Reflecting on my MBA experience

Next week, I finish what feels like both a long and short two years pursing an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business. Time for a personal retrospecitve.

My original idea for what an MBA would do for me was unique. When I began applying, I had recently been promoted to run an PMO for a mid-size company. I had direct reports. The culture and team was great. It paid fairly well. And I had a business undergrad degree, and had always worked in technical business functions, so more business education wasn’t going to move the needle.

So the most obvious reason to pursue an MBA - significant boost to salary and business expertise - didn’t really apply. But the idea of a cushy corporate job was appealing… at the time.

Since taking two years off to go back to school has a high opportunity cost - potentially going into a lot of debt - me being me, I overanalzyed the financial impact. By joining the student debt party ravaging the millenial generation, comparing my career trajectory at the time, I’d start to see payback 7-10 years down the road. In other words, an MBA would pay off in the long term, where my current path would be more beneifical for the next decade. It wouldn’t get me a specific job now but would qualify me later in life.

That’s a long time, but like any investment, purusing long term gains is the way to go.

My exposure to large companies was minimal. I had always been at small-medium businesses and startups, never working somewhere with more than 800 employees. I enjoyed the collaborative, scrappy atmosphere - but was curious what big company life would be like. And in general, I think I wanted something better without knowing what better actually meant.

Sometimes you have to try things to know that it’s not you, and you pick up some skills and experience along the way. That’s what the MBA became to me.

A few highlights

There’s plenty of highlights that will come more into focus when I’m galavanting around Europe in a couple weeks, but here’s a few that come to mind now.

My presentation skills have improved, a lot

When you’re working with engineers in agile environments, power pointing is not a thing. I think in 6 years of working, I made a total of two decks and that’s because I presented at a conference. Interpersonal communication was strong, public speaking was weak.

Succinct verbal communication is important for anyone with dreams of climbing the ladder - whatever that is - so I made a point to volunteer for any and all presentations. I can’t deliver a passionate monologue, but I can clearly deliver a message in front of a lot of people.

Exposure to a new fields

Even tough the education aspect wasn’t a primary factor for pursuing a degree, I wanted to focus my classes in an area I was unfamiliar with. Growing up professionally, my products were 100% digital. I had zero knowledge of how a widget is sourced, manufactured, shipped, etc, and how much finances and data dictate the physcial flow of goods.

By focusing my courses in supply chain management, I now have a better understanding of why stuff comes from where it does, why it costs that much, and how much a strong value chain drives competitive advantage.

It’s unvconventional choice for a business student, particularly at UW. We like to zone in on an area of expertise and describe ourselves as such. My pre and (planned) post MBA career fits more in “technology management,” but if I’m going to school, shouldn’t I learn something new instead of more of what I know? And what the hell is an MBA in technology management?

Plus, the best cross-functional leaders have at least some experience in a variety of business functions. Even though I don’t plan to be a supply chain professional, I at least have some knowledge on the types of challenges they face.

I also started diving deep into a few other areas along the way - sustainability, blockchain, machine learning.

People

Finally, I now have meaningful relationships with a swath of people and a connection to a new place. An MBA is very much like high school, and while I tried hard to not fall into that bubble, I expect to look back on this time similarly. I learned from, traveled with, and became friends with awesome people.

If you told me 3 years ago I’d live in Wisconsin for two years, I would have lol’d at you. But Madison is a great town - big enough that it has everything you want, but still small enough that everyone is really nice.

It’s cold for way too long, but when it finally gets warm, sandiwched between two lakes, it’s one of the more - if not the most - beautiful and unique campus in the country.

Looking forward

The MBA was an experience. I interned at a ginormous company with $60B in revenue and 100k employees. I learned about corporate strategy. I learned to talk about myself (I hate talking about myself). I networked. I met great people. And networked some more.

Most importantly, I figured out what is important to me professionally.

Waking up every day to go work in a collaborative, fast-paced culture with a passionate, smart team who is building things that solve actual problems is what excites me. It’s complex, challenging, and stressful - but the sense of accomplishment when you’re able to achieve something great with a team is uncomparable.

I’m lucky (and grateful) to be in the situation where I can spend a few weeks in Europe, then head to SF to shack up with the girlfriend while I figure out what is next.

It’s uncomfortable not having employment something lined up, but I’m still at the point where I can take a big risk, bet on myself, and bust my ass to make it work.