In November 2021, I successfully completed the requirements to obtain a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from Western Governors University (WGU). Like studying for the Cisco CCIE certification, the process of obtaining any college degree requires extended amounts of effort to see it through to the end. Also, like studying for the CCIE, I learned a lot about myself during the process. This article covers my motivations and experiences working for this degree.
In the career of information technology, a frequent debate is degrees versus certifications. Is a degree more important than a certification? Which degrees and certifications have the highest value? Fortunately, as I continue progressing in my career, I find this question generally matters less as a person gains more experience. After studying and working for more than twenty years in this field, I conclude that we are all on a journey unique to each of us, and degrees and certifications do not necessarily equate to success. And what is success, anyway? This term itself has a unique meaning to everyone.
My motivation for obtaining an MBA stemmed from my first experiences within enterprise IT when I started working for the Flagler County public school system in 2014. Before this job, I worked almost exclusively in the small and medium business (SMB) space, where the dynamics are quite different from enterprise environments. I found myself wishing to be included more in conversations that would affect the technology I was supporting. This feeling only increased when I joined Rotech in 2015.
My experience working as a network engineer for Rotech for over four years led me to transition my thinking from purely technical to more business-oriented. I think this is very common for people as they become more senior level in their careers. It is difficult to put the business ahead of the technology when you are just beginning because you are so far removed from where the decisions are made.
It is challenging at the beginning for junior staff to understand that the technology serves the business, period. I partially attribute this lack of perspective on advertising for entry-level IT degrees and certifications. “Earn your CCNA, work with amazing technology all day, and make lots of money!” This makes a great sound bite, but it sets the wrong expectations for people entering IT. It can take a long time for people to move beyond this kind of thinking, if ever. To be fair, this advertising style affects most professions where there are a limited number of people at the top who actually make the advertised salary and an overwhelming number at the bottom who make little more than minimum wage in many cases. Medical and judicial professions immediately come to mind.
Over time, I earned the trust of those who managed me and slowly became more involved with technology-related decisions. Though I was never in a position to make final decisions on technology purchases, I felt like my opinion was valued when I was asked, which was a large step above my previous job.
While working at Rotech, I began to see things differently. I realized that many of the people above me making decisions about the technology I would be working with, while they did have primarily technical backgrounds, almost always had a deeper level of business understanding as well. This was usually the result of a combination of having business-oriented degrees such as an MBA and experience. During this time, I started pondering how an MBA could positively affect my career, especially as I envisioned my future self in various roles with a real impact on the business.
After nearly three years of pondering, I finally decided in May 2021 to enroll in the MBA program at WGU. The timing was finally right where I could take on the degree without overwhelming myself. I have known about WGU and their excellent self-paced competency-based programs for a couple of years. The WGU approach fits very well with my learning style because the ten regular courses that are part of the MBA program are very similar to individual IT certifications. I felt like I was obtaining ten certifications in a row as I progressed through the program. The final capstone course is somewhat comparable to a practical (lab) exam where you demonstrate what you have learned through the entire curriculum.
At WGU, each term is six months in length, and you can complete as many courses as possible during each term. I paid for this degree on my own without using student loans, so I intended to complete it in a single term to keep it affordable. Five of the courses required passing a final exam, four required writing papers, and one required a combination of both. The capstone, of course, was the most work. I believe it is fair to say the capstone represents at least a third or more of the effort for the entire degree.
My previous experience in both professional writing and studying for many IT certification exams helped tremendously to prepare me for success in this program. Each course has a message board, and they are all filled with people who seem to be struggling with organizing and processing information. Even though you must complete a Bachelor’s degree before entering the MBA program, it is very apparent that many people never learned how to learn and never discovered the approach that works best for them. Therefore, they struggle more than others in completing the degree on their own in a timely manner. Luckily, WGU offers tremendous resources to help you along if you need them. But, just like anything else, you must be willing to put in the effort to improve yourself.
For all courses except the final capstone, my average rate of completion was one course per week. Some took a little longer; some took a little less. Of the regular courses, I found “C211 Global Economics for Managers” to be the most difficult, and it took the longest at just over two weeks. This course just had a final exam, but unlike the other classes, the proportion of new material to learn for the exam was much greater. I had to put in much more effort for this course to pass on the first attempt successfully.
Throughout the entire program, I used the methods which work best for me to study. This included flash cards and mind maps where appropriate. A considerable advantage for the courses requiring passing a final exam is that they each offer a complete pre-test. This test is identical to the final exam in both the number of questions and the style and depth of content that will be on the test. The advantage is that you can take the pre-test and quickly determine where your weak areas are and spend your time improving those. This was a significant factor for me to complete this degree within a single six-month term. Using my study methods, I passed every single exam on the first attempt.
The other component that helped me through the entire program was learning to write my papers precisely according to the included rubric for each task. From a professional point of view, you can think of the rubric as design specifications to which you must conform. For most written tasks, they offer a suggested page length but do not care about a minimum page count as long as you successfully demonstrate all of the criteria in the rubric. I also learned they care most about being specific in the topics you discuss. Succinctness and specificity are your friends in this degree, and indeed as a business professional as well! I only had a single paper sent back for a minor revision in a single subsection where I was not specific enough. All the remaining papers and presentations I wrote passed on the first attempt. In fact, I even earned a WGU Excellence Award for a paper I wrote about a fictional managed services provider (MSP) entering a foreign market.
