Why an MBA could offer grads ‘a leg up’ for breaking into Big Tech

BY Sam BeckerApril 29, 2021, 3:00 AM
Martin Laksman

Looking for a ticket to the top of the business world? Traditionally, earning an MBA was one way to get there, and at many companies, it still is. But when it comes to the tech industry, the calculus is slightly different. If you’re thinking about sinking the time and money into earning an MBA to get a tech job, there’s a lot to consider.

While many people in the tech industry ultimately eschewed their education and have relied upon skill and savvy alone to create new technologies and found massive companies—Bill Gates at Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook are two examples—earning a high-level degree does tend to give job seekers a leg up. 

For instance, 89% of employers say they plan to hire MBAs in 2021, according to data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). For MBA holders, the opportunities are there, and they can be lucrative: GMAC’s data also shows that the median salaries for MBA holders are 75% higher than those of people with bachelor’s degrees alone.

But again, the tech industry is something of a different animal, and putting an MBA on a résumé doesn’t necessarily cast a spell over recruiters at tech companies as it might in other industries.

MBAs and the tech industry: A different animal

The companies that once dominated the American economy—manufacturers, for example—have been relegated to the back seat as big tech companies have muscled their way into top billing.

Those companies—which include names like Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Google, and the multitude of smaller tech startups in the space—are hungry for talent, and that includes MBA holders, says Naomi Sanchez, assistant dean of MBA career management at the University of Washington’s Michael G. Foster School of Business.

“A high percentage of our graduates that have MBAs are headed for tech positions, or leadership roles in tech,” Sanchez says. “We also have a number of graduates that go into startups as well.”

Sanchez says the Foster School of Business is in a unique position. Its Seattle location has allowed the school to become a huge feeder of talent to nearby tech companies, including Amazon and Microsoft, which are both based there, and others, like Facebook and Google, which maintain a significant presence in the city. Foster’s proximity to the tech industry has helped shape the school’s MBA programs over the years, and gives some grads a leg up when it comes to competing against other MBA holders for tech jobs.

“What is really unique to the Foster school, is that [students] are exposed to our corporate leadership locally from the very beginning. We have a number of different ways in which we connect our students to our alumni and to others in the community,” Sanchez says. “That’s just really unique—the individual relationship that Foster has with local tech companies.”

But since tech firms often have needs that differ from those in other industries, an MBA may not necessarily be a ticket to a job in the tech sector.

Some MBA programs “don’t align well with high-growth types of companies,” says Natalie Ledbetter, head of people and platform at New York–based BoldStart Ventures, a seed-investing venture capital firm where she helps tech companies build their teams.

Because many tech companies are working in new or unproven markets, Ledbetter says, hands-on experience working in tech is often more attractive to employers and recruiters than an MBA. “One thing I do recommend is actually getting experience before getting an MBA,” she says of prospective tech workers.

What are tech companies looking for from MBA grads?

Experience is one thing, of course, but Ledbetter says that MBA programs do provide tech workers with skills they need to succeed. And there are a litany of skills that tech companies are on the hunt for, although some may be a bit unorthodox.

“We’ve had conversations with managers hiring for technology companies who have entire strategies dedicated to recruiting MBA graduates,” says Art Zeile, CEO of DHI Group, the parent company of tech industry recruiting firm Dice. “Organizations are, and will be, looking for candidates with both technology acumen and a more holistic business skill set, including strategic management, finance and accounting [skills], and data analysis.” 

But both Ledbetter and Sanchez say that soft skills and personality may matter just as much as, if not more than, hard skills in the tech industry.

Specifically, many tech companies want workers who are empathetic, can communicate effectively, and have fostered a sense of purpose. “If you were to ask me, one of the unifying aspects of our students going into technology is that they [want to work in] high tech with a higher purpose,” says Sanchez.

MBA for tech jobs: What to look for in a program

For prospective students looking at MBA programs that can lead to job opportunities in the tech sector, there are a few things to look for in a program that should help improve your chances.

Programs that provide hands-on experience

Ledbetter says that tech experience trumps educational attainment, and as such, suggests that MBA candidates look for a program that provides both. 

For instance, at the University of Washington, Sanchez says students participate in many assignments and exercises designed to mimic situations they’ll encounter at tech firms. For example, students undergo “sprints” during their programs, during which they’ll need to come up with a new product or service within a set amount of time—a common exercise at tech companies.

It’s those types of experiences that could, on the job hunt, give an MBA holder an advantage over a competitor. “That’s been one of the consistent themes that I’ve seen throughout my career: There’s no substitution for direct experience,” says Ledbetter.

Programs that teach creative and critical thinking

The tech industry is constantly evolving and changing, and that requires people to be able to evolve with it. For that reason, tech companies are on the hunt for creative and critical thinkers who can solve problems and engineer new products or work-arounds, Sanchez says.

A premium on those qualities can be different in other industries, such as at a Wall Street firm, where tradition and orthodoxy tend to be standard protocol.

Don’t overlook the network

Perhaps the most important element of all, when looking at an MBA program that could lead to a tech job, is a school’s network. Being able to tap into a network of alumni, professors, and classmates who may have connections to the industry can be as big a boon as any for students.

“One of the things that a lot of people say about MBAs—what you’re really paying for is being able to connect with potential investors, potential employers, customers, mentors, advisers, and board members,” says Ledbetter.

That holds true outside the tech sphere, too. A dense Rolodex is, in many cases, the ticket to a job in any industry.

But in the end, when it comes to tech jobs, Ledbetter says, there’s no real substitute for hands-on experience in the tech world—even if you have an MBA. If you can find a program that provides both the education and can put you through the wringer before graduation, that may be the best way to get employers’ attention.

“An MBA combined with experience is the most potent combination” for job seekers, Ledbetter says.