Companies want to hire technically skilled MBAs, and business schools are finally starting to get it. MBA programs equip students with management techniques, accounting skills, and increasingly, entrepreneurship chops. Some top programs, however, believe MBA should learn to code.
Harvard Business School is planning to offer a computer programming elective within a couple of years, says Paul Gompers, who chairs the MBA elective curriculum. Students have formed coding clubs, and dozens go “across the river” to take the introductory computer science class at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. But professors need to tailor a course specifically to business students in Boston, says Gompers.
“This is the changing nature of the workforce, and this is what our graduates are going on to be doing in the next five to 10 to 20 years.”
Elite MBA programs have been slow to adapt, even though plenty of schools started specialized master’s programs in big data and analytics. A pair of springtime reports by the Graduate Management Admission Council revealed a disconnect between the skills MBA programs give students and what employers want. While recent graduates (PDF) said they learned the least about “technology, design, etc.” and “managing tools and technology” out of any other skills in B-schools, U.S. employers said they coveted (PDF) “technical and quantitative skills” third out of 10 criteria.
“We’ve got a lot of MBAs graduating and going off to be high-tech product managers. If you look at that world, there are a bunch of big tech companies that insist that anyone in that role be technical—understand code well enough to read it and write it,” says Thomas Eisenmann, an HBS professor who teaches a course on product management.
Companies don’t want an army of programmers from B-schools—they can recruit from computer science programs for that—but they need managers who know the basics of code to work with technical staff. To be a product manager at Amazon (AMZN), for instance, MBAs need to “dive into data and be technically conversant,” says Miriam Park, director of university programs at the company.
At New York University’s Stern School of Business, economics professor David Backus plans to start a course that will teach students how to visualize data and use the programming language, Python. “I’ve talked to people I know at other B-schools and they haven’t heard of anything really like this. It’s surprising,” he says.
Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, a B-school with a reputation as a tech powerhouse, has no coding classes. Students have been able to take computer science courses at the university since fall 2012; Madhav Rajan, the business school’s senior associate dean for academic affairs, says this obviates the need for a focus on coding. Last year, the B-school and the School of Engineering launched a joint degree that confers an MBA and an MS in computer science.
One downside of learning to code at B-school: Coding is hard. HBS students who took the university’s introductory computer science course said that they spent 16.3 hours a week on the course, which is “2-3 [times] more time than they would spend on an MBA elective that yielded equivalent academic credit,” wrote Eisenmann in a Harvard Business Review blog post last fall.
Backus says schools should make coding electives available but avoid requiring them so that MBAs don’t feel burdened. “Students could get annoyed at you and think it’s too hard.”