Business courses for the aspiring high tech manager

While it is true that a lot of management could be learned on the job, it would a shame if you went to a quality business school and did not capitalize on the opportunity to learn what constitutes the fundamentals of running a business.

It does not matter whether you aspire to become a top product marketing manager or a CTO. The truth is that any aspiring high tech manager must understand how a business works and be able to generalize that knowledge to any situation by drawing appropriate analogies. This is even more true of engineers who seek to transition into management positions since there is a lot of ‘soft stuff’ beyond engineering that goes into being an effective leader.

An engineer with well rounded management skills is DYNAMITE and most firms recognize that. From a business school student’s standpoint, getting to that state of well-roundedness is not that simple since a conscious effort needs to be made to explore the ‘other side’ and learn (either experientially or through coursework) things that you might otherwise have thought to be not that important.

Part of that effort includes taking the ‘right’ courses in school. There are certain ‘core’ courses that I think one absolutely needs in order to prepare for an effective technology management career.  My belief is that any program that seeks to bring out top technology management talent must include these courses as part of the core curriculum. But alas, that isn’t the reality in most ‘high tech management’ programs and the reasons for excluding some or many of these core business courses are usually political or have to do with complacency, institutional memory, or a disconnect from the needs of the ‘customer’.

First, a caveat: Recognize that ultimately, it’s you, and not the courses that you will take in school that will determine the amount of success you enjoy in industry. However, recognizing that there is a good reason that you are in school, this blog will help structure your program in a manner that I think is optimal to a senior engineer who wants, after finishing his program, to transition to a leadership career in high tech management.

Read on.

This is my basic list of courses that you *must* consider taking as part of your transition to management: if your program doesn’t automatically include these courses as part of your curriculum, look into ‘back-door’ ways of getting this education (such as substitutions with other courses, listening in), or in the worst case, read good books on these topics.

1. Marketing and Sales (by Marketing, I specifically do not mean a course on Open Innovation or Crowdsourcing!)

2. Managerial economics (mostly microeconomics. Read The Economist for the macro stuff) and Competitive Strategy (make sure you learn the frameworks. Did your Technology Strategy class teach you what an Ansoff Matrix is or did it mostly focus on the evolution of ice machines and tungsten light bulbs?? Also learn some game theory- it is fascinating and super useful).

3. Corporate Finance and Managerial Accounting basics (Financial/Cost Accounting isn’t useful for high tech mgmt)

4. Operations Management, Supply Chain & Lean/ Six Sigma (That waiting line will never look the same after this! Very necessary for manufacturing driven companies- having this knowledge also makes you somewhat more employable in larger companies)

5. Organizational change, HR (needs to be experiential) and Global Strategy (very important since engineering managers REALLY need to know how to work with global teams) or International Management.

6. Teamwork, leadership, power, negotiation (more of the soft stuff! Don’t ignore!) and Managerial communication (learning to write and speak effectively)

7. Risk/Decision/Uncertainty Analysis, Statistics and Data Models (the Excel and the underlying math are really important- but you already knew that!)

<UPDATE: Since my original post, I have consolidated items in my original list of 11 courses, to the following seven. My only removal was a course on Logistics, since I realized that you learn a lot of that in a full semester course on #4 above: Operations and Supply Chain Management. I am also considering adding a course on Entrepreneurship to this list>

That makes seven full semester core business courses.

Now tack on your 4-5 core systems courses (such as System Dynamics, System Architecture, System Project Management, Product Design & Development and Enterprise Architecture) on top of the above list and you have a world class Technology Management program that is doable within a reasonable time frame.

More importantly, you, the end result, will be so much more meaningful to the high tech organization that you join than your everyday MBA. With this kind of education, you will bring real meaning to your workplace and be able to cut through all the fluff that you will confront on a daily basis. No amount of hand waving or business jargon will ever daunt you since you will have walked the walk and talked the talk. You will have become the chameleon that you always aspired to become.

It’s important to recognize that good Technology Management programs have most of this content built in already. Definitely take whatever courses you would like to take (or whatever courses your program shoves down your throat) but make sure that you also cover the listed basics. These courses might not be readily ‘available’ for you to take at any given point of time. But look around and you’ll find them. The joy of life is in figuring out these things!

Spend an extra semester if necessary to get this education since you really don’t want to leave school with incomplete training. Take the time out to learn now and hit the ground running on your next job! You’ll thank me ten years later.

Good luck!

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~ by aratnam on September 9, 2011.

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