The top techno-MBA programs

With a few promotions and a lot of technical expertise, 37-year-old Peter Webb gained exposure to new areas of The MathWorks Inc.'s scientific computing business.
See chart listing the top 25 programs

But Webb, a principal technical specialist at the Natick, Mass.-based company, also found that his bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science didn't provide enough insights into other parts of the corporate big picture, such as marketing and finance, to take him where he wanted to go.

"My role had expanded to the point where I was at a disadvantage, and my technology background was not sufficient to perform at the level that I would like to perform," says Webb. "I would get into discussions with the marketing people, and they speak in this cryptic jargon that I couldn't understand."

To rectify that situation, Webb enrolled last year in the High Technology MBA program at Boston-based Northeastern University. He expects to be fluent in the jargon and concepts of business management by next spring.

But contrast his approach to that of many IT professionals just two years ago, when students were abandoning MBA programs in droves during the innovation-driven dot-com bubble. The big debate for many then was whether a technologist with smarts should try to break his way into the executive suite through the force of sheer intelligence and bravado, or take a two-year hiatus and pursue an MBA.

That debate ended abruptly when the bubble burst. With the demise of the dot-com era, MBA programs, particularly those that offer a strong concentration in technology, are more popular than ever.

The question now becomes: Which schools do the best job of combining good management techniques and technology innovation under the general heading of sound business practices?

There are as many types of techno-MBA programs as there are three-letter acronyms in the technology industry.

Each school takes a slightly different approach, but the overriding theme is of shifting the focus away from technology products and systems and placing the emphasis squarely on the business's bottom line.

"Folks with an MBA from a top business school weren't affected by the dot-com hiccup; they knew how to do a business plan," claims Richard Honack, assistant dean of external relations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "You have to teach that technology is a tool, and not the end-all."

Business Fundamentals

Some programs, such as the one at Evanston, Ill.-based Kellogg, which is routinely ranked as a top business school, take a finance, accounting and operations-oriented approach to training business managers. Kellogg's two-year program offers a major in technology and e-commerce, requires a summer internship and includes courses that delve into Internet business models, research-and-development management, business intelligence and customer relationship management technologies.

But those technology classes follow two quarters' worth of pure business coursework. The Kellogg program starts with a core curriculum that includes a bevy of decision-making and analysis, statistics, finance, microeconomics and operations classes.

"If technology goes down, you still have to operate your business. It's always hard to get past the bells and whistles, but does everybody have to have them?" asks Honack, who adds that Kellogg trains executives, not technicians. "They learn the general management of technology and how it weaves its way throughout a company."

Northeastern's High Technology MBA program eschews the traditional full-time student experience. Its students are full-time professionals who must obtain the support of their employers to enroll.

"The program is designed for people engaged in, immersed in and managing in the high-tech industry. So the students must have support from their companies to be in the program," says Ira Weiss, dean of the college of business administration at Northeastern. "We are a co-op program and leverage real-world experiences back into the classroom."

As a result, students at Northeastern's techno-MBA program are typically about 31 years old. Students at traditional programs, such as Kellogg, are usually between the ages of 27 and 28 and have less work experience.

Living on a student's budget for two years isn't an option for everyone, so Northeastern designed its program around the needs of working professionals.

Webb, for example, has worked at MathWorks for the past seven years and holds both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in computer science. He wanted to shore up his business acumen by earning an MBA, but with a wife, a child and a mortgage, giving up his salary while taking two years off to attend graduate school wasn't feasible.

As a second-year student at Northeastern, Webb maintains a full-time work schedule at MathWorks while taking graduate courses on alternating Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings. MathWorks pays $5,000 of the $26,000 annual tuition.

Webb says that while he has no plans to look for a higher-paying job elsewhere after completing the program in May, he believes the coursework is already paying off.

"No matter what discipline you're in as part of [an MBA program], you learn to speak the language of business," Webb says. "I had already mastered the technical part. Now with the MBA skills, I can take what I know and apply it to the market and figure out how to get technology ideas out of the lab and onto the street."

But technology-driven MBA programs aren't just for technologists looking to move into management. Many students hope to jump-start an IT career by entering corporate ranks from the management level.

Take Eric Dulin, for example. A consultant with IBM's $33 billion Global Services division, Dulin, 33, graduated from Purdue University's Krannert School of Management last May.

He is a former captain in the U.S. Army who holds a bachelor's degree in management from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and he wanted to go into IT consulting when he retired from the military in August 1999. Dulin says he felt that career choice would utilize the operations skills he acquired during his six years in the Army.

"It was a fresh start for me," Dulin says. "Krannert gave me the opportunity to be in a technology-focused program and the opportunity to take MIS classes to supplement what I was learning. [The program] reflects reality, because work in technology is aimed at improving the business as a whole."

One of Krannert's goals is to ensure that techno-MBA students don't just jump into the deep end of business without a technology-infused lifeline, says Chuck Johnson, director of the professional master's program at West Lafayette, Ind.-based Purdue.

"Many of our folks want to learn new things and apply new skills. But at the same time, our folks don't want to break away completely from the technology," Johnson says. "Instead, they're asking, 'How do I leverage technology in the next level of my career?' "

Krannert sponsors a technology transfer initiative that pairs its techno-MBA students with doctoral students in technology, science and engineering. The initiative helps business students evaluate the commercial viability and marketability of new technologies, Johnson says.

Accordingly, most MBA programs that offer a technology concentration, major or track don't cover the same ground as graduate programs that focus on technology. Instead, these programs stress achieving business goals that involve technology, so the emphasis is on analytical skills, business operations and financial imperatives.

"We focus on not the technical skills, but on the strategic savvy to use technology in a way that provides an advantage to the organization," says Robert S. Sullivan, dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill.

At UNC's program, 35% of students enter the program with an engineering or technical degree, Sullivan says.

Michael Holmes, 30, is one such student. With a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Rochester in New York, Holmes says he was putting his technical, problem-solving and analytical skills to work as a sales engineer earning $150,000 per year. He says he decided to enter Kenan-Flagler last year to polish those skills and gain more exposure to core business and finance concepts.

Obtaining hands-on real-world experience during the course of the graduate program is another important component of most MBA programs.

Real-World Problems

Many schools work with companies to give their students access to new technologies and new business problems that could be solved with technology.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, offers an applied business seminar that requires students to create business plans and real-world projects.

Purdue's Krannert incorporates hands-on experience by inviting companies to work with students on real projects and by partnering with technology vendors such as SAP AG and Hewlett-Packard Co. The partnership helps students gain additional insights about key applications and technologies that they might have to manage later in their careers.

"We want the students to get a solid grounding in all aspects of management and the tools to drive strategic thoughts to manage a business," says Johnson. "They get the opportunity to get their hands dirty and apply their technical knowledge with newfound strategic knowledge."

For example, New York-based Philip Morris Cos. focused a project on competitive market analysis and an analysis of whether developing an online consumer goods marketplace made good business sense, Dunlin says. The students and Philip Morris staffers concluded that the combination of high logistics costs and low profit margins on commodity goods would make it difficult to turn a profit on the online venture.

"There's no room in an MBA program for assuming something works and that everyone loves it," Dulin says.

That ability to distinguish between what's technologically possible and what's feasible in terms of the marketability, financing and profitability of technology-driven business initiatives is at the heart of all the curriculums in all of Computerworld's Top 25 MBA programs.


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