MBA Questions and Reflections

A lot of people ask me questions about my MBA. I’ll try to catalog the questions and answers here. I will update this over time if I can.

Why did you do this?

I’ve been thinking about getting an MBA for about 15+ years. I have often felt like I have a language barrier with business-oriented stakeholders. We want to solve the same thing. We are trying to solve the same thing. We are talking about the same thing. But we still don’t see eye to eye. It felt like I was speaking English and they were speaking French; languages that are technically related but not understandable by each other. And this tension kept happening, over and over, even as I got higher up the ladder.

In the last 5 years, I also felt like I was hit a career ceiling. The inability to cross this language barrier was also present when I applied for higher-level jobs, I always seemed to come up short somehow. I was having a real problem getting over the fact that I had only managed small teams, despite the fact that I had managed those teams to excellent performance.

When I explored MBA programs, I was frustrated by the commitment in time and money. For instance, pursuing a full-time MBA at our local UCSD would run over $100,000 for two years. The part-time option for professionals is closer to $120,000. BU developed their all-online program at a total two-year cost of $24,000. That’s a lot of money, but stretched out over two years, it could become manageable.

Besides the curriculum, what did you get out of it?

I got a few different benefits from the program.

Intellectual stimulation: In the first few weeks, I told my wife that I could feel parts of my brain physically turning on that had been dormant for years.

Intellectual challenges: It’s very good for your brain to be challenged with learning new things. In other words, it’s good to be doing something you’re bad at with the intention of getting better. Data analysis, learning Excel, role play in new management situations, risk identification and assessment, and all forms of strategy were incredibly challenging.

It made me a more rigorous thinker: It changed how I think about design and business. I went into the program thinking I had a decent handle on things and thought the program would give me a boost. I was eventually humbled learned that I didn’t actually have a decent handle on things (ha!!) and the learning curve got steeper but the lessons were that much more rewarding. One of the semesters is focused on understanding and addressing risk. That class gave me a mental framework that I have shaped to address the design process as a risk management strategy. That, more than anything else REALLY resonated in job interviews and in conversations with my clients over the last year. Business stakeholders that I’ve worked this year (COO, CPO, VPs, PMs) just want to be successful in turbulent times. When I framed design research, prototyping, and iteration as one tool in a broader toolbox of improving the odds of success while reducing the odds of failure, they got it. I spent the last 5 months helping a team develop a strategy for launching a new division–something I don’t think I would have EVER been able to do pre-MBA. But hey, you don’t have to take my word for it!

It feels good: Growing fluent in topics that were once challenging and intimidating feels amazing.

It seemed to help significantly with the job hunt: My job pursuit over 2022 was very challenging, but I can comfortably say that the ability to speak to business issues in design terms helped move me from screening call to interview. So far, I seem to get the added benefit of signaling to others that I’m not just making it up when I talk about business challenges, so that’s nice.

What are you going to do with your MBA?

This is probably the most common question and it is the perfect artifact of the bullshit way we look at education in our society.

Look, a degree is not a wrench that you can use to turn a bolt. It’s not a weapon that you point at an adversary. You don’t get a degree and then ‘do something with it.’

It’s an artifact of your own past learning journey. The only thing you can do with any degree is apply yourself into the future in a new, better way.

What I’m going to do is this: do more of what I already do and do it better.

What program was it? How did it work?

Program Name: Boston University Questrom School of Business Online MBA (OMBA)

Tuition: Total program, $24,000, made in payments of $4,000 upon registration each semester, about every 4 months. Lots of students were having their tuition covered by their employers. I paid out of pocket. The cost of tuition is a tax deduction for the self-employed.

Does the program require a GMAT?: The program does not require a GMAT. Their site says it helps with your application, so I studied for it. I did Manhattan Prep and took the test in the first weird couple weeks of the pandemic when we didn’t really know what was going on. I did terribly and ended up applying without my GMAT scores.

What are other students like?: a lot of other students were also 10-15+ years of experience and trying to break through to the next level of their careers, this was a common theme. Lots of parents. Lots of managers. I think the stereotypical MBA student–the hard-charging slicky boy–was the minority of students in this program.

