Planning 39 years ahead

Earlier this month, I was accepted into the distance Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business. I’ve been considering a graduate degree ever since finishing my bachelor’s in 2016, but I certainly did not move forward with this next step in my career lightly. After all, the program’s net cost will be around $40,000, and it isn’t every day that a Software Engineer decides to dip their toes into the Business world. This post discusses my reasoning in making this decision, and my long term career plans over the next few decades. In particular, I will discuss my skillset and how it will bring value to those who I work with today and in the future.

A look ahead

I’m 25 years old as of this writing. The average retirement age in Washington state, according to the balance, is age 64, which means that I have a good 39 years of productivity ahead of me. Even if I decide to retire early, that’s a long time. I will turn 64 in the year 2058. How much will the world change by then? Will 2058 be as different from 2019 as the year 1980?

I certainly cannot predict what the world will look like in 2058. I do know that Software Engineering is a young profession, and that none of the technologies that I work with today existed in 1980. Automation stands a good chance of replacing not only factory workers and truck drivers, but also normal office jobs as well. If software can be written to automate away most normal software work, then will the number of Software Engineering jobs decrease? Even a decrease of 20% could create a job vacuum that makes the market extremely competitive, in a world where an entire generation is being encouraged to pursue the success that can be found in tech jobs. A surplus in available engineers compared to the number of openings would decrease salaries in the field, making employees more expendable and free office lunches and massages a thing of the past.

This could certainly happen to Business too, as software can conceivably be written to make business decisions as well. However, it is better to avoid putting all of my eggs in one basket. I want to be in a position where I could pursue either career path. If neither are available, then we are probably looking at either a post-scarcity economy, or a bad dystopian scifi flick.

Still, why Business? The above is not actually my primary reason for making this decision. Rather it is the economic environment that I am making this decision in, which is very relevant, because I cannot allow myself to pursue even something I enjoy with my career unless it also makes economic sense. Business is something that I have always been interested in, ever since before I formed my first LLC at age 18, and served as President of the UAH Entrepreneurship Club. I want to enhance my knowledge in this area, and form a very useful skillset that I will have for my entire career.

The Steve Jobs skillset

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was famous for bringing together the fields of Design, Engineering, and Business to create revolutionary products like the Macintosh computer, iPod, and iPhone. While he is perhaps the most famous person to unite these disciplines, it is my belief that many of the most successful innovators, in the world and even in most successful companies, are people who have an appreciation for each of these fields.

Leaders need proper context to make good decisions. The Amazon Leadership Principles emphasize the importance of diving deep — understanding even the small details of how a business operates.

Dive Deep — Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.

The Amazon Leadership Principles

A leader who has a sufficient appreciation for details can drive forward innovation by focusing resources and priorities into the right areas. They will recognize the importance of user experience as a competitive advantage for their business. They will be able to credibly push for high standards, rather than treating technology as a mystery that can only be understood by “the IT people.” They can achieve unity between the metrics that can be analyzed through business analytics, and the actual goals that lead a business to success. While a business can certainly hire individual people to do all of these things, the best leaders have a deep understanding of their business’s critical functions.

I want to grow myself professionally to be able to meet this challenge. To park myself at the intersection of Design, Engineering, and Business. From that position, I could be the one engineer on the team who has the greatest context about what the team is actually doing to help the business succeed. I could be a UX designer who is able to achieve business goals by honing the user journey. Or I could be a project manager, people manager, or executive who leads the business with a keen understanding of how it uses technology to achieve its goals. I’m certainly happy doing any of those things, as all of them are really interesting to me. I’m the type of team member who looks beyond their primary job function to make the product succeed, whether that means helping to decide what features are developed or building out the UX. And I think it is essential to have this larger context. By growing my skillset in Design, Engineering, and Business, I seek to position myself to grow in any of these areas, or a hybrid of several.

My career path

I plan to get my MBA within about 3-4 years. I’m in no rush at all, since my career is already on a great trajectory, and I will be working throughout; this will just open up new opportunities for me later on. In a perfect world, I would like to have these job titles at each of the following points in my career.

