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An MBA Totally Matters in Tech

on Dec 22, 15 • by • with No Comments

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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave the world something to Tweet about earlier this week when she said in a Quora interview that an MBA isn’t important in the tech industry.

Specifically, Sandberg – who is a Harvard Business School graduate – wrote:

“… MBAs are not necessary at Facebook and I don’t believe they are important for working in the tech industry.”

Well, I never!

As an MBA and Facebook alumnus who had a great career in tech,* I’m not going to just sit here and let her defame the beloved degree that keeps my self-esteem warm at night.

So, I hereby go on record as taking great exception to her words for three important reasons:

  1. I have a book coming out next year titled You Should Totally Get an MBA: A Comedian’s Guide to Top Tier Business Schools,
  2. Contrived outrage is good for publicity (just ask those brats at Yale). And, most importantly…
  3. If she’s right, then my entire professional self-concept is a wretched, hollow fantasy.

To get clear on the message here, let’s look closely at Sandberg’s words:

“I don’t believe MBA <degrees> are important for working in the tech industry”

I guess I can understand an HBS alum saying something like this. But what if she had attended a really good program, like Dartmouth’s Tuck School? Perhaps she would consider the degree more than just résumé frippery for bankers, trust fund d-bags, and the next Jeffrey Skilling.

Truth is the tech industry needs business schools – especially HBS. Where else would it get business development people? From Peter Thiel’s kinder-preneurship camps? I don’t think so. One needs more than pleated khakis and a drab personality to do Business Development – one also needs a driver’s license!

Further, modern tech BD droids can’t just be the same ol’ Wall Street and McKinsey flunkies they were a few years ago. Today’s business development professionals requires specific skills, such as:

  • Taking good notes,
  • Saying “net-net” a lot, and…
  • Pretending that they’ve closed a deal when they get an NDA signed.

Guess where one acquires these critical skills? That’s right – business school. 

“… MBAs are not necessary at Facebook”

These words hurt my heart, but they do explain some of the experiences I had as a Facebook employee.

When interviewing for a job on the start-up’s sales team in 2007, I spoke with a young product manager, naturally dropping into conversation multiple times the fact that I had an Ivy League MBA. When done by HBS students and alumni this is called “dropping the H-bomb.” We didn’t have an equivalent at Dartmouth because “dropping the D-bomb” sounds creepy. (Also because when you tell a normal, non-MBA person that you go to Tuck, they generally say, “What the hell is a Tuck?”)

Unfortunately, my “shock and awe” interviewing strategy backfired.

“Whatever, old man. Your MBA is irrelevant,” she said, knocking me back on my 38-year-old heels.

“Here at Facebook, we care less about fancy degrees and more about your vision for the connected future,” she continued. “What do you think of the platform we just launched?” (again, this was in 2007)

I honestly didn’t know what a platform was, but I think I covered it up pretty well, replying humbly yet confidently, “We didn’t study platforms at business school. Are they like frameworks?”

If you’ve never seen a millennial roll her eyes at the cataclysm of your middle-aged ignorance, you’re really missing out.

And what of my self-worth?

Regardless of what Sandberg says, getting my MBA was a great career move.

Follow this logic – if me earning a graduate business degree was a waste of time and money, then it was also a mistake for me to tattoo “Paul Ollinger, MBA” on my calf. And that is clearly not the case.

Because having an MBA did more than just prop up my fragile little ego. It also provided me practical business skills that helped me stand out among my sales colleagues at Facebook, and Yahoo! before that. Granted, if you’re looking for Mensa members in Silicon Valley, you probably wouldn’t start your search with the media sales teams. Nevertheless, check out how my MBA chart-making skills helped me visualize a strategy to optimize my sales efforts:

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 6.40.35 AM

See what I mean? There are no shortcuts. To learn this kind of skill, you have to spend either two years at a top business school or several hours on Lynda.com.

Then there’s the language. Business school filled my vocabularic well with gems from the MBA lexicon. I now demonstrate fluency in business phrases like “synergistic,” “zero sum,” and “sunk cost.” I speak in TLA’s (three-letter acronyms) like IRR, ROI and NPV.

I know FIFO, the First In, First Out system of inventory management. And while I’ve never used it in a business scenario, it’s a dynamite theory for managing the dairy products in our refrigerator. (Me: “Honey, we have to use FIFO to minimize milk waste.” My wife: “Please shut up.”)

Speaking of dairy, because I’m an MBA, I don’t call my lactose-intolerance a ‘problem.’ I label it a ‘marital externality,’ and then I work with my familial stakeholders to minimize suboptimal air quality.

Oh sure there was some frivolous stuff about the MBA experience, like meeting incredible people from all over the world. There was working harder than I had ever worked just to keep up with these über-ambitious ass-kickers who opened my mind and raised my standards. And there was digging deep into the core disciplines of business in a way for which one doesn’t have the luxury during an eighty-hour/week career.

I understand that these might sound like trivial ways to spend one’s time, but I found them to be exhilarating. Business school focused my passion, forged my resolve and launched me into the world ready to get after a new career. (You can read much more about this next year when you buy my awesome book.)

Yet I get that some don’t value those kinds of experiences and I know that many reading this are probably still thinking: “The biggest names in the tech industry – Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Marc Benioff – none of these guys has an MBA!”

Yeah, I know.

But just imagine what they could have accomplished if they did.


* “had” being the operative word.

 The story of my interview is fabricated. Except the part about me not knowing what a platform was. That’s entirely true.

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