Recruiters in the tech industry are increasingly adding a new type of qualifications to job postings: people skills of the kind long emphasised by MBA programmes.
The hiring trend—also referred to as soft skills—predates the pandemic, but has become more visible recently. With more business school grads gravitating toward the tech sector, it is worth exploring the hiring dynamic in the sector and look at the skills MBA tech jobs require.
Tech firms snapping up MBA alumni
The tech sector’s demand for MBA grads has grown in recent years, but it truly picked up during the Covid-19 pandemic. Faced with exploding demand for its services, the sector frantically sought to recruit management talent, becoming one of the most active recruiters of MBA alumni in 2020. The picture was not much different the following year, either. The 2021 GMAC Corporate Recruiters Survey found that 96% of surveyed recruiters from the technology sector planned to hire MBAs in 2021, compared with 80% in 2019.
In addition to being a major recruiter, the tech domain acts as a magnet for MBA grads for another reason. The survey showed that the technology industry is willing to promote MBA alumni to the leadership track at a quicker pace. Furthermore, business school graduates typically move up the hierarchy ladder faster. About 68% of leaders in tech firms tend to have a graduate business school education—an increase of 11 percentage points from 2020.
What roles do MBA alumni fill at tech firms?
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘a career in technology’? Most people are likely to say ‘entrepreneurship’ or ‘disruptive innovation’ and they will probably be right. However, the recent rush to recruit MBA grads shows a shift in the needs of tech firms. As the technology sector matures, companies look for managerial expertise as well as strategic, interpersonal and decision-making skills to foster organisational growth and innovation. Historically speaking, the best places to find those skills are business schools. “Companies need talents who can market their products, manage teams, and have the potential to lead the company to new heights,” Anna Woo, head of MBA career and alumni development at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), told Business Because.
In the tech sector, business school graduates often start and move up in strategy or product-management roles that combine elements of marketing, design and problem solving. According to the 2021 Corporate Recruiters Survey, the most popular jobs recruiters plan to fill with MBA graduates are in strategy/innovation positions (71% of recruiters), followed by product management (51%), and business development/sales (49%).
Customer-obsessed, risk-oriented, scrappy and analytical
The survey also found three of the most desirable skills among MBA recruiters in the tech industry were leadership and motivation, interpersonal skills, strategy and innovation, and decision-making processes. One of those recruiters, Amazon, hired 20% more MBA students around the world in 2021 than in 2020. The company also changed its approach and instead of hiring only from a select group of MBA programmes, this time it cast a wide net, making offers to graduates from more than 100 business schools. “Amazon values MBA students, as they tend to fit well within our corporate culture — they are customer-obsessed, risk-oriented, scrappy and analytical,” the company said in a statement.
The need for MBA skills among tech firms becomes quite obvious just by looking at the requirements of a real job ad. In a listing for Business Program Manager published by Meta, the company says it is looking for a person with “strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, the ability to influence business leaders, and align stakeholders results in collaborative, multi-stakeholder environments.” In addition, the candidate should be able to “drive data analysis, optimise existing processes, lead strategic resource decisions, and own the execution of business-critical workflows across multiple teams and regions.” You will be forgiven if you mistake the description of this position with the overview of the skills an MBA programme helps to develop. Critical thinking and problem solving are the backbone of every MBA course, and there are also various core courses designed to help leaders manage teams in different regions.
Do MBA grads need IT skills?
As tech companies, and especially Big Tech, grow ever more dominant and attract more business school grads, there is much talk about the need for professionals with managerial expertise to acquire technology skills as well. Business schools have responded by adding data analytics and artificial intelligence courses to help alumni blend in with their more technically-minded co-workers.
However, the hype around obtaining technology skills seems to understate the merits of skills related to managing people. In fact, communication and leadership skills don’t run the risk of falling out of favour with the emergence of new technologies. “Technology companies are placing a high value on leaders who are not just technically skilled, but also have strong strategic, interpersonal, communication and decision-making skills," Peter Johnson, Assistant Dean of UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business (US), told mba.com. If anything, the latest trends in recruiting should embolden business school grads to be more optimistic about the future. The skills they possess are evergreen and will never become obsolete.
It can be argued that technology skills are more easily obtainable than interpersonal, or soft skills, especially if you have the right attitude. “To look at something and go ‘I don’t know anything about this, and I’m going to teach it to myself’ is more valuable when you work in the tech sector than what you actually know,” INSEAD MBA alumni Caroline Zimmermann told the Financial Times. As a senior data insights and analytics director at music company BMG she needed to learn Python, so she ended up mastering it with the help of additional online courses. Luckily, INSEAD had taught her the right attitude: “be unafraid”.