A Seat at the Tech Table

MBAs help prepare graduates for success at technology companies.
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Susan Brown, Director of Executive, Professional and Online MBA Programs for UGA’s Terry College of Business, left, and Patricia Zettek, Director of Full-Time MBA and MBSA Career Management Center at Terry College of Business, on the university’s Athens campus Photo by Ryan Johnson

For years, firms in the technology sector scooped up MBA graduates like happy kids playing in the sand at the beach. Big-name companies like Amazon, Deloitte, Microsoft and Facebook [AKA Meta] heavily recruited MBAs fresh out of business school, typically offering hefty signing bonuses and six-figure salaries. One report in Clear Admit, an independent online newsletter and resource for MBA candidates, described 2021 as a “peak year for MBA job acceptance in the tech industry,” rather than consulting and finance.

However, those heady days could be a thing of the past.

“We’re not seeing the hiring of 400 MBAs at a time,” says David Deiters, associate dean of MBA programs at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business and executive director of the Jones MBA Career Center. “All the big names shut that type of hiring down last fall. While we hope that type of hiring bounces back, hope is not a strategy.”

Since the start of 2022, more than 281,000 layoffs occurred at tech companies globally, most in the latter half of the year and continuing into 2023. However, many tech industry insiders believe the reductions represent a course correction from previous hiring sprees. And it doesn’t mean MBA students in Georgia won’t receive offers from technology companies.

For example, Georgia Tech’s MBA program has proven remarkably adept at filling the need for MBA graduates in the tech space. In May 2022, the Scheller MBA program reached a 100% employment rate for its MBA class, with 20% of graduates landing jobs in the tech sector, though the highest percentage of graduates, 36%, went into consulting.

Deiters says students have plenty of questions about the current economic climate, the job market and what their response ought to be. His advice to first-year MBA students looking for internships is to remain flexible and resilient.

“Our message to our students is one of patience,” he says. “There may not be the opportunity in the tech sector right now, but let’s go look for something with as many of the components that you need to have that will be relevant when the sector does bounce back, and do that now.”

Solutions Driven

Tech firms love providing solutions and that’s the whole focus of an MBA. In the tech sphere, the MBA is the person who has familiarity with the underlying technology and the capability to put that understanding to use in other essential ways.

Tech firms are “looking for exceptional communication and interpersonal skills,” says Patricia Zettek, Ph.D., director of the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business Full-Time MBA and Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) Career Management Center. “[They want] someone with emotional intelligence or the ability to influence as they’re asking questions – and to do a really guided inquiry into the ways in which the data they’re collecting are going to be important in the decision that’s going to be made.”

Zettek likes to describe MBAs as internal consultants, capable of viewing the big picture, making recommendations and getting people on board, whether that’s in a technology firm or any other type of company.

“I think MBAs look for places where they can leverage some change or make a difference,” she says. “That’s kind of the way they’re wired. They’re usually hungry and ready to bring everything they have to the role.”

Taking a Different Pathway

Noah Barnes was not a typical tech company MBA hire. As an undergraduate at UGA he thought he’d attend medical school. But despite having the grades, Barnes didn’t feel ready. Instead, he qualified for the Terry College of Business Pathway MBA, a one-year program offered to undergraduates majoring in eligible STEM fields.

“It is not the deep dive that a full-time MBA would get into strategy or real estate or finance, the topics that are deeply explored in a traditional MBA,” Zettek says. “But it does provide a really nice launchpad.”

“I thought doing the Pathway would provide the opportunity to give me a gap year while learning something completely different,” Barnes says. “As time went on, I felt dread when I thought of med school and a sense of freedom about going into corporate America. I realized how much I enjoyed business and how fulfilled and happy I could be.”

He clicked with Susan Brown, then a part-time instructor in the MBA program who was also executive director of operations at Cox Communications. Brown is now the director of Executive, Professional and Online MBA programs for the Terry College of Business.

“She was awesome,” Barnes says. “She said, ‘You keep saying you want to go to med school, but I think you could be very happy at Cox.’”

Turns out, Brown was right. Barnes was hired by Cox Communications right after he graduated in June 2021. He worked in several positions at Cox Communications and earlier this year became an analyst in the assurance and advisory services division of Cox Enterprises. Currently, he’s working on a software implementation project, tracking the performance of a user interface. He’s also assessing key performance indicators across different centers of excellence within the company. Most of his work focuses on internal functions and operations.

As Zettek predicted, the Pathway MBA accelerated Barnes’ career trajectory with more than academics and learning how to read and interpret spreadsheets, financial statements or understanding how marketing really works.

“The other half is learning the landscape, lingo and making the right connections and meeting the right people so you learn what’s possible,” he says. “Then when you get there, you’re a step ahead. Things that seemed small can give you the extra [needed] to break through and succeed and get to the next level more quickly.”

Enhanced Degrees

Emmanuel Mirali works as a stock plan manager at the investment bank Morgan Stanley. He is earning an MBA with a certificate in cybersecurity from the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia (UNG).

“I chose the cybersecurity field because it’s a good combination, especially now,” says Mirali. “Adding the certificate boosts the opportunity in my career.”

The three technology certificate specializations at UNG – cybersecurity, entrepreneurship and innovation, and technology leadership – are offered in the summer. MBA students pursuing a certificate can choose them as electives, then integrate the final class requirement into their MBA program. Mirali described the cybersecurity course as “practical.”

“The classes were broken down so you could understand [the subject] easily,” he says. “And I understand it even more now that I realize the impact it has on my daily life and the way hackers work.”

