Zen and The Art of Competing Against MBA’s

“I appreciate your ambition, but we’re looking for an MBA…”

My senior manager smiled and indicated the topic was closed. Despite the fact I was effectively running our direct mail program in the absence of my recently departed boss, the door was closed and locked. I quit two months later.

Within three years, I was promoted to her job at another company. Without an MBA.

None of this was luck. I took the other job because there was an obvious way to make this happen.

The method I’m about to lay out is intended for analysts and engineers. It’s not the only way to pull an end run around the MBA requirement, but it’s a great match with our unique abilities and passions.

Don’t Play Their Game

How do you beat Bobby Fischer, the chess grand master?

Play him in anything but chess.

The admission process for an elite MBA program is biased towards candidates with strong social skills who are coming from Finance and Business backgrounds. They are then groomed through a two year process which polishes their social skills, broadens their perspective, and expands their social network.

MBA’s are the kings and queens of being “broadly” developed and well rounded.

So be what they aren’t: deep.

This isn’t sneering. It is humanly impossible to be truly broad and deep; there’s just not enough time. You either know a little about many things or a lot about a specialty. Pick one and own it.

Hunt for High Value (Technical) Muck

No matter how many PowerPoints are unleashed in the boardroom, the performance of a businesses ultimately dictated by processes and technology. Either the machine works or it doesn’t.

Be alert for messy tasks with a high impact on business performance. Especially ones which require technical skills or advanced training.

These play to your strengths.

Control the Spice, Control The Universe

Everyone wants to do marketing strategy. Marketing Analytics? Meh. Data pulls and list processing? Surely you can outsource that, right? That’s totally beneath the dignity of an MBA.

The funny thing about managing list processing:

  • By directly working with the data, you see things that don’t get shown in a report
  • By directly controlling this process, you can make changes to the data you want

Jumping back to the marketing example I shared, within three months of taking over mailing list processing, our team had access to data that nobody else was looking at. Better yet, we started reading test results in weeks instead of months. But the real value was getting visibility into the details of failed tests: we could salvage insights to improve our future bets.

Speaking as an engineer, working on this project was like being a kid in a candy store. Lots of interesting puzzles to figure out, plenty of things to optimize, and some creative coding challenges. Plus you get to show off some neat things at the end. This was totally inside my comfort zone.

That being said, this makes for good “tech guy of the year” material but we’re still not getting promoted. That takes the next step.

Translate The Win Back Into Business Terms

Go up two levels in the org chart and they probably don’t know what list processing is. They may barely understand analytics. They’re certainly not very interested in R programming.

They do understand getting things done.

So craft a story which translates the technical accomplishment into business terms and impact.

For the direct marketing example, the story looks like this:

  • We were able to figure out who responds to our sales and marketing programs
  • Since we’re selecting the right prospects and offers, our sales are up over 80%
  • Even better, we’re able to test in weeks rather than months, so we learn faster
  • Our client (a large retailer) is happy and wants to double the marketing budget

Boom. Technical result translated into MBA terms. Backed by the full power of knowing what was going on inside the box and using engineering expertise to make it run better.

When the job came open, my “unqualified” application was moved to the head of the line.

Cashing In: Getting Paid What You’re Worth

While I’m a fan of employer loyalty, there’s a key drawback in this method. Step Four addresses this.

Employers price talent based on the kind of problems they’re being hired to solve. Most of us start our career as interchangeable “commodity talent”. Corporate HR departments are good at figuring this out.

The problem with being a commodity is you’re at the mercy of the market when it comes to pricing. If you’re pricing my services as an R developer, there’s a lot of other people quoted rates for similar work. At least in the eyes of an unsophisticated corporate buyer. So salaries are going to cap out at around $X.

Chances are $X is a decent wage. Good analytics developers are in short supply. But you’re going to struggle with the dysfunctional logic of companies wanting to pay top talent the “market average” rate.

Look back at the second step. You just pulled off a significant accomplishment. The value of that win is substantially higher than $X. Companies aren’t completely silly – they won’t pay the full amount. But they’re willing to pay a lot more if your job description is “can deliver specific win” than “writes code”.

My first job description at General Electric was “writes code”. My job description when I went to my next company was basically “implements change programs”. That salary bracket pays about double the first. Once you get above a certain level, you’re generally hired to solve a specific problem. Most of my recent engagements involve pricing and product development: solve this margin issue, grow this product line. The value of the these improvements can be estimated and plays a role in the compensation discussion.

The problem with staying at one company is their HR organization rarely resets their view of your value. They may raise it a percentage but always compare that percentage against the rest of their employees to ensure “progress is fair”. But your market value doesn’t grow 4% per year. You’re hopping between the brackets, delivering a very different level of value – that will be priced at a higher level in the market.

The right time to move is when you can legitimately claim a significantly higher compensation bracket and your existing employer is unwilling to close the gap. It’s worth a discussion however. Be ready to explain how the value you offer has changed by an order of magnitude to justify the increase. A smart employer can offer a big adjustment to “close the gap”.

Distilling the Method

So there’s a four step process here:

  • Look for messy technical problems related to the area you want to play in
  • Solve technical problems using analytics and engineering expertise
  • Repackage and explain the accomplishment in terms of business impact
  • Once you’re established as an expert in the space, reprice your services

Sometimes the value is more than simply money. Improvements in speed, control, and visibility can often be just as valuable to a senior executive trying to drive change. The IT organizations at many big companies are incredibly slow and non-responsive; giving executives a way to get things done without traversing this swamp can earn you admission to some interesting opportunities.

Don’t ignore the value of being able to give knowledgeable advice either. Knowing how to translate the business direction into technical changes is a valued skill in product management. The reverse, being able to translate technical innovation into business change is a vital part of competitive intelligence. Your depth of expertise can set you apart for these roles.

Either way, this gives you options to skip the MBA, focus on what you love, and get the job anyway…

4 comments

  1. Nice article John. I am an MBA with over 10 yrs experience, mostly of business side and over 4yrs of programming one. Personally I think to have learnt a lot, topping my business side experience with programming. I have used R more than Python, but plan to equate the usage soon. What would be your suggestions for MBAs who love to do analytics and programming. Best,

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