Why Engineering and Business Skills Enhance Your Competitive Advantage

An MBA qualification can be the perfect complement to an engineering degree

An image of a student working on a laptop in a study room or other academic setting
Combining an engineering degree with an MBA is becoming a career path toward top leadership roles in tech.
Topics
Entrepreneurship & Innovation, Data & Business Analytics
Author
Laurie B. Davis
Published

What skills are necessary to ensure success in today’s fast-changing workplace? It’s a question many are likely asking right now as they contemplate a technology- and data-driven future.

An engineering graduate degree can prepare you for a career using scientific and mathematical principles to create innovative new products, but it doesn’t always teach you how to launch, develop, and market those innovations to a wider audience.

For those with entrepreneurial aspirations, an MBA can be the perfect complement to an engineering qualification because it teaches students how to focus product solutions on consumer needs and how to manage cross-functional teams. If engineers choose to launch a new business, an MBA can provide the skills to sell their ideas to investors and add value to their business.

Business leaders can also benefit from deepening their technical skills. Columbia Business School has built analytics-driven courses such as Python for MBAs into its curriculum in recent years, helping to prepare MBA students to work alongside data scientists to understand how customer analytics affect a business.

In a recent interview with Fortune magazine, Columbia Business School Dean Costis Maglaras pointed out that while MBAs may never need to write code, they will likely collaborate with multiple specialists in their future work teams.

“They will need to collaborate, co-work, manage, and lead cross-functional teams I believe pretty much irrespective of career path,” Maglaras told Fortune. “Understanding a little bit about the people you’re working with and the tools and how they can be useful is crucially important.”

Demand for Tech Talent Remains Strong

An engineer with an MBA degree can be very attractive to employers, particularly in the current environment, where an explosion of new technologies continues to drive demand for engineers and technologists.

Indeed, high-tech innovation shows no signs of slowing down as new technologies race toward the future in areas such as quantum and cloud computing, blockchain, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, machine learning, data science, and digital transformation across industries.

U.S. News & World Report recently compiled the 100 Best Jobs of 2022 using information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to project which jobs will have the largest number and percentage of openings from 2020 to 2030. Among the top 10 roles on the list are information security analyst, software developer, and data scientist.

Forbes blogger Jack Kelly has reported that as the pandemic spurred digital growth in businesses, demand for tech talent has raced ahead. The pandemic “compressed 10 years of digital growth into two. Now, it looks like every company is a tech business,” Kelly says. “If you check out any job board or online company job site, listings for software engineers and tech talent dominate.”

Business leaders and engineers responded to the immediate needs that COVID-19 placed on workforces and workplaces by embracing remote and hybrid work, which required new methods of communication. Lockdowns influenced massive growth in e-commerce, and disruptions in supply chains occurred across industries, creating opportunities to address the many challenges society faced—the essence of what entrepreneurs and engineers do.

Cross-Functionality and Competitive Advantage

A graduate with both an engineering qualification and a business degree can bridge the divide between engineers and corporate leaders. These leaders are not only able to understand complicated technological problems but also converse with engineers who are working on complex technical challenges.

Data scientist Bar Ifrach ’12, who chose to earn his PhD in business at Columbia Business School, finds the business school environment unique in its cross-functionality. After earning his undergraduate degree, a professor advised him that if he was on the fence about going into academia or business, an advanced degree from a business school would offer both options.

“Business schools lean more into the need for cross-functionality in the workspace,” says Ifrach. “I think one of the areas that make an individual stronger in that environment is the ability to go deep on the different skill sets that cross-functional teams bring together, so they can make the most from the individuals on the team and be able to help distill strategy that builds one layer upon the next from each of those capabilities. This allows the team to arrive at a stronger solution and move the business results you care about.”

Typically, an MBA graduate serves as a product manager on a cross-functional team, he notes. “Their role is to be able to adapt their language to those different skill sets and be able to bring the most value out of each one and the team as a whole,” says Ifrach, who is senior director of applied science and head of the marketplace team at Uber Freight, a subsidiary of the renowned ride-sharing service.

Ifrach values MBA graduates who can “geek out with the engineers and the data scientists” to understand the architecture of a project and why early investment in such a project can set up the company for future successes. “Those are the product managers who can optimize for both the short-term and the long-term and make the most out of the talent that they're partnering with,” he says.

Hard Science and Soft Skills Create Strong Leaders

Combining an engineering degree with an MBA is becoming a career path toward top leadership roles in tech. Individuals who earn these degrees can gain favorable job options with high salaries at top companies. A recent article on MBA.com notes that adding business skills to one’s technical expertise is a winning combination because “career progression often means moving into a management position.”

