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Why MBA Students Are Learning To Code

Technology companies are crying out for MBAs with digital skills, and business schools are teaching them to code - an essential skill for start-ups.

Sat Jul 19 2014

Growth hacking, back-end development and Ruby sound more like the themes on a geeks’ summer camp, rather than parts of a business school curriculum. MBA students, however, are starting to learn how to code, spurring schools to roll out HTML, CSS & JavaScript classes.

The road to code has been walked by a crop of elite United States business schools.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business, which has strong links to Silicon Valley, allows students to take computer science classes.

Last year the business school teamed up with the university’s engineering school to launch a joint degree – an MBA and an MS in computer science.

“We were finding that a lot of our MBAs realized they need to know computer science if they want to work in technology companies,” Madhav Rajan, a senior associate dean, said at the time. “Understanding technology at more than a superficial level is more of a critical skill now.”

New York’s Stern School of Business plans to start a course that will teach students how to visualize data and use Python, a programming language. It is thought to be the first of its kind.

Harvard Business School plans to develop a computer programming elective, in response to students who have formed coding clubs. Some of those students have taken an introductory computer science class at the wider Harvard University.

This is partly in response to an increase in companies who seek technically-skilled graduates. A recent GMAC survey pointed out that US employers see technical and quantitative skills as the third-most important skill-set for MBA students.

The big technology and ICT firms want MBAs who are technically trained, and who can work with developer teams.

For a sales role at Gartner, the IT advisory giant, IT experience is “preferred – it would be great if they did,” said Marie Sullivan, a company talent sourcer. She added: “If they have an MBA in technology or business IT, that’s very appealing to us.”

However, companies do not want an army of business school coders. Julia McDonald, head of talent acquisition for EMEA at Infosys, said: “Traditionally we may have focused on whether you had a background in technology – but we’re really opening it up now.”

Outsider firms are coding their way into business schools. Hacking for Hustlers, an intensive one-day coding workshop for business school students, run classes at Harvard, NYU Stern and Wharton.

H4H is designed for students who want to empower themselves with hands-on understanding of web app development. The course is split into three parts: front-end development, back-end development, and growth hacking.

Andrew Smolenski, a Wharton MBA student, said: “In just a day, I was able to learn the basics of html, css [and] javascript, set-up my own website, and start developing the backend through Ruby on Rails. If this sounds like gibberish, then the course is definitely for you.”

Last year, Harvard ran a survey of students who enrolled over the past two years in CS50, the introductory computer science course at Harvard College.

Some 83% of them said it was worth learning to code, while 17% said they were not sure. No respondents said the course was not worth it.

“My goal with the survey was to learn whether MBAs saw this well designed and rigorous course as a good investment of their time, given their career objectives and other course options,” said Professor Tom Eisenmann, who ran the survey, at the time.

However, coding proved a difficult concept to grasp. Survey respondents reported spending an average of more than 16 hours per week on CS50 – about double the amount of time that they would spend on an MBA elective that yielded equivalent academic credit.

Respondents who work in technology companies cited communicating with developers, writing software and recruiting opportunities as the main benefits of learning how to code.

Jon Einkauf, a former HBS student who works as a product manager at Amazon, said the course gave him a glimpse of what it's like to be a developer.

“I work with developers on my team every day to define and build new features... I can ask intelligent questions, I can push back on the developers when necessary, and I am confident that I could teach myself anything else I need to learn,” added Jon.

Companies, and particularly technology upstarts, are crying out for staff with digital skills.

One anonymous respondent said: “I wanted to get a job at a tech start-up and ended up as a product manager at one of NYC’s hottest tech start-ups. The founder, who is a CS PhD, was really impressed that I’d learned to code. I think it made a difference in getting the offer.”

However, it is not just MBAs seeking corporate careers that can benefit. Entrepreneurs are diving into cyberspace, too.

Michael Belkin, who founded his own start-up after taking Harvard’s CS50, said: “I was able to build an MVP that would have cost at least $40,000 to outsource. And it was better, because I understood all the small details that drive a user’s experience.

“After HBS, I became one of the lead developers at my startup, which has saved the company several hundred-thousand dollars.”

But it is thought that many MBAs do not have the time to learn coding languages. There are other learning options available online, which are more flexible, but other survey respondents remain unconvinced.

One anonymous student said: “I highly doubt that most HBS people, after doing their cases, travelling [or] socializing, are going to set aside time to consistently do Codecademy or Treehouse every week.”