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CIOs: MBA worth the effort, but doesn't guarantee IT stardom

Midmarket CIOs at the CIO Decisions Conference last week in Carlsbad, Calif., weigh in on the issue of whether you need an MBA to succeed in IT these days. The verdict: It's nice, but not critical for the job. Upward mobility is another matter.

After six years as IT director for the Houston Astros baseball club, Brad Bourland is going back to school for an MBA at Rice University.

An alumnus of Texas A&M University, Bourland, who is 30, has bachelor's degrees in management and in information and operations management. When he joined the Astros in 2000 he engineered the transition of the club's technology from the Astrodome to Minute Maid Park, the Astros' new home in downtown Houston. In 2004, he added procurement to his duties. With a staff of just four people, he is by necessity a hands-on technology leader. He also is keenly interested in the business of running a Major League Baseball team. Given the upward trajectory, why pursue an MBA? 

"I got kind of pigeonholed. There was the understanding that if it was IT, it had to go through Brad, but [the business management] was not necessarily coming to ask me what I thought of this contract or that," said Bourland, who will continue working full time for the Astros while he goes to school.

It helps that he had the support of Astros owner Drayton McLane. When Bourland raised the issue of earning an MBA, the advice from the top was go for it, and make sure you do it at a first-class institution.

To MBA or not to MBA

Executive recruiters will tell you that an MBA is a prerequisite for CIOs looking to work for large companies. But what about for CIOs at midmarket organizations, where the IT leader is often closer to business operations than the CIO of a large enterprise? Does it make sense to earn an MBA, or will operational experience serve you just as well?

Bourland was among a panel of four IT experts who explored the question last week in a keynote session at CIO Decisions 2006 in Carlsbad, Calif. The annual conference is geared to CIOs at companies ranging from $50 million to $2 billion.

A poll of the 200 CIOs in the audience showed that 30% had earned an MBA; 60% had not and 10% were pursuing one. When asked how they felt about the value of an MBA for IT executives, 19% of the audience said the degree was critical, 61% said "desirable but not critical," 16% were neutral on the issue, and 3% said the MBA was not important.

The verdict of the panel: It can't hurt.

The panel agreed the degree is nice but not critical for the day-to-day job, and it is no substitute for job performance. Job advancement was another matter. There was consensus that an MBA, especially one from a name-brand institution, could make the difference between getting called in for an interview or not. An MBA also can level the playing field when dealing with business people, inside and especially outside the company.

"It has helped establish credibility with people who didn't know me, when I'm flying in for meetings at other companies," said Michael Iacona, CIO of TMP North America, the recruiting arm of New York-based Monster Technologies Worldwide.

Iacona insists he is not a professional student, although he may look like one on paper. Iacona earned a bachelor's degree in computer science from Hofstra University, where he was president of Upsilon Pi Epsilon, the national computer honor society. He has a master's degree in information systems from Pace University, where he won an award for top IS student. More recently, he earned an MBA from Columbia Business School, where he was on the dean's list. "For each one of the degrees there was a specific purpose," said Iacona, who worked at Loews Corp., AT&T and before joining Monster.

He said the MBA was a natural outgrowth of his experience at Monster, where he had more exposure to business executives than at previous jobs.

"They were talking a language I needed to understand. And more importantly, I needed to be able to convey how technology was benefiting the business in their terms," Iacona said.

Like Bourland, he was encouraged by his company to earn the degree. Getting support from the company was critical, Iacona said, because the program at Columbia required significant time away from office. Juggling his responsibilities during the intense 20-month program was "one of the harder things" he's done.

Intellectual curiosity -- and an ability to take an unpaid hiatus from work -- drove panel member Anne McCrory, editor in chief of TechTarget's CIO Decisions Media group, to earn an MBA at age 38. An editor at Computerworld for 10 years prior to joining TechTarget, McCrory "grew up in the technology of the 1990s," covering the dot-com boom without "a huge depth of business experience," she said. "As a journalist you know a little bit about a lot of things." As her interest in business strategy grew, she began looking at MBA programs, ultimately opting to take time off from her career to enroll full-time in Boston University's two-year program.

"The MBA really changed how I view the world," said McCrory, who graduated in 2003. "Now I understand the dynamics of industries, company lifecycles, and the internal workings of all the departments in a company. My career path can now go in a lot of directions."

James Woolwine, CIO of Majestic Insurance Co. in San Francisco, was the odd person out on the panel -- he does not have an MBA nor plans to get one. That seemed in keeping with his unconventional 21-year career in IT. A psychology major who taught high school for several years, Woolwine is a self-taught software developer. He's held executive positions at PricewaterhouseCoopers, IBM and other companies, overseeing IT and financial supply chain. He's been CEO of a startup and run his own consulting practice.

"I followed my own muse and looked for jobs where I didn't know a lot. I like drinking from the fire hose and learning a lot," Woolwine said. Still, he agreed that the degree gives young candidates "cachet" as they're pursuing their first two or three jobs but will not provide cover for poor skills.

Moderator Kavin Moody, executive director of the Center for Information Management Studies at Babson College, earned an MBA in 1968, while still in his early 20s. He said intellectual curiosity should be a prerequisite for getting the MBA, adding the degree doesn't make sense for all IT executives. "What will the degree help you achieve? It will help you grow as an individual. Don't do it if you're not interested in business issues."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Linda Tucci, Executive Editor.

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