This powerful combination also provides the skills necessary to lead a startup business as an entrepreneur and CEO. Carolyn Butler ’18, a former chemical engineer who worked in plastics, petrochemicals, refining, and agrochemicals for 15-plus years, launched a business venture out of Columbia’s startup lab in June 2020.

Her business idea followed the birth of her daughter, when Butler found herself in the same situation as most mothers: amassing clothes, toys, gear, and all types of baby products that lose their utility after a few months. When she discovered there was no recycling infrastructure and that most moms had to rely on hand-me-downs and donations to share their used baby items, Butler saw a problem that required a solution.

“I knew that I could, coming from chemical engineering where almost everything is recycled, take those principles of circularity and recycling and apply them to an industry that was so alarmingly linear and wasteful, like fashion,” says Butler.

Named Borobabi, Butler’s public-benefit, venture-backed company is America’s first circular retailer, rooted in the concept of borrowing instead of owning. After starting with children’s apparel, due to its short lifespan, Borobabi is now applying its circular model to new products. “We’re also the first company in the U.S. to compost our post-consumer waste at commercial scale, which only we can do because of the science behind how we source products,” Butler adds.

Adding Business Acumen to Engineering Skills

Butler’s multidisciplinary degrees have allowed her to build on her online presence, adding five brick-and-mortar Borobabi stores. She says her MBA helped her secure connections to successfully launch the business. It also taught her to understand how to value the company, how to grow and structure it, and how to do financial projections based on what she plans to achieve in the future.

And most important, she says, she learned how to pitch her brand and sell it.

“Sales involves being able to craft a story as to why you founded a company, why it matters. How do you convince a group of people to do what you want them to do? How do you get them to believe in your mission as much as you believe in it? Those are things that I think you learn when you're getting your MBA,” says Butler. She adds that without some business understanding, engineers can get into a level of detail that gets lost on those they are trying to pitch to.

Adding business acumen to one’s engineering skills can transform an in-demand engineer into a business leader in the CEO’s seat, she adds. “I think people who do have business and engineering degrees are probably the most powerful and some of the smartest individuals I've ever met.”

New York’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Like many other Columbia Business School MBA graduates, Butler built her career in the New York area. The city is a close second to Silicon Valley in deep tech and venture funding for startups, says Lara Hejtmanek, director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School.

About 30 to 35 percent of the school’s alumni stay in the New York City area, and that number is even higher among founders, she notes. “That’s because there is such an incredibly active entrepreneurial ecosystem here,” Hejtmanek says, including venture capitalists, angel investors, accelerator programs, and other entrepreneurs who also provide mentoring and connections.

Compared with Silicon Valley, New York City is more multidimensional, she says. “In addition to technical know-how, New York City is well known for big brands and consumer products in areas such as food, fashion, and retail,” Hejtmanek notes. “You have more diverse types of industries that entrepreneurs are seeking to get into.”

Columbia Engineering has also taken advantage of New York’s emergence as a tech center with dedicated support for entrepreneurship. Ivy Schultz, Director of Entrepreneurship at the engineering school, notes that it supports students in a number of ways, providing “access to expert mentors, ignition grants, crucial resources and infrastructure, and facilities at every stage of the innovation process, from ideation to market translation.” More than 30 startups have spun out of research from faculty labs since 2015 and the Columbia Startup Fellows program cultivates technology-based startups at the early stage by allowing startups to conduct R&D using special facilities in research space at Columbia.

In addition to tech-focused startups, many students at Columbia Business School are developing brands in finance, health and wellness, and the circular economy. Hejtmanek says the current summer accelerator at the school has 70 student teams pursuing startups and many are consumer businesses.

“It is critical today to think about how your startup will use tech and data to differentiate. But knowing a lot about marketing and branding—building an emotional connection with your customers—is also critical to launching a successful business,” says Hejtmanek. “Launching a startup in New York City gives you access to potential customers with whom you can conduct interviews and build relationships.”

Columbia Business School and Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science have combined forces to launch the Dual MBA/Executive MS in Engineering and Applied Science program, channeling the deep knowledge and expertise of the two top-ranked schools.

The new program will teach both business skills and cutting-edge science to those who want to launch new companies or become leaders in an established technological enterprise in roles such as vice president of engineering, COO, CTO, CIO, or senior product manager.

You can learn more about the program here.

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