Dispelling the myth that “business leaders don’t need to be technical”
It’s easy to imagine a future where nearly all CEOs are technologically literate.
As we swiftly integrate technology into our daily lives, more and more “traditional” companies are starting to look a lot like “tech” companies. When the first iPhone was released a mere nine years ago, the average adult user spent 18 minutes on their mobile device. By 2015, that had skyrocketed to 2.8 hours. Businesses have adapted to support this technological evolution.
As Marc Andreessen wrote in his famous 2011 WSJ Op-Ed, “Software Is Eating the World.” Today’s dominant music companies are software companies: Apple, Spotify, and Pandora. Wal-Mart, the world’s leading retailer, is increasingly using software to power its logistics and distribution, and is the world’s second-largest online retailer, to boot. Andreessen notes that oil and gas companies were early adopters of supercomputing and data visualization. The list goes on and on as major transportation (Uber), hospitality (AirBnB), and financial (Coinbase) companies are increasingly run on software and are delivering services online.
We expect our executives to have a strong understanding of the financial performance of their companies. Shareholders would find it strange – or more likely, unacceptable – if a CEO said, “I’m not financially-inclined” and passed along financial performance inquires to his or her CFO. Similarly, CEOs in an increasingly digital world will struggle to say, “I’m not technical” and hand over mission-critical business questions for the engineers to answer.
Would you, as an employer, hire an MBA who graduated from a program that taught strategy, marketing, leadership, and operations — but did not teach finance or accounting? An MBA program that lacks a computer science curriculum is like a program that lacks finance or accounting.
Harvard Business School positions itself as one of the top business schools in the world for future leaders and entrepreneurs. Were you to guess the number of core courses at Harvard Business School that train students to become more technically literate in computer science you would assume maybe two or three. In reality, it’s zero. This is a painful mismatch.
Other education systems, like those in New York and Chicago, are adapting their curriculums to better prepare students for a tech-enabled world. Last fall, Harvard College announced that computer science had overtaken economics as the most popular undergraduate course. HBS, however, has been uncharacteristically slow to make the change. Including technical courses at HBS would not require a complete overhaul of the curriculum. Most current HBS students do not have computer science backgrounds but requiring a course similar to Harvard College’s popular Intro to Computer Science, CS50, would be a good first start.
After completing an intro course, HBS could offer advanced courses like systems design, machine learning and data analytics, and developing digital marketing. The positive news is that technical literacy is not binary (pun intended). It’s not accurate to say, “I’m technical” or “I’m not technical.” Literacy is on a spectrum.
We’ve reached a critical inflection point. Without arming students with a technical skillset, HBS is at risk of evolving into a business school for future managers, rather than one for future leaders.
MBAs don’t have to wait for the administration to catch up. Learning how to code is a good first step, and a two year MBA program can be an optimal environment to test-drive a technical skillset.
While the trend may seem obvious, many continue to disagree that MBAs should learn how to code. Let’s dive into the five most common myths.
- “I can always hire someone to run the technical aspects of the company.”
Peter Drucker developed the framework that all businesses have “profit centers” and “cost centers.” Profit centers, which drive most of the value of the business, are increasingly delivered via software.
This is most evident in evolving “traditional” industries like insurance (Zenefits), transportation (Uber), and media (Netflix) where engineers are celebrated as first class citizens. Non-technical employees often have to fight to avoid being sidelined in major business decisions.
Senior executives in consulting and finance firms did the grunt work early in their careers, drafting PowerPoint decks and building models. While most don’t actively use those skills in their senior roles, the competency developed earlier helps them understand what’s possible and know the intricacies of their products.
Similarly, Marc Benioff grew up programming, transitioned into sales at Oracle, and capitalized on that joint experience when he founded Salesforce, a company that made $5.3B in revenue last year. Likewise, John Doerr, started his career with a technical background, graduated from HBS in 1976, and has since built Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the most successful VCs in Silicon Valley,
Although I doubt that Benioff, Doerr, Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer, or Jeff Bezos write any production code at this point in their roles today, I suspect all of them believe that their technical knowledge continues to power much of their success.
- “I like to work with teams in more innovative roles. I don’t want to sit alone in front of my computer all day programming.”
One of the most enduring — and detrimental — stereotypes of a “coder” is that of an “introverted kid,” who sits alone in his dorm, drinking Red Bull while building a gaming app.
In most organizations, that stereotype could not be further from the truth. Engineers work as teams to design and build products. There is no one-solution-fits-all for products; coding is a creative endeavor.
- “I’m not a math person.”
Programming is not math. A cursory skim in a university’s course catalog, like at Duke, shows that many computer science degrees require fewer math courses than economics degrees require.
Computer science teaches a way of thinking rather than a series of rules to implement. Having the skillset to turn a hazy idea into a real product is empowering, and requires a nuanced mastery of language and is deeply creative.
- “It’s too late to learn how to code.”
It is never too late. It doesn’t take many years (or decades) of learning to obtain a powerful technical skillset. Multiple young founders, like Evan Spiegel of Snapchat and Kevin Systrom of Instagram, have built billion-dollar tech companies, while only having a couple years of coding experience.
Technologies, programming languages, and frameworks are constantly evolving. This levels the playing field in two ways. First, these evolutions make it harder for current coders to maintain their technical dominance. Second, higher-level languages and supportive frameworks make it easier for new coders to enter the industry.
Case in point: React.js, one of the most popular open-source libraries that powers Facebook, Netflix, Bleacher Report, Airbnb, SeatGeek and countless others only came out in 2013 – meaning the best developers in the world have been coding in React for less than 3 years. As new technologies emerge, there is always room for a new coder to develop expertise.
- “It’s hard to find the time in an MBA program to dedicate myself to coding.”
Paul Graham wrote a classic essay on the difference between maker and manager schedules. Most business schools operate on manager schedules, where activities can be broken down into small chunks – a coffee at 3pm, a club meeting at 5p, read cases at 7:30p.
Makers, whether working on a mobile app, a painting, or a financial model, need long periods of unstructured time to be creative and work through the problem. Graham observed: “When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in.”
While getting an MBA, it’s hard, but not impossible, to carve out long periods of time. Diana Kimball (HBS 2013) learned how to code while in school, and blogged about her experiences.
Although the administration has been slow to adapt to this trend, students are building their own grassroots efforts. At HBS, groups are popping up to bring technologists together who want to code and work on side projects while in school.
If you are hoping to become one of the world’s future business leaders, learn how to code and build tech-enabled businesses.
For all the MBAs “looking for a technical founder,” here’s a challenge: be a technical founder. On the way, you may find out that this move isn’t only good for your career, but also surprisingly empowering and fun.
Aileen Lee, the founding partner at Cowboy Ventures, published a now famous piece on start-up “unicorns,” companies valued at $1 billion by private or public markets. In her report, she found that an overwhelming majority (92%) of “unicorns” started with a technical founder. Harvard prides itself on being one of the top business schools in the world for entrepreneurs, let’s make sure future graduates are ready to take on that challenge.