Sep 11, 2011

An Engineer to MBA Story

Successful entrepreneurs fascinated me since my high school and I always aspired to become one myself. My choice of pursuing Mechanical Engineering in college was not a strategic decision (The fact that I was good at Mathematics and Physics and that most Indians pursue engineering in college probably played into my decision). While in college I wanted to do MBA since I believed MBA would help me build requisite skills and relevant network that would be of great use when I am ready to launch myself as an entrepreneur. The question for me was always when do I pursue my MBA. After talking to many people, I was convinced to leave for a business school after working for a few years in order to get maximum leverage out of the program (For any one who is confused, I strongly recommend working at least a couple of years before pursuing MBA).

While I was recruiting in my fourth year at IIT Bombay, I was looking for opportunities that were not heavy on technical side but would help me develop managerial skills. ITC Ltd fit very well with my objectives where I ended up working for 4 years in a rotational development program. I worked in projects, maintenance, quality and production. At ITC, I appreciated the complexity in running organizations successfully – leaders, managers, culture and systems play significant roles in determining the success of an organization. Working in factories was a very enriching experience – not only was there a lot of action, but also huge interaction between departments and people. That helped me understand people’s behaviors, team dynamics, project management, employee communication and made me a better manager. I also cherish my interactions with unions at ITC. Dealing with unions not only improved my patience but also my negotiation skills making me more mature as a manager.

After my four years at ITC in different roles, slope of my learning curve started to decrease and I reached my ZOTRA (refer “Should Engineers get an MBA? If yes, when?”). As per my original plan, I applied to B-Schools and was fortunate to make it to HBS. After my first year at HBS, I see huge change in my thought process when I look at organizations and business models. This wouldn’t have been possible without the greatly designed course structure at HBS, brilliant faculty and interactions with diverse people.

The MBA journey: An engineer's MBA (What I learnt in my first year at HBS!)

As I mentioned in my first blog “My Engineer-To-MBA Story”, my motivation for pursuing MBA was to prepare myself to be an entrepreneur. Although I say this, I didn’t exactly know how an MBA would prepare me. One reason for an MBA that most engineers (including me) quote in their applications is they want to learn marketing and finance. Although this is true and very relevant to those pursuing those career paths, there are many other things that help increase understanding of businesses. When I was heading to HBS, a close friend told me “MBA will transform you”. I nodded my head wondering what it meant. Looking back now, I feel my thought process did change. In this blog, I have attempted at capturing the contributing factors below.

The first contributing factor is the classroom experience. I am referring to more than just learning a few frameworks in marketing and finance. In one year, we discussed around 350 cases among 90 students from 26 different countries. The case discussions not only gave me an opportunity to debate marketing/finance concepts but also an opportunity to look at various business models. The fact that I was part of the engaging discussion among people from different backgrounds (ranging from consultants to bankers to those who worked in industry) made it much more enriching. Before HBS, as an engineer I would/could think of a good business only in terms of a great idea and a good execution. Now I think of business in a more holistic way ranging from target market, customer segmentation, business model, strategy, operations, capital structure, human resources in addition to just idea and execution.

The second contributing factor is the peer group at HBS. Like I mentioned, the diversity is both in terms of geographic footprint and also backgrounds. Because of this diverse set of people with rich experiences, I was constantly learning beyond case discussions. For example often I would get into a serious discussion with another classmate about his country after the BGIE (Business Government and International Economy) class. In other situations, I would get into a serious discussion with a classmate who worked with Google to understand how different tech companies are from manufacturing companies. Beyond these, I constantly heard people discussing about startups, markets, economies, and government policies. Before HBS, most of these things didn’t make great sense to me. But now as I understand these things, I feel that I understand the world better than I used to.

The third contributing factor for me is the confidence I gained in myself after completing one year at HBS. This is not mutually exclusive from the first and second factors I talked above. The cases we discussed often forced me to think as a protagonist and form a point of view. Over time, as I formed opinion and debated with my classmates, my thought process got refined and I started developing business intuition. The transformation has indeed boosted my confidence. As I learnt more and more from my classmates who worked in different fields, I felt more comfortable about different industries and this sense of knowledge also contributed to an increase in my confidence.

I feel great about what I learnt in my first year and am looking forward to an equally enriching second year starting this week.

- Pavan Sirpa (Harvard MBA, Class of 2012)


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