Should MBAs Learn to Code?

by Private

A contentious question often asked by MBA students is, "should I learn to code?"  Rather than answering yes or no, the best answer is probably “why, and why now?”  Despite preexisting convictions one way or the other, there certainly is no universal answer, as context and personal goals are paramount.

Are coding skills valuable?
Absolutely.  To learn to program is to learn to build things and solve problems, a skillset that can be harnessed in any industry to capitalize on ideas born out of inspiration or frustration.  The resulting mindset helps logically digest complex problems in all contexts of life.  It would be great if everyone had the opportunity to learn programming at an early age -- it's in the same practical bucket as algebra, cooking and duct-tape carpentry.

Is an MBA with preexisting coding skills valuable for job X?
Often, yes.  Regardless of whether the role includes an official technical component, programming ability signals to a recruiter that the candidate is a logical thinker with attention to detail.  It also signals a high baseline level of computing competence.  If lucky, you may even get a sliver more respect from the anti-MBA types.

Is an MBA with preexisting coding skills valuable as a product manager or startup founder?
Yes.  For any member of a multidisciplinary team, programming knowledge will help you communicate effectively on technical subjects.  In a software business, you’ll be able to understand your product inside and out.  You’ll be able to identify technical solutions to problems; moreover, you’ll have a strong grasp of what ideas are feasible over what time frame.   In rare instances it saves money, as an MBA founder can take on the early stages of developing a prototype.

Nevertheless, in most of these scenarios note that an understanding is far more important than an ability.  Appreciating how a product works, what is technically possible or realistic, and how to communicate with a development team can all be learned without programming knowledge, and this familiarity is far more important to the venture than the coding you wouldn’t be doing anyway.

I've used my programming experience on countless projects, and it has been extraordinarily valuable.  However, in my current role as product manager at a startup, I can count the number of times I've contributed actual code on one hand.  Relative to the full time, specialized developers on our team, I'm nowhere near as talented and it wouldn't be a good use of anyone's time.

"So, should I, John or Jane MBA Student, learn to code from scratch today?"
Not if you’re business-plan-in-hand and your priority is liftoff -- it’s not worth the time sacrifice.  Development costs are plummeting; thus, you’d be better off mocking something up and recruiting or outsourcing talent to built it.  It is unrealistic to expect that you’ll learn enough in a short time frame to be a technical co-founder or even have a major coding role.  However, if things are less urgent and you would enjoy picking up a real-world skill, I encourage you to at least dabble in programming and try to apply it to something you're interested in.

“I want to learn to code, so what should I start with?”
I would reframe this: what do you want to do? Don't force some book down your throat without inspiration. Build something you like, whether it’s a personal homepage or an app/service based on an idea that you're passionate about.

Personally, I think web languages are a great introduction.  HTML & CSS are relatively easy to get started and quickly produce tangible results.  If you're against starting from scratch, sign up for a free blog service that lets you edit the templates, and play around with that. If you enjoy it, try moving on to a little JavaScript, then PHP, Ruby, or Python.  Certainly don’t feel limited to web languages -- learn Objective-C if you really want to make iPhone apps, but again, I would suggest having an app idea in mind to make the learning process actively relevant.

Fifty to one hundred hours invested could go a long way toward building a site or app that creates personal value for you, and might help you in certain instances of the job hunt.  But for MBA students with a business plan, don’t sacrifice the time you could be using to mockup, outsource and launch something great.