Should you get an MBA?

It takes a monumental commitment, both financially and personally, but an MBA could be the fastest ticket to business proficiency.

The CIOs at Procter & Gamble and Microsoft don't have one. Neither does the CIO at Wal-Mart. So, no, technically, you don't need to have a master's degree in business administration to be successful in a top technology position at a world-renowned company.

But realistically, it's an extremely good idea, especially for pure technologists. That goes not just for CIOs, but for project managers, business analysts and virtually any other IT professional aiming to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. One big reason: No one is exclusively a technology chief anymore. Everybody's a business executive, whether they call themselves that or not.

"CIOs are no longer developing technology. Instead, they're finding IT and putting it together in ways that change the top and bottom lines of their companies," says Ralph Szygenda, former global CIO at General Motors, Bell Atlantic and Texas Instruments and now a strategic consultant at iRise, a business applications vendor in El Segundo, Calif.

"In the last 10 years, you could get away with [mainly] technology knowledge because a lot of the things a CIO did were efficiency moves, such as consolidating data centers. It was a great period for the technology CIO," says Szygenda. "But now, everybody has done the efficiencies. Growth is the big thing."

Szygenda himself doesn't have an MBA, yet like virtually all CIOs -- with MBAs and without -- he says enabling your employer's growth requires a comprehensive knowledge of business, particularly finance, which an MBA certainly affords. But going back to school to earn a two-year MBA can cost $55,000 to $60,000 per year. Meanwhile, a generous uptick in salary -- especially if you stay at your current company -- is by no means guaranteed upon graduation.

Fast-tracking

But an MBA isn't the only way to acquire critical business knowledge. One alternative is rotating through various job assignments across business units to gain a first-hand understanding of processes associated with everything from sales and marketing to logistics, manufacturing and supply chain operations. The downside to that approach is that it can take years. Indeed, one measure of an MBA degree's worth, CIOs say, is that it is frequently the fastest way to acquire mandatory business knowledge.

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