MBA Students Flock to Silicon Valley to Shape the Future of Technology

A career at a tech company such as Apple or Amazon has become sought-after at business school, but some in the industry remain skeptical about hiring MBAs

Working for a technology company was once considered a renegade move by business school students, who largely stuck with the more traditional career paths of finance or consulting. But as Big Tech companies including Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Netflix have led the bull market of the past decade, high flying MBA students are thinking again

Technology has been one of the hottest post-MBA career paths in recent years, even as some companies in the industry continue to shun business school and hire candidates with more technical horsepower instead. 

It is far removed from the conventional image of an MBA dressed in a “grey pinstripe suit”, commonly found on Wall Street. The trend is being driven largely by both supply and demand, with students attracted by the more entrepreneurial culture and opportunity to “move fast and break things”, which is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s now famous motto.  

Such is the case for Daniel Messina, an MBA candidate at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pennsylvania. He spent four months interning at Nvidia, a Silicon Valley chip maker that has developments in autonomous vehicles, in its virtual incubator for artificial intelligence (AI) startups. 

“My role was a combination of market research and business operations, and my project was to identify and analyze potential breakout areas for AI within the startup landscape,” says Messina, who will return to Nvidia full-time in the same role on graduation this year.  

He has a bachelor’s degree in materials engineering and prior to business school, worked for a nonprofit trade association. His attraction to tech stemmed from his consumption of products. “I get the latest and greatest gadgets,” he says, including a drone. “The tech industry seemed like a natural home”, says Messina, as well as the ability to “be disruptive” in a “dynamic environment”.  

A third of the MBA candidates graduating from Tepper last year went to work at tech companies, up from 21 percent six years ago. At UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, in the heart of Silicon Valley, technology firms snapped up 32 percent of last year’s cohort. They were among the best-paid, taking home base salaries of $130,000, more than those in financial services, which is renowned for its lavish pay. 

For many MBAs, Silicon Valley now trumps Wall Street

“Tech is an opportunity to shape the future,” says Abby Scott, assistant dean for MBA career management at Haas. “Aside from the excitement of working at a tech company, compensation is also a draw, and stock grants are an added benefit.” Many Silicon Valley firms, including Amazon and Google are known for giving stock to their workers, which helps them feel invested in their companies. 

The shift to entrepreneurial tech careers has come largely at the expense of the financial services industry. Many MBA students are choosing to mint their fortunes in Silicon Valley over Wall Street, with banks having suffered a reputational crisis on campus, thanks to multibillion-dollar losses, trading scandals and shrinking salaries. A perceived workaholic culture and poor work-life balance have also had a negative impact on banks’ reputations. 

“The growth of tech is significant, but the shift in financial services from large volume MBA hiring toward more undergraduate recruiting has also played a role,” says Stephen Rakas, executive director of the Masters Career Center at the Tepper School. 

The popularity of a career in investment banking at the world’s top business schools has plummeted by 40 percent since the global financial crisis, according to a Financial Times analysis. The falls were steepest at Harvard Business School in Boston and at London Business School, with graduates from these schools 52 percent less likely to pick a banking career than before Lehman Brothers collapsed.  

Some of the most generous job offers pinned to business schools’ job boards are from tech companies both old and new. “Large, legacy tech companies have been recruiting significant numbers of MBAs for a long time,” says Rakas. Amazon, for example, now hires 1,000 MBAs annually across the world and is a top recruiter at many leading business schools, among them HEC Paris and INSEAD in France and Singapore.  

Microsoft, meanwhile, hires several hundred MBAs a year from some 150 schools across 40 countries and has grown MBA recruitment by some 30 percent year-over-year. The tech jobs span the ubiquitous business functions of marketing, finance, operations, strategy, HR, and general management. 

“Tech companies value MBA grads because of the skills that they bring to the job: complex problem solving, critical thinking, comfort with ambiguity and collaboration,” says Scott at Haas. 

However, some Big Tech firms shun MBAs

However, while the Big Tech outfits have employed significant numbers of MBAs in recent years, some reluctance still lingers in an industry that has traditionally got its talent from engineering and computer science, rather than business schools. 

Some of the most prominent technology leaders have publicly criticized MBAs over their apparent “rigid thinking” and “risk aversion”. These include Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal; Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO; and Elon Musk, the mercurial Tesla boss, to name just a few skeptics. 

Rakas says that the mid-sized and startup tech companies tend to hold off on hiring MBAs until they achieve more growth, in part because they aren’t in a position to extend offers to MBA candidates who can’t start working until they graduate. Structured MBA hiring at larger companies is often done six or nine months in advance, he says. 

“Also, at smaller companies, technical skillsets are usually the most critically needed resource,” says Rakas. “An MBA may or may not have deep technical skills, but they do bring the skills necessary to scale and manage a growing business.” 

Messina says that Nvidia is mostly made up of engineers and techies, but he got the sense that the business is becoming more receptive to hiring MBAs. “My manager was also an MBA,” he says. “The HR team even asked me for feedback about how they could improve the MBA internship experience, to expand their hiring.” 

He stresses the importance, though, of taking technical classes like data mining as part of an MBA in order to land a job in Big Tech. Business schools are taking note, with ESMT Berlin introducing an optional “coding boot camp” next year as part of the MBA program, according to Marcel Kalis, head of career services. 

“We will prepare our graduates even better for the demands of the tech sector,” he says. 

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