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Non-tech in a tech world – how an MBA can take you there

4 April 2019

The article at a glance

Are you a non-techie who has gazed enviously at the big tech companies thinking there is no place for you in that …

Category: News Programme news

Are you a non-techie who has gazed enviously at the big tech companies thinking there is no place for you in that world? Think again. As these rapidly growing global organisations get larger and more complex they need droves of non-tech roles to support their core business. And it turns out that MBA skills are just what they need.

Cambridge MBA students

The global tech giants are the status symbol employers that many want to have on their CV. But if you don’t have a background in technology, what can you offer them? We spoke to Cambridge Judge Business School alumni who now fill roles in tech companies as diverse as relationship and account management, project management, financial modelling, operations management and many more. They tell us that, increasingly, companies like Amazon and Google are filling vital and auxiliary roles from across the career sector and seeking a more balanced workforce across their global portfolio.

Conrad Chua
Conrad Chua

The opportunities are myriad and MBAs are well-placed to seize them says Conrad Chua, Executive Director of the Cambridge MBA:

“Above all you need to be able to lead a team and bring them together to work well as a unit and execute quickly. You need critical thinking and analytical skills as well as negotiation and leadership skills. MBAs have these skill sets and are invaluable to tech companies.”

Within pure tech companies what you will need to know and how you will need to operate as a non-tech depends a lot on the size, says Conrad:

“In a small start-up you need to understand the technology and you will be expected to do lots of things – to roll up your sleeves and get involved in operations, business development, HR and so on. As companies get larger they have more structure and they need more non-tech specialisms to open up markets, develop new products, HR, marketing and PR. But it holds true that for all tech companies, large and small, the non-tech employees need to know the product and be excited both by it and by the purpose of the organisation. Whatever the size of the company, the leaders need to help all employees value each other’s contributions. As MBAs will often be in leadership, they can play an important role in this.”

And it’s not just the purely tech companies. Traditional bricks and mortar organisations, which have been making the move to digital transformation over the past two decades, are also in need of non-techs who can work well with techs. Conrad adds:

“Traditional industries such as the legal profession, banking, conveyancing, publishing are transitioning at different rates to a digital and data-led future where old processes are being automated. The tech people need the expertise of the non-techs to understand what they need technology to do to transform the business. If you have in-depth knowledge and experience of how a traditional industry works alongside your MBA learning, you can be vital to a traditional organisation as their move to digital accelerates. You know how the different functions work and how they fit together. You know the product or service inside out. You know the kinds of customers and the employees the industry attracts. At the same time, the non-techs need to be able to understand, communicate with and work effectively alongside their tech colleagues to build their own knowledge of what technology can do and how it can underpin the necessary changes. In the future all companies will be tech companies to a great extent, so everyone will have to work with technology.”

MBAs can also help companies of any type to navigate the huge minefield of the societal impact of technology. Conrad advises:

“MBAs are well placed to help lead organisational thinking about the impact of technology on society – the ethical use of technology. You need a critical mind to think about the influence of the company and the tech it is using or producing and you need the ability to make your voice heard. The negotiation, influencing and leadership skills from the MBA come in very useful in this role.”

Communication and commitment are key

Firas Marafie (MBA 2017) works as Senior Retail Partnership Manager for tech startup Flux. His experience in the banking industry helped him land the role.

Firas Marafie (MBA 2017)
Firas Marafie (MBA 2017)

“My first role in banking was centered around business development and relationship management. I worked with internal sales teams to service prospective and existing client relationships. This has proved very useful in the role I fulfil now at Flux. Startups and large tech companies need business analysts, sales and business development teams, and operations managers as they grow. These roles won’t necessarily require hard programming skills, but I’d argue that having a solid understanding of how tech architecture and development works is imperative to working effectively with your internal engineering teams and technology-oriented clients.”

The kinds of skills needed to work alongside tech people centre round communication and commitment, says Firas:

“At the MBA level it’s expected that you’re able to learn, take ownership, and communicate effectively. I think that clear communication and having a well thought out plan create the foundation for a successful project when working with engineers. You will need to win the trust of your tech colleagues so it’s important to be able to relay the feedback you receive using language that makes sense and is actionable to developers and engineers. This is an art, and with deliberate care and thought you will get better over time. It’s sometimes not enough to communicate the business problem, I think going the extra step and translating it into what needs to be done technically takes the pressure and decision off the engineer, buying you respect and making you someone they’re comfortable to work with. Also, respect their rules – planning structures are very different in the development world — just because the nature of business is sometimes more haphazard, this doesn’t make it an excuse to bring the same into the developing arena.” 

