Do You Need an MBA?: Experience Matters

By Kevin Fogarty  |  Posted 2008-05-21 Print this article Print

Skip the MBA and focus on the IT, say CIOs.

There is simply no way to avoid the need to be both business person and technologist at any level of IT management, according to Paul Strassman, an IT productivity expert and former senior IT executive at Xerox, Kraft and NASA 

"CIOs need to be extremely sophisticated at systems engineering as well as business operations in order to do the job required of them," Strassman says.

Going through an MBA program may give a budding CIO some background in business principles, but it's the years of experience putting that training to work that makes a good business person, just as years of technology work makes a good IT manager, and ultimately a good CIO, Strassman says.

"Telling a CIO to be a business person is like telling an engineer to be a politician," Strassman says. "An engineer could learn to be a politician, but it won't help them build bridges. To understand options in terms of location, size, traffic flow, materials, geology as well as the politics of the situation and the aesthetics, you need to be engineer enough to make those decisions."

It's not that CIOs don't understand how the business side works, according to former Long's Drug CIO Brian Kilcourse. If the're paying attention, working for a business or in an industry for much of a career will infuse into a smart IT person the knowledge and instincts appropriate to that business, Kilcourse says.

It does not do the same for business people wondering about IT, however, he says.

"My boss [the CEO] once stood in my door and said 'before we open a new store, before we even put the first shovel in the ground, we know what weekend the store will open and what the promotions will be and everything else; why can't you tell me when this project will get done?'," Kilcourse says. "I didn't know what to say. So I just looked at him and said 'What we do [in IT] is really, really hard.' He just glared at me and walked out."

Kilcourse and the CEO continued to work well together, but the CEO never quite understood how complex the IT was that made it possible to open and manage dozens of new stores a year.

"The systems are really fragile and making them work right is really hard," Kilcourse says. "For a CIO, service levels have to be the first thing you think about in the morning and the last thing you think about at night. That's how you make it work."


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