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The technology industry is very broad, it includes large market-cap firms like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, high growth “unicorn” firms like Uber and Lyft, and small startups which may have received a first round of funding. The technology work environment is generally characterized as high growth, fast paced, innovative, exciting, fun and a bit more risky than other fields. Tech firms are generally very ambitious, not limiting their goals to their current marketplaces.

Roles for MBAs within technology firms are also broad, and can be focused on strategy for the firm, or product and brand management, as well as positions in the functional areas of finance, marketing and supply chain.

The main centers for technology firms in the United States are Silicon Valley, CA and Seattle, WA. In other parts of the world, tech hubs include London, Bangalore, Berlin, Dublin and Singapore.

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What is attractive about the technology sector

In technology you work on things, you have an ability to make a direct and measurable impact. In many firms, due to the nimble nature of the marketplaces, you can propose ideas and see them through to execution. Innovation is necessary in technology, the fast paced environment requires creative problem solving. Tech companies are generally nimble, and even the large companies are young, and create a work environment that is fun. The stereotypical tech company is a meritocracy, allowing individuals to rise through the ranks, leadership opportunities tend to come around quickly.

What is unattractive about the technology sector

Being fast paced is a double-edged sword, it does require that employees are passionate about the sector and firm, and willing to go the extra mile to drive things forward. There are less clear cut career paths, generally, in the tech sector. You will also typically be less represented, as an MBA, at your firm.

There also may be a cultural hangover, within the firm, where the geeks don’t respect those in a business role. As mentioned above, the technology sector is more risky, in terms of a career, by the very nature that it is a sector that is still dominated by a startup culture ethos, where the little guy is constantly trying to disrupt the established players.

 

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The emergence of the tech sector can be split into three waves. In the first wave, from the mid to late 1900s, tech titans like IBM, Intel and Hewlett Packard ruled the sector. These firms would hire MBAs into business roles, and continue to do so today. But the tech sector, as we now know it, really started to take shape during the mid-1990s to 2001. This was when the first significant wave of the technology revolution was underway, principally as a result of the commercialization of the internet, and the development of internet infrastructure companies like Netscape, Microsoft, Yahoo! And AOL.

During this time there were an incredible amount of opportunities for those interested in tech entrepreneurship; a whole new business frontier was ready to be exploited. This put downward pressure on the MBA degree for two reasons.

These new tech firms were very focused on innovation and ideas, and either were not particularly interested in the MBA degree holder, or did not have the infrastructure in place to recruit at top MBA programs.

Some potential candidates were also forgoing the MBA opportunity, determining that the timing of entering the tech space was more important that gaining a business education prior to joining. It was also thought that the pace of the tech space would, itself, be a terrific learning opportunity.

Meanwhile, on campuses at the leading MBA programs, MBA students were now confronted with a novel recruiting opportunity, which diverted a number of students away from the more traditional management consulting and investment banking paths. Some students would also intern at a tech startup, and then not return for their second year after getting lured away with stock options and the fast pace of the tech domain.

During this exciting time in the tech sector, business models of the new startups were generally focused on customer acquisition and growth, rather than positive margins and revenues. The prevailing logic was to gain market share, acquire customer lock-in, and then worry about monetization. High flying companies during this time included Netscape Communications and Pets.com. The ecosystem of private equity investing, betting millions of dollars identifying the next big thing, fueled the insane valuations some of these companies were realizing, despite the lack of profitability of many.

In retrospect, it is easy to say that the marketplace was not sustainable, and during 2001 the tech market collapsed. Venture capital funding dried up, and companies that did not have a positive cash flow soon folded.

Inevitably some tech companies did survive the necessary market correction, including Amazon and Google (which had only just launched before the crash). These companies, alongside Apple, Microsoft and others are now in a mature stage of growth, and recruit extensively at business schools, to help manage that growth, while also seeking new areas to pursue.

There are also a number of new tech companies, post-2001, that have emerged and grown to significant heights. These include the companies that focus on social media (Facebook and Twitter for example), which itself did not really get started until the mid-2000s, and the companies that are innovating the sharing economy, like Uber and AirBnB.

Many of the leading tech firms have also moved into related marketplaces, and continue to innovate as they do this. Some of these marketplaces, like the auto industry, have traditionally been the domain of more traditional companies. Thus these young tech firms are seeking to take on entrenched incumbents in marketplaces that they are not as familiar. Also, some of these tech companies, like SpaceX, Google and Facebook have ambitious goals, whether it is to colonize Mars, or eradicate disease on Earth. All these types of strategic moves require a fundamental understanding of business and markets.

