MBAs Talk Tech in E-Biz 101

Schools preparing next-generation leaders.

Amazing. Its only 9:30 on a bone-chilling Saturday morning, and already Bill Schianos class is deep into a discussion of the evolution of the Web as a place to do business.

This masters-level class isnt noteworthy just because these Bentley College students have braved the New England cold so early on a weekend morning. No, this bunch is remarkable for another kind of bravery: Although most of the students come from backgrounds in business and liberal arts, this morning, theyre talking tech like they were born in the basement of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But, even though the students have come to the program largely without backgrounds in technology, they dont even blink as Schiano launches straight from a discussion about online transaction monitoring to hashing out how corporations are using Sun Microsystems Inc.s Java Enterprise Architecture to support their e-business operations.

What a difference a few years makes.

As recently as five years ago, graduate business students across the land mainly busied themselves learning to craft business plans, manage teams of workers and balance budgets. Sure, down the hall—perhaps in the basement—computer science students would be focused on writing and debugging code, designing databases and building computer networks—but never the twain would meet.

Curricula for business disciplines such as accounting and marketing were often devoid of instruction regarding the Internet. When it came to the underlying technologies that support e-business, undergraduate and graduate business curricula were like a trio of monkeys: Hear no tech, see no tech, speak no tech.

But in Schianos e-Commerce in the Global Economy class—first offered in 1997—as in many other college classes now, students are jumping across disciplines to learn a mix of technical and management skills. At schools such as Bentley, in Waltham, Mass., Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, the University of Memphis and dozens of others, numerous cross-disciplinary e-business education programs have sprung up at the undergraduate and graduate levels over the last two to three years.

Thats good news for enterprises in search of the next generation of e-business leaders. Some academics and corporate recruiters said the students now starting to emerge from these programs are exceptionally well-qualified for IT and management roles in e-businesses because theyre not learning a narrow set of skills in a vacuum; rather, theyre acquiring disparate types of knowledge in settings that require a heavy degree of teamwork—just like in the e-businesses where they might someday work.

Little wonder, then, that corporate enterprises such as Federal Express Corp. are taking an increasing role in shaping the curricula for these programs by acting as advisers to the schools. By doing so, corporations can be assured of getting job applicants like those whom Schianos class is molding: capable of understanding both what a business is trying to do and how technology can help the business do it.

"The class is about how the technology side of a business should work. To know what a given technology can do for a business, they have to know how it works, regardless of whether theyre a programmer or a business-unit VP," Schiano said.

To the casual observer following the discussion in Schianos class about how transaction monitoring tools work, it might seem impossible that the students could have come from undergraduate programs in business or liberal arts.

But they have, and thats in line with a growing trend: a blurring of the lines between tech and business programs, experts say—indeed, such blurring is the most significant sign that technology and business education is finally being revamped for the age of e-business. Recruiters at e-businesses large and small said the changes are long overdue, so great is the need for project managers who understand how enterprise computer networks are built and for software developers who know how their companies investments in IT fit into their e-business strategies.

"For the last few years, [computer science] students have been coming out of school and getting programming jobs they have been grossly underqualified for because some recruiters see that theyve learned the new hot skill, and thats all they look at," said Schiano, who recently returned to teaching after a partial leave of absence to do e-business consulting work and to help launch an e-business consulting startup. "Companies are hiring these people because they need the bodies. But often the managers dont know how to manage them because they themselves dont understand the technology," he said.

Hiring managers at major employers such as FedEx, in Memphis, Tenn., which gleans fully half of its new hires from college recruiting, said theyre seeing signs that the new cross-disciplinary approach by the schools is bearing fruit in producing better-qualified candidates for e-business jobs.

"Traditionally, one of the biggest problems in finding solid entry-level workers was the silo mentality: The schools werent encouraging them to learn skills outside their little silo, whether it was marketing or engineering," said Julie Yancey, FedExs director of worldwide people development. "But this is starting to change. The schools are teaching more teamworking skills to business and IS students, and many more students seem to have obtained hands-on internships at real companies" now than in past years, Yancey said.

Software programmers hired by FedEx in recent months "no longer operate in an environment where they simply write code [for customer-facing applications] and throw it at us after they guess at what the customer needs," she said. "They have a better understanding of the customers needs because they have a more specific understanding of the industry in which they operate. They come out of school with the ability to communicate in a nontechnical way and operate as team players. Their value to the overall organization is increased because they can communicate that technology can be used to solve business problems."

To FedEx, such changes have been a long time coming. Back in 1997, FedEx officials put together a white paper outlining technology curriculum changes the company wanted to see universities implement.