The final course, “C216 MBA Capstone”, took the longest and was by far the most interesting part of the program. I completed the other courses in a little over two months and the capstone in under two months. I firmly believe I could have completed the entire degree in three months if I had put in even more dedication. When I began the degree, I was unsure of my time budget, so I completed all courses except the capstone very quickly to leave myself plenty of time for the final course. I might have been able to complete the capstone in two weeks if I pushed myself harder, but the workload at my day job was starting to increase, and since I had plenty of time to complete the course, I thought I would take my time and contribute more to the vital work/life balance.
Prior to sometime in 2020, the capstone used to be a group project. This was changed to an individual project and is one of the reasons that I finally seriously considered entering this program. I understand the benefits of working on team projects, but this final capstone course is entrepreneurial in nature and felt much more personal to me. As I write this, the course revolves around a simulation of starting a bicycle business with the goal of worldwide distribution and what is referred to as “conscious capitalism”.
The simulation goes through six quarters of business starting from zero. During the fourth quarter, you are tasked with creating a multimedia presentation on the state of the business and projected growth in an attempt to obtain money from a venture capital investment. Throughout the entire program, this was the single task about which I was most nervous. The suggested presentation length is 20–30 minutes. Working up to the point of creating the presentation, I kept wondering how in the world I was going to fill in that much time. Luckily, I came across someone’s blog post where they said they passed the task with their presentation being less than ten minutes.
That put my mind at ease, and my final presentation actually ended up being almost twenty minutes. I was really surprised when I finished recording it! I felt the most considerable weight of the entire program lifted off me when I passed the task on the first attempt. As an aside, when I began the capstone course, my wife and I started binge-watching old episodes of Shark Tank to try to get me in the frame of mind of running a business and pitching to venture capitalists. I honestly believe it helped!
At the end of the simulation, the next task is to write about your experience, including decisions that went well and things you could change. In my case, I was unclear about some of the desired end goals of the simulation, which led me to make decisions early on that I would have done completely different had I understood the real goals. Such is the case, I would imagine, in running a real business. Timing is everything, as this simulation demonstrates.
With the program completed and approval for graduation granted, I am glad I finally pursued this degree. I believe this degree, coupled with my growing experience, will soon place me in a position where I am helping make those technology-related decisions that affect the business environment. My ultimate goal for completing this degree was to have a deeper understanding and be more conversant in the language of business.
When technology decisions involve potentially millions of dollars for a business, there needs to be a clear demonstration of the return on investment and benefit to the company. Having the knowledge contained within this degree program has made me aware of many of the different moving parts and allows me to think about so many things I would not have considered previously.
With that said, it needs to be understood that a degree alone does not represent some golden token of perpetual knowledge. Unlike a certification, a traditional degree does not expire. However, just like a certification, the knowledge within represents a point in time and quickly fades if not refreshed. Through my experience with both certifications and degrees, I know very well that I will quickly lose the specific knowledge I am not using.
An essential part of any degree or certification is retaining the fundamental knowledge. This happens when you truly understand the material and can make it meaningful. I just completed this degree, and I can not tell you offhand what the formula is to calculate the time value of money. But now I know there is a concept, “time value of money,” and I know some of the things it relates to (such as mortgages). Because I understand that, I now know what I would need to reference (and where) should I ever need to recall the specifics.
For an individual, a degree or certification should represent a body of knowledge that you worked toward either out of interest or necessity for that specific point in time. To everyone else, a degree or certification should act as a shortcut to let them quickly know that you understood the implied knowledge at some previous point in time. In both situations, the perceived value is in the eye of the beholder (or governing entity, as the case may be).
Degrees and certifications are personal, in my opinion, and should be treated as such. Nobody can convey the actual value (or lack thereof) without fully comprehending your exact situation in life. In some fields, such as information technology, where degrees and certifications are ubiquitous, there are many outstanding people with neither who have reached their high levels through previous experience and risk-taking. In other professions, such as medical and judicial, those degrees and certifications are required by professional or governing entities to claim specific professional titles. In either case, the individual’s culmination of experience and dedication makes them excel in their field, not a piece of paper. In some cases, the paper can get you in the door, but you still must prove your adequacy for the position, usually through previous experience.
An MBA is a graduate degree and has the word “master” in the title. This creates an artificial level of meaning for some people, as if now you know everything there is to know about the subject. Assumptions are commonly made without understanding many of the nuances. An MBA from WGU is not the same as an MBA from a school like Harvard, even though they both have the same title and are both accredited. The two programs have different goals, purposes, and price tags!
People need to understand; this is not in any way a discredit to the WGU program. I wish I had gone to WGU to obtain my Bachelor’s degree, and I will strongly consider them in the future if I decide to work toward another Master’s degree! However, the target audience for an MBA at WGU is someone with work experience who wants to gain fundamental business knowledge rapidly. The target audience for the MBA at Harvard is someone who is preparing to dedicate themselves to business and obtain superior networking opportunities that hopefully help to offset the hefty price of admission. These are different degrees with different purposes, even though they share the same title.
I got exactly what I was hoping for from this degree, and I would absolutely do it again. I don’t believe doing it earlier would have made a significant difference in my career, but I am positive it will impact my future. As I learned in the capstone simulation, timing is everything!