The technology sector is now one of the three significant recruiters at many of the top business schools, seeking MBAs in a business role that can help grow the companies.

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Tech firms come in all shapes, sizes and ages. A few firms have been around since the industrial revolution, and these more traditional firms are little different from other industrial firms, in terms of their size and culture.

More recently, and as a result of the tech revolution, many new firms have emerged, and some of these tech firms are very large, like Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon. But many tech firms are still small and nimble, and most try to retain the culture of a startup firm: eat or be eaten, be passionate, and aim to rule the world. The majority of these tech firms are located in close proximity of each other, in the United States that’s either in Silicon Valley, which was established as a tech center by Hewlett Packard, or in Seattle, WA, home of Microsoft and Amazon.

Many MBAs aspire to work at a startup. While this is admirable, it is not always practical as a first job after the MBA degree. Startups generally cannot afford to hire MBAs, unless they have been funded and are looking for a CEO, in which case they are not looking for a newly minted MBA. Oftentimes, day-to-day ‘in the trenches’ (and potentially highly specialized) work might not fit the MBA graduate. Those that do join startups will likely not receive the starting salary that an MBA gets from a top firm, but they may be further compensated by additional equity in the startup.

For many who aspire to join a startup, it might be better to seek out an established tech firm, and gain experience in the larger firm, surrounded by those who worked at the firm during its early days. Once a tech career is established, moving on to a startup will be an easier transition.

Assessing Fit

While the culture at tech firms is generally more “laid back” and youthful than cultures at more traditional “button down” firms, this does not mean that the culture at each firm is the same. Amazon’s culture, under the leadership of Jeff Bezos, is probably more “extreme” in terms of its meritocracy, than other tech firms. This is in part because Bezos encourages feedback at every turn, especially negative feedback. This type of culture is a good fit for a certain type of employee, but it is not for everyone. It is important to understand the culture at each of the firms you are exploring.

Generally, tech firms want to create an environment that people will enjoy, so that people will want to be at work, creating an atmosphere conducive to a happy work place. If people are happy at work, they will generally want to be at work, work harder and be more productive.

Role

Unlike investment banking and management consulting, there are a variety of roles in which an MBA graduate can pursue.

Perhaps the most sought after role is “product management.” In this role, you serve as a “mini CEO” and manage everything related to an individual product of the firm. In the tech sector, a product manager will need to speak the language of the engineers who are charged with designing the product, so a basic requirement for this position is an engineering background, prior to the MBA. Most MBA candidates seeking a product management role, post-MBA, will also have product management experience prior to the MBA.

Business development, strategy and corporate development, are another set of roles that MBAs often seek. In this case, you are essentially performing the marketing function of a product, seeking out new markets and new business opportunities for the firm. Because you are dealing with customers, and analyzing customer needs and trends, more so than working directly with the engineers, the need for an engineering background is less pronounced.

Finally, MBAs seek positions in functional areas of the firm, whether this is supply chain and operations, finance, or general marketing. Roles in these areas will be somewhat dependent on pre-MBA experience, so someone with investment banking experience might be interested in seeking out a corporate finance role in a large tech company, not forgetting that some of these large tech firms undertake a number of acquisitions as they grow into new markets.

The Work

The work at tech firms is generally going to be more entrepreneurial than in traditional firms, even in the larger tech firms. Because these firms need to remain nimble, and not only react to marketplace conditions, but develop new marketplaces, the work is necessarily fast-paced and priorities seemingly ever-changing.

Innovation is important for these firms, to compete, so MBA hires need to thrive in an environment that requires creativity. Employees will be required to work long hours, especially during times of bringing new products to the marketplace. That said, many of these firms do promote the notion of a healthy lifestyle, and a healthy work-life balance supports this.

Working in a small startup will require employees to wear many hats, in terms of their specific role. So it will be important to be adaptable, while also thriving while working in a team environment.

Many times, employees will be competing for internal resources, in order to get their idea or project off the ground. This requires strong communication skills, drive and motivation, to make sure your idea competes for the resources that are needed, within a company, to move the idea forward to internal prototyping and trial.

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What Firms Seek

Tech companies are broad in size, age, and industry focus, as are the roles that they offer to MBAs. Because of this, the types of functional skills sought by tech companies is broad. A few roles do have specific requirements, like that of product manager, where an engineering background, in order to be able to work with the engineers, is important.