The ability to learn and adapt quickly as digital organisations transform

Alfonso Ciappa (MBA 2017) works as a partner development manager at Microsoft UK, managing the relationship between Microsoft and its partners (tech companies selling Microsoft solutions) and supporting them in their digital transformation journey through technical, marketing, and sales enablement. His background was essential to landing the role:

Alfonso Ciappa (MBA 2017)
Alfonso Ciappa (MBA 2017)

“I had a sales background, building relationships with customers and stakeholders. Today, tech companies are giving great value to diversity of expertise in their teams, which in the long term creates greater value for the organisation. Teams that are able to bring different perspectives to innovation and collaboration are making the difference, and represent a really good opportunity for non-tech people.”

For Alfonso, the ability to learn and adapt quickly as organisations continually transform under the pressures of digital is key, as is industry expertise: 

“Tech companies are moving from product based to solution-based models, and the knowledge that you can bring about a specific industry can make a huge difference. Also, the skills of teamwork, leadership, and ability to work in groups with a high level of diversity – all of which you learn and practice on the MBA – are really useful to these companies. But you need to be clear about what your role is, and how you can contribute to the team. Be transparent and ask questions if you are not sure about a technical subject. Bring all new ideas into the conversation. That’s the main reason you are there – to contribute new perspectives.”

Both Firas and Alfonso have advice for an MBA seeking a non-tech role in a tech company. Alfonso says:

“If you have an opportunity, go for it. Don’t be put off by your lack of a tech background. Tech is one of the most exiting industries today, presenting new challenges every day and giving you the opportunity to learn amazing things. Understand very well what you have in your background that can add value to the company, and sell that in your application.”

Firas advises focusing on the nature of the role and not the name or title associated with it:

“MBAs are flexible, and so are young and growing tech companies. Focus on the type of work you will be doing, the teams and people you’ll be working with closely. When interviewing, communicate projects you’ve completed in the past, as well as your ability to have a certain mindset that sits well with the tech firm you’re looking to join. This is a strong signal that you are a long-term fit for the company – something highly important for fast growing tech firms who need to hire well.”

You should learn to be comfortable not knowing everything about a project

Thanunya (Nim) Wichienkuer (MBA 2017), Product Manager at Next Generation Services at Adstream, an advertising tech company based in London, UK, shares her insights.

Thanunya (Nim) Wichienkuer (MBA 2017)
Thanunya (Nim) Wichienkuer (MBA 2017)

“I came across the job through an internal job posting platform managed by the CJBS MBA Careers team and once I had learnt about the company I became interested in the role; it fitted my career goal perfectly as I wanted to shift from marketing/advertising to tech, and advertising tech was therefore the perfect sector for that transition”.

Nim continues to expand on the necessary skillset desirable in a tech role;

“I think it’s very important for you to be comfortable with asking questions (sometimes very basic questions). I might feel guilty for asking questions or even interrupting a meeting to explore a product functionality; I get frustrated leading a project where I might not have as much technical knowledge as I would like at my fingertips. But you should learn to be comfortable not knowing everything about a project and learn how to deal with that situation. It is more of a process of discovery and you should just enjoy expanding your knowledge and horizons along the way.”

“One thing I do well alongside my more technically qualified colleagues is to show them that even if I am relatively new to the industry, I am eager to learn and passionate enough about the field to read widely and deeply about a product or new software.”

Conrad Chua reiterates what the Cambridge MBA offers candidates preparing for roles in tech:

“We offer a core class on Digital Business which helps candidates understand the impact of tech on both tech companies and traditional companies. Also a Digital Transformation course, which gives a deeper dive into how companies use digital technologies to change their business processes, manage structural change and re-organisation, and build a culture which encourages people to embrace digital technology in their work.”

If you are a non-tech considering a role in the tech world, the message is loud and clear. It needs you and it needs the MBA’s skills – so go for the role of your dreams with confidence.

For more stories and insights into how mba careers are changing and how MBA’s can change their careers listen to the Changing Careers podcast series from Cambridge MBA Executive Director, Conrad Chua which you can listen to on SoundCloud and on iTunes.