrees. At its extreme, you may hear some claiming that the MBA’s worthless and that there’s a high bozo factor, etc., etc.

Though I totally value the engineers and I understand this bias, I also know this bias can be overcome. Having a focus on building a business, leading people and connecting with customers are all vitally important skills in the mix of a technology team. This provides the opportunity for MBAs to deliver vitally important value and leadership into these teams. To be sure, however, much of the feedback engineers and technical minds will give is valid–this is not to ignore that, but to prepare the non-technical MBA with the mindset, tools, and resources to begin to deal effectively with the issue.

This post focuses on how to think about and plan for the first 90 days of your new role post-bschool. I’ve tried to keep this broad, as you might join a company with vastly different technologies in vastly different functions. Still, in my mind, there are some key themes that are useful for anyone looking to have a strong start–no matter which tech firm, no matter which role. This post aims to summarize those briefly.

First off, from the standing on the shoulders of giants category, if you are at any point in your career (undergrad, high school, MBA, post-MBA), Marc Andreessen’s posts on career planning are world-class and must read. I find this a useful and very broad thinking piece, helpful to think about at many phases of one’s career.

Second, when starting at a tech firm, get your hands on your company’s technology as soon as possible, and get to know as much as you can about it first-hand. When I started in the Windows Server Product Management group, the first thing I asked to do was get a copy of Windows Server and I set up a network in my office. I did this, had DHCP, DNS, file/print, built a bunch of the walk-through demos, and so on. This was super useful. It demystified a bunch, and it gave me a real sense of what the product did. Moreover, it also gave me a great sense of what the product didn’t do–namely how difficult it was to get stuff setup, how hard it was to use, how difficult to find the right documentation, etc. So if you’ll work at Cisco, Google, Foo or Bar, whatever–get your hands on the technologies they build and use them, use them, use them. From my experience, especially in IT-focused software groups, few MBAs had actually spent time installing and using hte software. It’s hard to be effective if you’ve not done that. I’d recommend no matter what kind of company or product you work on, you’ve got to know the products inside out. Find a way to make that happen.

Next, do whatever you can to get to know customers and what they think of your products. Customers are everything. In my last job at MSFT, I worked in Japan running our Windows business there. The Japanese language has a whole different set of language indicators and status indicators for “customers” as a class. It’s awesome–it drives home in a way that I’ve never seen the level of importance the customer’s input has on a company. This is good learning–the customer is king. You want engineers and the powers that be at your company to respect you–don’t point to your MBA, point to your knowledge and first-hand conversations with customers. If your engineers think they know all the important customers (e.g., they know all the big Wall Street Banks), then go find some mid-market customers and get chummy with them. Build a deep, clear voice and expertise of the customer, and you’ll never have a problem being seen as a bozo.

After that, learn to communicate effectively with engineers. There really should be a class on this offered at B-school–how to communicate effectively between Engineering and Business groups. At the core of any technology company is the fundamental opportunity of shrinking the distance between the customer and what they want and the engineers and what they build. This fundamental issue and challenge covers all companies. It highlights why VCs like Sequoia will show a strong preference towards founders who are also users of the product their building (this shrinks the distance!). If you are not the founder/engineer/customer, then your job is to make the distance between what customers want / business strategy requires and what engineers can build. This is not about strategic objectives, it’s also generally not about MBA-speak. It’s about concrete, data-oriented language that is crisp, concrete. The thing you as an MBA want an engineer to think when you communicate with them is this: they understand how what you have told them helps them build a better product. If you can’t do that, then in my experience, good engineers will not have much patience with you.

In my view this skill is not taught well at all in b-school today. This is unfortunate, as I think that this is where I think most of bozosity sentiment comes from in tech firms–i.e., engineers think their mba counterparts speak at a level that’s not crisp or helpful for them. I have no easy way to describe to a non-technical MBA how to gain this communication skill with engineers, but I cannot recommend highly enough that you invest time building it. In my experience, start with the steps I outline above. Then I’d recommend getting yourself as close to engineers as you can in the workplace. Understand how they work, what they do all day, how they take input. If you do this, and use your brain, you’ll get there.

Finally, have fun. Technology in my view is a blast of a place to work. It brings me joy every day to be in this industry and to watch and work on such amazing things.

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