Because tech is very broad, you want to narrow your focus, well before you start recruiting. Are you interested in the fin-tech sector, or innovating in the biotech space? Do you want to work for a firm that gives you a large platform to make an impact, like Amazon or Apple, or are you seeking experience in a small startup environment, with the passion to grow a business?

Because there are a broad range of tech firms, especially when you compare this with the management consulting and investment banking industries where there are a limited number of firms that essentially do the same thing, it is important for those seeking positions in the tech sector to do the appropriate research on the individual firms that they are interested, and the specific products and industries in which the firms compete. If you don’t come across as someone who is passionate about the firm, its products and markets, this will be an issue during the hiring process.

Fit is also very important, both in the large tech firms, and more so in the smaller environments of the startups where you will be working with everybody at the firm. If you cannot demonstrate an understanding of your fit with the firm you are interviewing with, this could kill the interview, despite your background and other credentials.

More broadly, having an entrepreneurial background where you have demonstrated innovation and a passion for creating things, will be important. You want to show that you are a “go-getter” who steps up to take initiative at every turn and are a self-starter who can drive projects forward. You also want to show that you have a passion for tech, and how tech changes lives.

Showing that you have made an impact in the past, and can relate a series of accomplishments will be helpful. Having some basic coding skills (something you can develop, on the side, in business school) will also be helpful. You will be working with programmers, regardless of your specific role, so speaking their language will be important.

Strong analytical and problem solving skills will be critical, regardless of your role in a technology firm. This is an environment of smart people, like banking and consulting, so you will need to fit that criteria.  It will also be important that you can demonstrate that you are flexible, whether that means you can easily transition from one task to another, or that you can deal with an ambiguous climate at work and a lack of an established career path.

Because most of these tech firms are either small startups or relatively young (for example, Google is less than 20 years old), and because they need to remain nimble to survive and to continue to grow, they need hires that will thrive in that environment. Hires need to demonstrate that they are creative and curious, and are very comfortable outside of the status quo.

The Recruiting Process

More established tech firms will have a more structured on-campus presence for engaging top MBA programs and their students. For those firms, it will be important to engage in their on-campus recruiting activities, much as you would with banking and consulting recruiting. It will be important to seek out alumni at the firms you are wanting to recruit, and build out your tech network. These larger firms will typically undertake their recruiting throughout the fall semester for full-time hires, and during the spring semester for internships. Some of these firms may return, to undertake “just-in-time” recruiting later in the year, if their roles have not been filled through the formal interviewing process.

Many smaller tech firms, however, only conduct “just-in-time” recruiting. Because they are smaller, and don’t have a fixed number of hires they seek year-on-year, they inevitably don’t know their hiring requirements too many months in advanced; this is exacerbated by the fast pace of the tech environment. These smaller firms are also less used to hiring MBAs, and it is often up to the student to demonstrate the MBA value proposition to the firms they are seeking to work.

Many top MBA programs will conduct career treks to take their students to the tech centers, like Silicon Valley, CA and Seattle, WA. It will be important to take advantage of these treks and do as much networking as possible, visiting the firms that you have interest, and attending their networking events. Seeking out alumni at these firms will also be important.

Obviously, if you are at Berkeley / Haas, or Stanford, you have the advantage of having Silicon Valley right on your doorstep; you will be able to engage with firms from Silicon Valley more directly and more persistently.

Acquiring a summer internship can be a primary avenue for seeking out a full-time experience in some of the larger tech firms. This is no different to recruiting for the banks and the consulting firms. For the smaller startups, gaining an internship can be a fantastic experience, where you can make a significant impact from the very beginning. There will be less certainty in terms of the pathway going forward from a startup after the internship. For some, gaining an internship at a startup is actually something they want to do to take a break from their traditional career of consulting or banking, adding a very different experience to their career development.

The interview process at tech firms will vary by firm. Some firms will use mini-cases in their interviews, much like the consulting firms, in order to better understand your problem solving skills. However, according to Julia Hwang, Assistant Dean at Berkeley / Haas, you are less likely now to get asked the more unique questions that used to be more common among tech interviews, like “How many golf balls fit in an airplane?” The diversity of functions that are available for MBA hires in tech firms also impacts the nature of the interviews. Some tech firms will interview, and make offers immediately, others may use a multi-step approach, and use virtual tools to further engage their candidates.

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