MBA for an Architect – Is it worth it?

Since I completed my MBA, many technology architect colleagues have asked, “Is it worth it?”  

The short answer has been, “it depends.” 

At the start of my career and for several years, I have been profoundly involved with technology (thanks to taking a MSc in Physics which has always pushed me searching for “logic and details”). I have plunged deep into different functions of IT, embracing and learning various technologies, methods, realising how it all fits together, and solving complex and critical challenges from a technology perspective. My focus has always been to achieve the best in what I do, and with success; in whatever sector and industry I am working with. The technical expertise that I gained over the years helped me become SME in various technology stacks working with a broad spectrum of companies in private and public sector. However, I always wondered if an MBA might help further becoming a better and more efficient technologist, an architect, and assure my work contributes directly to organisational success. 

Now that I have completed the MBA, I thought I would share my observations and thoughts. If you are a technology architect or aspiring to become one, and are considering MBA for further career and personal growth, there is no magical answer in this article. However, it might help you decide. 

As technology architects, we are entrusted with ensuring that the technology supports the organisational strategy and delivers expected OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), and a significant dependency to achieve such is being able to productively engage with business leads, various department heads and end-users. Most technologists would relish any technical challenge as long as “what is needed” is clearly articulated. However, without understanding the organisation’s business drivers and how technology/IT maps with the organisation strategy, it is often impossible to align the technology solution appropriately with the organisational environment. Such oversight could obstruct the outcomes that help a business function achieve desired targets/goals. It’s important that an end to end operating model is considered, including people, process, system and tools, to avoid such. 

To understand the non-technical aspects such as culture, value-based engagements, strategic intent and alignment, and steer distinctive solutions and capabilities during VUCA (Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) situations, the MBA certainly provides tools and intelligence. Undoubtedly, an MBA is still one of the hot and prestigious qualifications. During my MBA (from @UoW), I gained significant lessons and knowledge, which provided exposure and experience to various business perspectives in a safe environment, allowing experimentation with ideas at the highest level of business delivery, working with C-Suite members and enabling speaking the language. I am sure most of my fellow architect colleagues would agree, to be able to experiment in a risk-free environment is a dream come true. As an architect, despite moves towards agile methodologies there is pressure and expectation to get it right “the first time,” and failure can often get mapped to incompetency. 

Anyone who performed the role of an Architect in technology would acknowledge that technical intrepidity is not enough at this stage and business acumen is a must. As an architect, it’s imperative that we understand and can speak the language of business, the language of architecture, and technology. The role of an architect brings visibility across organisations, and skills in business and technology can provide cohesion between business goals and the use of information technology. An Architecture function is a golden bridge that eliminates the gap between business (non-technical) colleagues, and techies (SMEs) without adequate business experience, thus providing the “ROI” that any organisation expects from IT. 

MBA is a significant intellectual investment, requiring considerable time and money, especially if you are working full time (with a part-time MBA, as I did). It was often quite maniac juggling between work, study, and personal life (I can’t thank my wife and kids enough for bearing with me during this challenging time). Whilst taking the alternative option to do it full time (leaving an existing well-paid job) might look easier, it is a leap of faith as there are no guarantees that all your post MBA dreams will come true!  

When I started my architecture journey as an Infrastructure Architect, I was a pure techie, a technologist, an SME; it was literally about “you tell me what you need (from a technology perspective), and I will design and deliver the best to suit the requirements.” OR “What your technical challenges/problem(s) are and I will find a solution that will mitigate such”. The need for business (fundamentals) knowledge never crossed my mind. Thus, understanding basic financial statements, operating structure and models, legal requirements, business structure, and function were alien to me. I was busy and aiming to be best at delivering “technical” results without gauging the value proposition for the business. 

I encountered various situations where I felt stuck with constant back and forth disagreements, heated discussions about ideas, rejections and nagging from senior stakeholders; although my technical solution was fit for purpose and ticked all boxes from requirement perspective. I was searching for and to recognise what was missing in my thought process and working methods. Thanks to the British Computer Society (BCS) mentoring program, I met with Oliver Cronk (one of the editors of A&G magazine), and our discussions led me to recognise “the gap” and helped me realise the missing element: “The OUTCOMES my solution will bring for the business.” I realised I need to invest some time to understand how a business operates, what the different functions do and how it all links with the work that I am doing. The MBA definitely helped me develop my business acumen and understanding of non-technical aspects which influence and govern the technical solutions. 

So, if you are a technical architect that is well-versed in business and could translate how your solution relates to various functions and organisational strategies, you might want to give the MBA a pass. Alternatively, if you work a lot with business architects that do this kind of deep translation for you then you might feel the MBA is overkill. In most other cases, doing an MBA will likely massively enhance the visibility and your understanding of complicated business functions. Understanding parts of the business such as marketing, finance, operations, sales, and other intangible, non-technical factors. The knowledge will also enable you to create and execute on technology strategy that effectively underpins successful business strategy. Technical architects are required to design, implement, and manage the information technology infrastructures that support an organization’s competitive advantage. Furthermore, they need to know how IT can be used to solve business problems and the MBA gives a fantastic insight into this.