  • Now: Software Engineer
  • Two years: Software Engineer
  • Five years: Software Engineer or UX Designer or Technical Product Manager
  • Ten Years: Software Engineering Manager or Technical Product Manager
  • Twenty Years: Vice President or Chief Technology Officer or Chief Executive Officer

There is certainly no guarantee that I will make it to the executive leadership of a medium/large sized company, but I definitely won’t get there if I don’t try.

Frequently Asked Questions

These are questions that I have either asked myself, or have already been asked by others.

Are you changing careers?

No, only planning my existing career’s long-term direction.

Why not get an MBA from an ivy league school?

These are certainly valuable, but I am aiming to enhance my current career rather than start a new one. Going into debt simply does not make sense for me. I will make up the difference with real world experience and extreme competence.

Why do you need an MBA when Steve Jobs dropped out of college?

It’s certainly true that many successful entrepreneurs discourage business degrees. Indeed, Steve Jobs dropped out of college — but Tim Cook, his successor, has an MBA.

I do recognize that the MBA is aimed at managing established businesses, and I’m fine with that. Modern innovation practices can only be learned by doing, and reading a few of the right books, so I will just learn those practices too. It helps to know the rules before you go about breaking them, and for every successful entrepreneur who dropped out of college, there are several would-be entrepreneurs who dropped out of college and never made it. I see myself as driving financially sustainable innovation inside a medium-sized company that is willing to take risks, but isn’t going to be foolish with how it spends its money.

I can’t help but wonder whether the modern culture of tech startups that lose billions per year is truly sustainable. If these startups want to be able to survive long-term and weather challenging economic conditions, then they are going to need to become sustainable businesses before they go out of business. That is where management comes in, and perhaps the true answer is a middle ground between ambition and financial responsibility.

Why not a degree in Engineering, Psychology, or Art?

I considered all of these actually. Since I already have a Bachelors in Computer Science, and am doing very well in that industry, I don’t see any career value in pursing a Master’s of Computer Science. I only recommend one for someone who wants to get into Machine Learning and/or Natural Language Processing, which are fascinating subjects, but I consider myself more of a UX Engineer who deals with people more than Linear Regression. This makes Business a more natural transition.

Similarly, I am very interested in user experience. This is an area that I think I can grow in more by doing it than I could by getting a degree, however. An education in Psychology would be useful for this, but I expect I can pick up the more pragmatic bits of information from the right books, as Psychology is a much bigger world than just the tech / user aspect. Similarly with Art, that would enhance my design skills, yes, but I know enough UX designers who can’t draw to suspect that this isn’t really all that useful in the field.

I suspect that business, however, will open up some unique opportunities for me. An MBA is necessary to grow into leadership positions at many companies. It is the only one of these degrees that would open up doors for me that would be closed otherwise. Further, at least for me, Business seems the most difficult subject to properly learn from just books. I can read stuff like The Lean Startup, but I suspect that it isn’t quite the same as a formal education in Business.

Does this mean that you don’t like coding anymore?

I love to code, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing it. I’ve always believed that management is a profession though, and simply knowing how to code does not qualify someone to lead a business. That’s why I want to grow into a larger capacity long term. We’re talking about the next 39 years, there’s no rush.

Are you still interested in Software Engineering opportunities?

Yes! And I will be for years to come. This post is about my career plans over the next 39 years. And honestly, I think that someone who wants to grow their own leadership capabilities, and learn more about the greater context of how businesses operate, is exactly the person you want working in a Software Engineering role. I certainly don’t want to work for any company that doesn’t see every employee as a potential leader — this is the culture that companies like Amazon are spearheading, and it is truly the path to organizational success in the modern world.

Note: I am not actively seeking opportunities as of this writing, though as a general rule, am always glad to read any such notes. Check out my LinkedIn profile for my current status.

Will you stay in the tech industry?

Probably. My passion is in making awesome products a reality, and I enjoy all aspects of that, particularly the ones that matter to the end user. I love to code but I like UX just as much. And I’m also that one guy that always asks “what makes sense for the business?

What if I have any questions or comments?

Feel free to contact me through my website or LinkedIn!