MBA-Hacking

"I've always found it odd that people go to business school and study entrepreneurialism. If you want to study entrepreneurialism, you need to go be an entrepreneur." - Apu Gupta, Curalate founder and CEO

Off the bat, let me say that I am writing this post from my own perspective, which is that of a startup-company co-founder and entrepreneur. I have no interest in corporate america, or the merits of the MBA in such an environment (although from what I have seen, much of the same perspective now applies).

In recent years, I have been fascinated by the widely-accepted notion of "the more degrees you have, the more successful you'll be". When faced with starting my own company, I had to consider the merits of this opinion myself. I was (and still am), an engineer by education. I never had formalized business training, and would frequently find myself frantically Google-searching business terminology just to get-by. I hadn't much of a clue if I was even doing things right.

When I was considering leaving my job at NASA, I thought about an MBA. Surely, I thought, the classes would cover all the bases, and I'd build my resume. The more I thought about this, spent time as an entrepreneur, talked to other successful entrepreneurs, and read articles, the more I realized that there is simply no way formalized education would help to further my personal career goals. Let me explain...

I recently read an article featuring Entrepreneur Jay Bhatti, who co-founded Spock.com and also worked as a product manager for Microsoft. (He holds an MBA from the Wharton school):

"The MBA program is designed to teach people to look at prior data and patterns in order to identify future outcomes. In the real world, this just does not work when it comes to new markets or innovation. While there have been recent MBA startup successes like BirchBox (Harvard) and Warby Parker (Wharton), the founders of these companies were already high-achieving individuals who got into top programs and probably could have succeeded without their MBAs".

The conclusion? If you're already a highly motivated individual with a willingness (and need) to learn,  who's to say you can't define your own path to business education?

What is an "Applied MBA"?

Good question, I'm glad you asked. Simply put, it's real-world experience. There are no:

  • Classes
  • Homework
  • Tests
  • Pop quizzes
  • Class Projects

It is:

  • Rewarding: your work-product actual means something and impacts other people/organizations, it's not just a grade on a transcript
  • Financially beneficial: earning-while-learning!
  • Qualifying: you're gaining years of experience under your belt, which research suggests is what employers care about these days
  • Challenging: the job comes with significantly more pressure, complexity, and responsibility. So if you're in to that...
  • Diverse: you're pulled-away from your peers (i.e. "competition") and pushed  into an environment where you are surrounded by people with more experience than you (P.S. this is my favorite aspect of my new job)

"Successful people have certain characteristics that make them successful—and an MBA is not one of them". - Jay Bhatti

So let's get down to the specifics: what exactly do you learn in this type of job? If you look at the list below, you'll see:

  • Resource allocation & cash flow
    • Who works on what project for what % of their time
    • How does the above impact when we get paid by the customer?
  • Annual Planning
    • How do you plan to meet a profit target for a particular year?
    • What variables to do you track to measure progress?
    • What tools do you use to track these variable?
    • Who needs to know this information & how is it communicated to management?
  • Contract Management
    • How to initiate a conversation with a prospect
    • Deal-flow
    • Contract composition and modification
    • Budgetary estimates & how to work with engineers to get good estimates
    • Negotiating & closing deals
    • Management payment terms & conditions
  • Project Management
    • Using tools to record & track time on tasks
    • When & how to implement agile/SCRUM methodologies
    • Tracking progress on tasks (managing burndown)
    • Establishing communication methods with customers (weekly status reports, meetings, etc)
    • Resource-leveling
    • Projecting invoices and inputting information into cash flow projections
  • Relationship Management
    • Hiring/Interviewing
    • Working with outside contractors
    • Working with sub-contractors
    • Managing geographical distance & effective communication
    • Holding one-on-one meetings with engineers to identify issues/threats and plan for the next week's work
    • Budgeting for lab needs, software, and training classes
    • Establishing "best practices" for how we operate as an organization
    • Working with engineers to pick a standard tool-set for everybody to comply with
    • Establishing & managing employee-focused performance reviews

So how does one get an "applied MBA"?

So you say to me, "ok Courtney, this all sounds great, but how do you find/get a job like this? I'm not qualified to be a manger!". Qualified-schmalified. The fact is, we live in a pretty progressive time when it comes to hiring.  Nonetheless, for somebody to entrust you to a management role with no prior "formal" experience, you're going to need something to "qualify" yourself by. Here are a few tips I recommend:

1) Be credible. Go work for the "man" for a few years, and do it as soon as you graduate. Establish some credibility by first holding a regular job at a reputable organization. Do good work at that job and make sure you'll be missed. This shows you're a reliable, good worker and a professional. Things get awkward when you have explain why you didn't get a job in your field after you graduated, so it's best to get that out of the way. Also, some experience is always better than none.

2) Be famous (just a little). Do the extra-ordinary in your field to get noticed (video tutorials, publications, startups, patents, professional organizations, etc). Do it early, and do it a lot. Case and point, my new boss loves to "brag" about his younger talent to customers - in a way, he is qualifying his younger team by showing what they've accomplished.

3) Be patient. This ties to #1, and is particularly difficult for us "Millenials". Sometimes the perfect opportunity doesn't come around right away. Wait for the right one and analyze your situation. I didn't just up and quit NASA - I planned my exit, and executed at the right time. Being too trigger-happy can ruin your career if done poorly or ill-timed. Don't make enemies or burn bridges: in all cases exercise humility and thankfulness with your previous employer (references are still a thing).

4). Plan for the future. Try to think of where you want to be with your career in 5, 10 years, and consider your day-to-day life. A huge consideration for me was quality-of-life: I only work 5 hours a day, and for me, my time is extremely valuable. Think of what matters in your life now and what will matter in the future - make sure your actions lead to where you want to be.