My MBA

17Mar18

TL;DR

I started out doing an MBA as it felt like a necessary step in pushing my career forward. The most important part was getting my head around strategy, and by the time that was done the journey had become more important than the destination.

The motivation

I’d not been working at Credit Suisse[1] for long when I saw a memo announcing the Managing Director selection committee. It had little mini bios for each of the committee members – the great and the good of the company, and as I read through them it was MBA, MBA, MBA, PhD in Economics, MBA… If my memory serves me well there were two people who had neither an MBA nor a PhD in Economics (and a couple who had both). I took it as a clear signal for what it took to get along in that environment. Much as I love economics from my time when I took it as a high school option I didn’t have the stomach for 9 years of study to get a (part time) PhD, so an MBA was the obvious choice.

Years later…

I found myself in San Francisco for the first time. I’d reached out to John Merrells, as at the time he was one of the few people I knew in the area. John had double booked himself for the evening we’d planned to get together, so he invited me along to a CTO dinner with the promise of meeting some interesting people. I barely saw John that evening, and instead found myself at a table with Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle and to be Siri creator Tom Gruber. At some stage the conversation turned to how MBAs were destroying corporate America, and there came a point where I mentioned that I’d done an MBA. Brewster rounded on me asking:

Why would a smart guy like you waste your time doing THAT?

The best response I could think of at the time was:

Know your enemy.

Picking a course

A career break to do a full time MBA pretty much never crossed my mind. I’d only just left the Navy, just left the startup that I’d joined after the Navy, and my wife was pregnant. I had to put some miles on the clock in my new IT career, and keep earning. I was however spending three evenings a week away from home in London, and I had 4 longish train rides every week, which presented some good chunks of ‘spare’ time for study.

The Open University course was the first that I looked at, and although I did my due diligence in looking at alternatives it was the clear winner. It was inexpensive, accessible, and (at the time) the only distance learning course with triple accreditation. It was only later that I properly came to appreciate just how forward thinking much of the syllabus was  – pretty much the opposite of the backward looking formulaic drivel that the San Francisco CTOs complained about.

Foundation

My first year was spent on a ‘foundations of senior management’ module that introduced marketing, finance, HR and change management. A key component of the course was to contextualise theory from the reading materials in the everyday practice of the students; so many of my Tutor Marked Assessments (TMAs) were about applying course concepts to the job I was in.

In retrospect I found this course interesting (especially the stuff on marketing) but not particularly challenging, but the hard part came next.

Learning to think strategically is hard

The next module was simply called Strategy, and was the only compulsory module after the foundation. It was also by far the most important part of the course, as doing it (and especially the residential school component of it) literally made me think differently, and it was a tough slog to do that.

We spent a good deal of time looking at stuff from Porter and Mitzberg and Drucker, but the point wasn’t to latch onto a simple tool and beat every problem down with it. The point was to critically evaluate all of the tools at hand, use them in context when they were useful, and see the bigger picture. If only we’d had Wardley maps to add to the repertoire.

One of the things that we spent a lot of time on was the shaping of organisation culture. My preferred definition of culture, ‘the way we do things around here’, comes from that course, and the TMA I’m most proud of from the whole course was ‘Can Mack ‘the knife’ carve CSFB a new culture’ where I looked at the methods, progress and risks involved in John Mack’s attempts to change the organisation I worked for.

Options

The final half of the course was three six month long optional modules. I picked finance, technology management and knowledge management. The first two were frankly lazy choices given that I was a technology manager working in financial services, but I still learned a good deal in both. Knowledge management was more of a stretch, and made me think harder about many things.

Along the way, the journey became more important than the destination

I’d embarked on my MBA for the certificate at the end, but as I completed the course it really didn’t matter – I didn’t bother going to a graduation ceremony.

From a learning perspective the crucial part had been getting half way – completing the strategy module.

From a career perspective just doing the course had pushed my into a new place. I’m forever grateful to Ian Haynes for his support throughout the process. He signed off on CSFB paying the course fees, and allowing me time off for residential schools[3]. More importantly though, he put opportunity in my way. When our investment bankers asked him to join a roadshow with London venture capital (VC) firms his answer was, ‘I’m too busy – take Chris instead’. This wasn’t a simple delegation – I was three layers down the management/title structure. Through the roadshow and various follow ups I got to know the General Partners at most of the top London VCs, our own tech investment banking team, and a large number of startup founders.

The thing that you miss out on by not going to a ‘good school’

Since finishing my MBA I’ve got to spend time at some of the world’s top business schools – LBS, Judge, Said, Dartmouth, and got to meet the people who studied there and talk about their experiences. Without fail they talk about ‘the network’ – the people they met on the course and the alumni who continue to support each other. The cost in time and treasure is largely about joining an exclusive club. Of course the Open University has its own network and alumni, but it’s not the same.

That said – the opportunity cost of going to a top school (especially if it’s full time) is not to be underestimated. Perhaps it’s a shame that people generally only get to learn about discounted cash flow analysis once they’re on the course.

Looking back, the one thing I’d change would be starting earlier. I had time on my hands whilst at sea in the Navy that could have been spent on study that was instead frittered away on NetHack ascensions.

Did ‘know your enemy’ help?

Absolutely yes.

I’ve spent pretty much the whole of my career as the ‘techie’, often treated with scorn by ‘the business’ – whether that’s Executive Branch officers in the Navy, or traders and bankers in financial services etc. The MBA gave me the tools and knowledge to not be bamboozled in conversations about strategy or finance or marketing or change; and that’s been incredibly helpful.

Why am I writing about this now?

I didn’t start blogging until a few years after I’d completed my MBA, so it’s not something that I’ve written about in the past (other than the occasional comment on other people’s posts). My post on Being an Engineer and a Leader made me think about how I’ve developed myself more broadly, and the MBA journey was a crucial part of that.

Conclusion

If you want to level up your career then a part time MBA is a great way to equip yourself with a broad set of tools useful to a wide variety of business contexts. Even if you don’t ultimately choose to change track or break through a ceiling, the knowledge gained can lead to a more interesting, well rounded and fulfilling career.

Notes

[1] Then Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB).
[2] To misquote Scooby Doo – he would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those damn Swiss. Most strong cultures in company case studies come from founders (HP, Apple etc.) but Mack had nearly pulled off a culture change at CSFB when the board pulled the plug on him for suggesting a merger with Deutsche Bank. He’d even figured out a way to deal with the high roller ‘cowboys’ I fretted would take off once the good times returned to banking with the creation of the Alternative Assets Group (essentially a hedge fund within the bank where the ‘cowboys’ would get to play rodeo without disrupting the rest of the organisation).
[3] I think the bank got a good deal – for the same cost in money and time as sending me on a week long IT course each year they got a lot more effort and learning.



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