Tech startups need/don’t need MBAs? Discuss …

Harvard Business School

Does a Masters in Business Administration make its recipient more or less attractive to tech startups? Or does it have any impact at all?

It’s a serious question.  A day after Harvard Business School’s Cyberposium 18, I remain struck by the concern attendees seemed to feel about what their advanced degree will mean in a tough economy and in a tech business that elevates technical prowess above everything else. After all, college dropouts Paul Allen, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Mark Zuckerberg all built hugely successful tech companies — Microsoft, Dell, Apple, Facebook —  without a degree among them.

One Cyberposium panelist basically told MBA candidates interested in big data opportunities that they need not apply unless they also had technical chops.  I’m simplifying here, but that was the gist.

Dropbox founder Drew Houston — who does hold a bachelor’s degree in computer science from MIT  — was gentler but still not all that encouraging. Asked what he wanted in an MBA he said … um pretty much the same thing he seeks in any hire. “What we look for in any candidate is that they’re smart and passionate and not just chasing money. We look for a cultural fit,” Houston said in a Q&A session. “The guy who runs most of the business side [at Dropbox] has a Harvard MBA but what we look for isn’t that different from what we look for in other areas,” Houston said.

The underlying theme was that business skills and teamwork are valuable and much desired. Attitude and a sense of entitlement are not.

Hunter Walk, director of product management at Google (and a Stanford MBA) must be hearing the same concerns. Yesterday, he shared a great post on the topic: “It’s fine to get an MBA, but don’t be an MBA.”

One of his points:

Getting an MBA means you shoot out of school wanting to prove yourself and see what you can contribute to others. Being an MBA means thinking the world owes you something and that your value 10x’ed just from spending two years on a campus.

Given the economic climate, it’s natural for students to worry about the worth of their degrees. And this topic crops up periodically in the sort of “builder versus spreadsheet guy” debates that get heated. Last year, auto executive Bob Lutz’ book “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business”  stoked the debate anew. Lutz’ argument, according to the Time Magazine review was: “To get the U.S. economy growing again,  we need to fire the MBAs and let engineers run the show.”  Harsh, But I would bet lots of people who watched the decline of US industry in the 70s and 80s under the tutelage of MBA CEOs would agree with that sentiment.

Still, promising business students should take heart. Every tech company needs people with business and financial management expertise.  As one commenter to an earlier Cyberposium story put it:

Harvard Business School was where the concept of the spreadsheet developed. Don’t be dismayed … fellow MBAs. Your day will come… Take the Disruptive Innovation courses, and pick up some Advertising while you’re at it.

And, let’s face it,  there are many times when the best technology in the world won’t win unless it’s accompanied by real business savvy.

I would love the discussion to continue, so please post your thoughts in comments below.

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