- Wise Words -
Masters for What?
by dave peterson
So you got your Bachelors Degree in Computer Science or Engineering a few years ago. You are in your first job and you’re starting to get a bit frustrated with the type of work that you are doing. It’s a bit unchallenging, repetitive, and you’re wondering what you can do to remedy the situation. You’re considering talking to your manager or perhaps changing jobs. Some of your friends are talking about going back to school. You’re not sure if they are considering this because they have carefully thought through the pros and cons. It seems more likely that they may simply be retreating to the luxury of having their parents take care of them (if they’re lucky!) for a few more years. You on the other hand are independent minded and want a carefully considered decision, particularly if you are funding it yourself and don’t have the luxury of Mommy and Daddy paying for it.
So let’s take a hard look at the merits of Grad School versus continuing to work. Let me first state that I can only really speak about the experiences within a software development / engineering career. Basic requirements for getting any job or advancement will be very different in other fields, but my thought process here may help you in making your decision. In this column I will talk about taking an MBA and an MSc Software Engineering degree.
Masters in Business Administration
So first of all let’s consider an MBA. Studies certainly show that engineers who go on to get an MBA have on average higher salaries over their career and in many instances are able to achieve a reasonable ROI (eventually) after going into debt to pay for their degree.
A higher salary is certainly not a bad thing. So what’s the downside?
Well almost certainly you are unlikely to be writing code to develop a product ever again. Ever. You’re going to be a business person that understands technology going forward. You will have higher value to the company as a technical business person than a pure engineer and you’ll be 2-3 years behind your pure engineering friends in engineering skills which will be hard to catch up. You’re also less likely to be a founder, CTO or CEO of a startup high tech company as those people tend to be a partnership between two people, one highly technical and the other highly business focused.
So it really depends upon what you want to be doing for the rest of your career. If you enjoy being in the depths of engineering technology then an MBA may not be an optimal choice for you. On the other hand if you want to be a technically grounded business person, then you’re going to be in higher demand and garner a higher salary but you definitely won’t be an engineer any more.
MSc Software Engineering
Okay if you’re still reading this, you probably want to stay in software development and not pivot into the business-side of things. So should you consider an MS degree?
This is a more complicated question. Certainly there are cost considerations and payback time to achieve an ROI on your degree. Is there a glass ceiling on your career w/o a higher degree that would warrant incurring the expense?
I have not found that to be the case and I have been a CTO at a variety of companies since 2007 and have a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science, but no further degree after that. Certainly there are a few job postings that say that a “Masters or higher degree strongly preferred”.
Over the years I’ve followed those companies that had that in their job postings and I’d have to say that most of them did not achieve a particularly high degree of success. I suspect that’s because typically those companies were founded by a business person who was then looking for a technical partner but had no idea on how to evaluate the merits of a technical partner and the degree was the certification for them.
So I’d have to say that getting your first CTO position will be slightly easier with a graduate degree than without one. However, once you have your first CTO position then it does not make any difference ever again. Ever.
You’ll be judged upon the successes that you create going forward and the easiest way to get your first CTO position is to get promoted into it so keep that in mind in your job hopping. Let’s look a bit more into the graduate degree. There are deeper complexities to consider. What exactly did you learn in your undergrad years that paid off later? If it was anything more than that you learned to teach yourself and basic problem solving skills, I’d be quite surprised. Unless you are in one of the top 5 engineer schools in the country, the equipment and professors are at least 5-10 years out of date with what is happening in the cutting edge of the real world in the way of technologies. Rather than helping you in your career, it could be that it hinders you with debt and being 2-3 years behind your colleagues who stayed in the workplace. You could have learned more by being at the cutting edge of a digital business and being paid for it!
Money. What it is good for?
If you really want a break from your company, I believe you would learn far more by taking the hundred grand that you’d pay to get your Masters degree and instead spent it self-funding your own startup. The learnings would be enormous regardless of whether your startup business succeeded or failed. You’d also be following in the footsteps of some auspicious people who never finished their degrees: Sergey Brin (Postgraduate), Larry Page (Postgraduate), Bill Gates (Undergraduate), Steve Jobs (Undergraduate), Mark Zuckerberg (Undergraduate), Michael Dell (Undergraduate). In fact, 25% of billionaires in the US and 30% worldwide either dropped out of college or never went to college at all and instead started their own business…
Master of You. Master Your Work
I don’t pretend that I have solved the conundrum of whether you should undertake a graduate degree, but I hope that I have given you some other things to consider before deciding to go back for a further two years of (expensive) College. If you do decide to go then, great. I hope that you really benefit from it.
My one caution is to do your own financial mathematics (it is easier to get into debt than to pay it off - speak to Graduates to understand their own struggle with this) and really reflect on why you want to take a Masters. Think whether you can get the desired result through a route you may not have thought about: building your career by focusing on the opportunity presented by your current employer, a different employer, or starting your own company.
Dave Peterson is Chief Technology Officer (“CTO”) at PebblePost, the inventor of Programmatic Direct Mail®. Dave has been a CTO at a variety of tech companies over his career and has built businesses from the ground up as well as working at billion dollar publicly traded companies with international responsibility. In addition to being an accomplished technologist and business leader, Dave is a keen coach and developer of talent at all levels.