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Should you study business or learn to code?

Friday, 12 April 2013 | By Brad Lindenberg

I think there is an interesting discussion to be had around the idea of learning to code versus getting an MBA. Both are very different disciplines, but both are applicable to today’s business world.


The path that you take, I believe, depends on your career direction. If you are entrepreneurial and want to pursue a career in start-ups versus working in the corporate world, then you should learn to code. If you want to work in corporate, then I would advise to learn to code as well.


Why? Because software is eating the world. Because as a founder I know where the real value lies. It lies in being able to build stuff for the web. Would I hire an MBA to do this? No. Would I hire a developer? Yes.


An MBA is a soft skill – if you can call it a skill. It is not even that. It is an expensive break from reality that will yield you a strong network and theoretical insight into the business world, but until you actually get out there and experience the business world for yourself, it is still just theory.


Coding on the other hand is a hard skill. Even if you are a novice, at least you can start to build things. You can innovate. You can build on that skill over time and get better and better at it at your own pace and in your own time.


It’s hard to quantify progress like this from an MBA. And when you have the light bulb moment, you are the master of your own destiny. You can use your coding skills to build a prototype, show it to some customers and then assemble a team to take it to the next level. And even if you hire people around you to code (as is my strategy), at least you’ll be able to talk their language.


Another point around an MBA (coming from an entrepreneur) is that it doesn’t matter how big your network is or how many friends you make or how well you can build a discounted cashflow model – in the start-up world all that matters is building a great product and putting it in front of the right customers. If you build an excellent product with product/market fit then people will buy it, regardless of whether you spent $160,000 and two years of your life to go to school with them.


I’ve chosen a career in the start-up world and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, with 101% certainty that MBAs are completely useless to early stage ventures.


The perfect example is the Winklevoss twins of Facebook and The Social Network fame. They are your typical MBA personality. But Zuckerberg won because he could code and had a stronger vision.


All that matters in the first year or two of a start-up is building something that can be used by a customer, and getting customers to use it. That is all that matters.


There are three simple ingredients to a start-up:


  1. A very strong product visionary
  2. A good user interface designer
  3. Web application development skills


Usually these roles can be filled by a founding team of two. It’s the most common scenario and has proven to result in the highest level of a success.


I believe that an MBA provides very little benefit to your immediate career if you are in the start-up world. You are better off developing your design or coding abilities. If you don’t want to code but are more creatively minded, learn Photoshop, HTML and CSS. Make mock-ups, show your developers a vision that they can build. That is valuable.


I also view an MBA as a deferral of reality in some situations. When I hear that someone is doing an MBA it reminds me of people who travel to South America for two years. It makes me think that they are “figuring things out” – particularly when it comes from someone who considers themselves to be a strong entrepreneur.


If you are really serious about executing on a vision, the last thing you want to do is waste two years pushing papers around in a classroom (and in our world, two years is a lifetime). It is a productive sabbatical, but that is what it is at best – particularly if you are on fire. A better use of two years would be to work for a start-up. I think you’d learn more and it would cost you less. Even if you worked for free!


An entrepreneur who is truly on fire and excited about their company will view an MBA as a distraction and loss of focus. That is not to say that an MBA is not useful. Maybe I’ll do an MBA at some point in my life; however, if I do, I would be doing it because I haven’t found the next big thing to work on.


That isn’t a bad thing either. Ideas and enthusiasm comes in waves and between waves, why not study if you can afford to. It would also mean that I haven’t learnt to code yet, because I would rather learn to code (at this stage of my life) before getting an MBA.


Regardless of how you look at it, you’ll always learn more at the coalface of a business than in the classroom and you’ll be more valuable to a start-up if you can develop than if you have an MBA.


Your thoughts?