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What the hell have I been doing? Part 1: Poor Man's MBA

Jose Nazario once mentioned to me the concept of a "poor man's MBA", or what a technologist should read in order to understand the business world. I have little motivation, time, or energy to go for a real MBA (one terminal degree is enough), but I do need to absorb as many of the soft skills as possible if I want to, well, not suck as an employee.

With that goal in mind, I read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable to get an idea of how executive teams interact and how decisions are made and indecision occurs, Crossing the Chasm to understand the mentality of marketing folks inside tech companies, and The Innovator's Dilemma to get some pointers on how to push new technologies or innovations through an organization.

For all three books, the language and style that is used is as important as the concepts discussed. I have found that people tend to ascribe you to different schools of thought based solely upon how you frame a discussion, and will often times not accept lines of arguments if you don't frame them in their native belief system. By recasting a discussion in terms they would understand, your argument may be more easily accepted.

A trivial example of this is the use of the term "non-optimal". I tend to use it frequently as a result of my formal training in algorithm optimization. I am very careful to use "unprofitable", or "a poor investment of resources" when I am talking to different business stakeholders about engineering decisions rather than "non-optimal", as the use of the latter communicates that you are thinking with a technicians brain, which traditionally doesn't appreciate the customer motivators, versus that of a business person, who may believe that engineers are short-sighted and don't see "the big picture".

Anyone who has straddled both the technicians and non-technicians world can attest to these issues, so there is no point of going much further on the topic. I should have some other super-awesome-cool content later this week, though.

Comments (1)

the "poor man's mba" idea comes out of the "DIY MBA" approach and the Personal MBA. this quote on the squidoo lens for the personal MBA sums it up nicely:

"You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library." - Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon), Good Will Hunting

that said, there's more to it than that. yes, read books and magazines. but also get your ass in gear engaging with your organization outside of your immediate scope if you're an engineer. help out your salesmen or your field engineers, often by agreeing to be the engineering contact for support. get to know your product management teams and be prepared to show them ideas and prototypes. learn how they speak, listen to what they're saying (adam's right about the language and terms they use, you have to learn how to phrase things as "good for the business" and customer focused, not on what's fun to engineer or technology focused). you have those opportunities if you're in a company, big or small.

i also read Inc. magazine, the economist (for news), and money magazine, but really any magazines in that range will work. earn some airline miles and put them towards those magazines, they'll be worth it.

as for one book i recommend that is not on either list, yours or the "personal mba" one, is "the first 90 days" from harvard business press. read it, ingest it, and apply it. when you get a new opportunity at work - a job, a project, anything worth planning - think about it in these terms. think about your life in these terms, what will you set out to do in the first 90 days. what do you want to accomplish, what's realistic, who do you need to enlist the help of, and what can you do o show that you're making progress on that.

keep on blogging on, our careers are certainly improving for it.

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