The document, which FedEx distributed to academic experts during a forum on technology education that year, stated that "there is a growing demand for software developers and programmers who have not only been educated in the technical skills but also have an understanding of the software development process. The software project development team members must also have business skills like budgeting, marketing and planning, which are crucial to a successful software project."

FedEx distributed the white paper to the University of Memphis, Texas A&M University and the University of Pittsburgh. The company has worked with professors in the computer science and business programs at the schools since then to give further input on revamping those programs for the age of e-business, Yancey said.

Officials from FedEx also serve on an advisory board at Texas A&M to help guide the development of the schools transportation, computer science, engineering and marketing curricula. The company has advised the schools to find ways to teach students in all these programs about how their jobs will evolve as their companies sell more products and services on the Web.

"These schools, as well as others we have an active relationship with, were looking for ways to get industry input on their curricula," Yancey said. Producing the white paper was a way to begin that relationship, she said.

Brent Kinsey, a recruiter at Zefer Corp., an Internet consulting and services company in Boston, said he believes cross-disciplinary business and technology programs are resulting in computer science graduates with a better understanding of the economic realities that e-businesses face today. Such graduates often make solid hires because when they join an IT staff, they quickly get up to speed on what they can do to help the IT operation support the companys business goals, Kinsey said.

"Kids are coming out of undergraduate CIS [computer information systems] programs with a better ability to adapt to changes" in the e-business workplace, he said. "Theyre getting more practical experience on their own, and since theyre actually out there working in these companies, theyre more interested in where the whole economy is going."

This, according to academics, fits into the main goals of the schools developing these cross-disciplinary programs: to produce graduates who understand where their skills can fit into an organization and what kinds of opportunities and challenges the new e-business economy holds for them.

At Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, corporate partners, including Johnson & Johnson and Alcoa Inc., are now working with students in the M.S. in e-Commerce program to design reverse-auction business-to-business commerce engines, Web-enable supply chains and build wireless applications to support marketing campaigns, according to Tridas Mukhopadhyay, professor of industrial administration and director of the Institute for e-Commerce, a 2-year-old joint project of the business school and the computer science school.

"We formed this program because there was a great need for students to bridge this gap," Mukhopadhyay said. "We were finding that most MBA students didnt have enough of a technology background to be successful in e-business."

The students work in teams, and they study Java programming, networking and managerial economics. But no matter what the technology, the students must understand the basic reality of what a business must do to stay in the black, Mukhopadhyay said.

"Whats new is that the students understand why profitability is important. Its become easier to teach that principle, because they see it played out in the death of the dot-coms," he said. "Our philosophy is that if you know the technology well enough, you know its limitations also."

Prospective students say they believe participating in cross-disciplinary programs will help them move ahead in their e-business careers.

Jack Pickett, a dot-com customer service manager and former network administrator with an undergraduate economics degree, will begin his studies in the Master of Information Systems Management program at Carnegie Mellon in the fall. "Id like to be involved in management decisions on the technology side of a business," and perhaps eventually become a CTO (chief technology officer), said Pickett, of Arlington, Va.

Pickett opted for Carnegie Mellons MISM program because he said he felt a technically focused degree will help him catch recruiters eyes.

"I have a business-focused undergraduate degree and hands-on tech experience, but nothing to link the two together," Pickett said. Even after four years of professional network administration experience (the result of student internships where he first learned the skill), he launched a job search only to find his résumé being passed over by recruiters who noted the lack of a technical degree, Pickett said.

Once he begins the MISM program—jointly taught by Carnegie Mellons computer science, software engineering, business and management faculty—Pickett will dive into its e-business security management and systems availability tracks.

Among the programs requirements are courses such as database management, object-oriented programming in Java, professional writing and financial analysis for business.

Such a variety of course work will allow Pickett to figure out what kind of company he wants to work in and what kind of IT job he wants—including those jobs that could lead to the CTO office, he said.

Students who have gone through such programs and gotten job offers say the cross-disciplinary skills they learned were invaluable. One such student said her schools stress on the importance of IT professionals being able to successfully work and communicate with anyone else in their companies helped her land one post-graduation job offer.

Jennifer Neu, a 22-year-old undergraduate computer science major at Bentley, spent seven months in a work-study job in the IS department in the city of Waltham. There, Neu built a database used to track spending across city departments and—using the team-building skills the school stressed—taught technology-averse city employees how to use it.

With that experience under her belt, its not surprising the city wound up offering her a job as an IS manager. After all, its just those kinds of strong technology skills—mixed with the ability to translate techie talk into language that team members across an enterprise can understand—that e-businesses are looking for and that universities like Bentley are beginning to produce.

With the way things are going, as programs such as Bentleys expand and catch on elsewhere in academia, it looks like enterprises are soon going to be getting a crop of leaders who have a good chance of passing real-life E-Biz 101—with flying colors.