What Software does the program use? The program uses Blackboard for course materials, Gsuite, Zoom. For the semester on data analysis you will have to specifically use Excel. There are one-off programs for things like

Were there other Materials: You will have to buy course packs from time to time containing articles and readings, usually ~$100 or less. Some people signed up for MBA Math in advance of starting the program, which is a really good way to dust off your math cobwebs.

How big is the class? You are part of a cohort of ~400-500 people who are entering the program at the same time. There is a new cohort every semester.

Do you do group work? Your cohort of 400-500 students is split into groups of 4-6 people. You will meet with this group weekly and do group projects together.

Weekly schedule: Each week you will have

  • course materials that usually consists of of readings, videos, and quizzes
  • a live session with the professor in Boston
  • team meeting to discuss work or collaborate on group assignments (team meeting schedule is up to the team)

Live sessions are conducted once a week via zoom, with the professor in Boston and students logging in from around the world. There is one session in the morning (8am ET) and one session in the evening (8pm ET). The session material is the same in each am/pm session.

Was anyone else in UX? There was one other product designer that I talked to. She’s great.

Curriculum: Other programs are structured more traditionally; a semester of accounting, a semester of finance, etc. BU’s OMBA is broken into 6 total semester-long modules. Each module covers different topics on a theme. For instance, you have a semester on understanding risk and you learn a framework for identifying, assessing and managing risk, which you then apply in different practical areas; inventory and supply chain management, legal risks, product failures, financial risks, etc. Most semesters have a final capstone project that you work on as a group.

Stats on my end: I’ll just acknowledge some demographic privilege here… a cis/het/married/White guy living in coastal US. I have over 20 years experience in the design field, about 15+ of that spent specifically in UX. I have managed designers and design processes with non-designers since 2011. I have worked independently as a consultant and on internal companies.

How is it similar or different from an Executive MBA?

The best way to answer this starts with considering in-person MBA programs… My understanding is that an Executive MBA has two factors distinguishing it from a ‘regular’ MBA;

  1. a schedule of classes that allows for evening and weekend participation
  2. a more generous reliance on electives that allows for some level of specialization that builds on your career experience and aspirations

This comparison of Wharton programs is a good explainer.

For Boston University, the Full-Time MBA would be the ‘regular’ program in-person program, while the Professional Evening MBA would fit that description of the Executive example. They even have bundles of electives for specialization in key areas of study, Health, Social Impact, and Corporate Analytics.

Now, add the online aspect to the conversation. The OMBA program is a nights-and-weekends schedule of an executive program, but it does not have the electives and specialization in its curriculum. Everyone takes the same courses.

Where did this program fall short?

There’s a lot to be said about the value of an MBA. Considering in-person programs, it is often said that you build much deeper bonds and friendships with your cohort. Your professional network becomes shaped by your MBA experience.

In this program, that was not truly the case, at least for me. Meeting people only online is limiting in its emotional potential to build strong bonds. The age of the students in this program and their position in their careers brings with it the implication that your professional network is already in place. The university does not put much energy into strengthening the OMBA community as a professional network.

This is the biggest area where the program falls short, but it represents an opportunity for any student who is even barely capable of networking. Build out your professional network within your cohort on your own terms.

Another issue is that the program only barely touched on material that is specific to the internet age. On the one hand, you get well-grounded in business fundamentals that are still relevant today. On the other hand the case studies for learning those fundamentals are often from the pre-internet age. There was some material specific to online platforms, primarily from Professor Marshall Van Alstyne, that I found fascinating, to the point that I think the program would be enhanced greatly with a semester on just that topic. On the other other hand… many people in the program (and much of our economy) is not built online. We had people in industries like utilities, live performances, petrochemical industry, agriculture… in all cases technology and industrial digitization is a factor and was thoroughly discussed, which was great. But, as someone who spent their whole career in tech startups, I gained the knowledge into business fundamentals, but sometimes felt like contextualizing that work around internet-specific business would be more helpful.