“Through our certificates, we’re uniquely positioned to give students that specialization in cybersecurity, entrepreneurship innovation or in technology leadership, but even within our program, students take classes on information systems, supply chain and logistics and some of the tech-related topics that companies are looking for,” says Wendy Walker, Ph.D., associate dean for faculty and graduate programs. “It’s important for people in leadership positions in technology to understand all sides, the technology, the human side and the business side. I think that’s what’s so great about this combination of the MBA and the specializations we have. They really get exposed to all three.”

Certificates are a popular way for programs to respond to the needs of students – creating innovative ways for them to achieve their goals – while remaining attentive to an industry that moves as quickly as tech.

“We created graduate certificates in artificial intelligence (AI), disruptive innovation and entrepreneurship, and fintech innovation and probably talked to three dozen firms before putting together a straw model,” says Brian Jennings, senior associate dean of graduate programs and executive education at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business. “Every single conversation advanced our thinking.”

He says the certificates are standalone but all stackable, which means some students will take these classes and that’s all they’ll do. But they’ll have a transcript credential from Georgia State. “Or they may say, ‘I have 12 credit hours in AI from GSU. I want to take those 12 hours and apply to the MBA program because now I have 12 hours under my belt.’”

Stackability is important because getting an MBA can be onerous, especially if the student is working. “Stackability deconstructs the degree to get the credit hours, builds knowledge and says, ‘I can do this,’” Jennings explains. “Because these are some of the hottest topics in business today, these are the most popular electives in our MBA program. A lot of students are coming to our MBA program because they have the opportunity to take these certificate classes while they’re in the program.”

What a Company Wants

The Robinson Flexible MBA is part-time but it boasts an impressively large, diverse program. Its 629 students hail from disparate backgrounds. More than 60% are women, 50% are underrepresented minorities and international students come from 43 different countries, according to Jennings. And the places its MBAs end up after graduation are equally varied.

“Technology is our No. 1 industry, but not far behind is financial services, healthcare, logistics, supply chain, operations and government,” Jennings says. “If you hold up the mirror to Atlanta, the student population of Robinson looks a lot like that in terms of background, where they go and the jobs [they take].”

New MBA hires are asked to check off more boxes than ever. Companies want leaders who know their subject matter but also know how to lead a workforce that is more diverse. They are looking for candidates who seek out unique experiences or training.

Camrynn Ebanks earned an MBA at the University of West Georgia with a concentration in business intelligence and cybersecurity. Now an associate consulting data analyst for Infosys Limited, Ebanks says it was her MBA study abroad at SAP headquarters in Germany that provided the pivotal moment in this phase of her career. A global enterprise application software company, SAP creates software solutions for clients across divisions.

Ebanks took her study abroad trip in May 2022, but the preparation began months before with the use of virtual reality (VR).

“We were paired up with students from Georgia College [in Milledgeville] and students from the University of Münster, Germany,” she says. “Each member of the team received a VR headset which we used for two or three months during our pre-trip meetings. It helped us get over any awkwardness with each other and made the transition so much easier. When we arrived, we jumped right into our projects working on a project for Dr. Oetker, a baking products manufacturer. We were tasked with the project of setting up a system that would allow Dr. Oetker to express the true financial value of the HR department. The whole experience was eye-opening.”

Likewise, University of North Georgia’s Mirali, coming from France with undergraduate and master’s degrees already in hand, had a similar goal.

“I think it’s not enough to have a degree from another country when you’re trying to integrate in the work culture or society of a new country,” he says. “Going to the college helped me to understand the American culture, to help me think the way they think and
integrate more capably. Getting this MBA was not only for professional or academic reasons, but for cultural reasons.”

“When a student graduates from a highly diverse MBA program, it not only speaks to their business and technical skills, but to their cultural competency skills and their ability to navigate unique environments and lead inclusively,” says Marisa Tatum, global diversity, equity and inclusion manager at Teradata, a global software company providing cloud database and analytics services. “In a global business landscape that is rapidly changing by the minute, these skills are vital.”

Understanding the Impact

UGA’s Brown says getting her MBA changed the trajectory of her career and her life.

“I pivoted at Cox from the tech side to the business side at one point and was clueless,” she says. “That’s the struggle. You move over and don’t speak the same language. We talk about this a lot in the IT Strategy class. It’s like people speaking two different languages. The MBA doesn’t solve that, but it gives you the ability to understand. If you’re an IT executive with an MBA, you can now understand how all the different pieces of business – including IT – fit together, at the strategy, operating and execution levels.”

And as much as she loved leading an operations team at Cox, after teaching part-time in the Professional MBA program, Brown was offered the chance to run the Executive MBA (EMBA) program, an opportunity she seized.

“It would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and not come back around,” she says. “I think having gone through the program as a student, having taught in all three programs – I did the program as a working professional – I understand all three sides.”

She made program adjustments. The international residency was shortened and beefed up academically.

“Every time we travel internationally, we do a project or two for a company in that country,” Brown says. “We’ve added a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt certification for our EMBA and a ‘leading change’ [leadership] certification for EMBAs that didn’t exist before.”

Changes are made without lengthening the program, something working professionals insist on, typically by inserting classes a couple of days a week during lunch via Zoom or with a two-day weekend workshop. Ultimately, MBAs are looking for the same results as the tech companies that want to hire them.

“You really come out with an MBA as a big generalist,” says Brown. “You’re not deep in any specific piece but broad across all of it, and you understand the cross-functional impact so you can navigate the conversations. That’s the value of an MBA when you’re sitting there as a technologist. You’re at a table with businesspeople, and you know enough to fit into that table that you didn’t get to sit at before. You know the questions to ask.”

Categories: Education, Up Front