Moving to a Management Career from a STEM Background

moving to a management career from stem

A STEM background provides a solid technical skillset, by definition. However, what it does not necessarily prepare one for is a management career – be it within the STEM sector or in a different capacity. For those who wish to progress beyond a technical role on the frontline, the challenges posed by a career change or progressing into a management role can be considerable.

However, MBA skills can help bridge this gap, with many programs offering a focus into technical areas as well as providing hard and soft management skills for those looking to make the career change.

The opportunities for those with the right skills are plentiful. Technology was one of the standout sectors in the 2013/14 QS Jobs & Salary Trends Report, with demand for MBAs increasing by 11% globally, complemented by an 8% growth in telecoms, and further growth predicted for the immediate future. Remuneration is also handsome, with technology salary and bonus levels matching consulting and professional services in Western Europe and the US & Canada at US$104,200.

Elaine Chen, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, believes it is important that leaders in STEM teams come from a STEM background: “STEM teams need to be managed by people who have a technical background, because individual contributors in these types of teams tend to relate best to a leader who speaks their language.”

MBA skills add value here, she continues, in that they equip STEM managers with a better understanding of business context – which can be counterintuitive to those who are used to thinking only technically. “Since they already have the vocabulary and framework from business school, they would have a head start helping their staff understand the rationale behind decisions, which may not make sense from a purely technical standpoint, but which are absolutely necessary to meet business needs.”

A management career requires delegation

The challenges presented by moving into a management career for someone who has chiefly proved themselves in a technical capacity, says Chen, are largely down to no longer retaining full control over one’s work. “A lot of first-time STEM managers are promoted from individual contributor roles due to their technical brilliance. However, leading and inspiring a team taps into substantially different skills than individual contributor work.  A new manager must learn to delegate and trust their staff to do their work; they must work hard to foster cross team communications and collaborations.  His or her success is no longer measured by their own output, but by the blended output of his or her team.”

This is echoed by the experiences of Avinash Bajaj, who graduated from Imperial College London Business School  in 2011 after working for Bosch as an engineer, as well on several tech startups. “As an engineer and entrepreneur, your natural tendency is to solve all problems yourself, but in a managerial position it becomes important to recognise what piece of work requires your attention most, against what can be well handled by someone else.”

Skills for a career change

For Hardik Shah (pictured), a graduate of NYU Stern’s part-time Langone program, the main challenge posed by making business decisions was the necessity of making educated leaps of faith. “One key challenge I faced, with which I think most people with a technical background would agree, was a fixation with data and precision. In real life, most business decisions are made with limited data, and are based on experience, conviction and most importantly, alignment with a goal or objective. The most appealing aspect of management consulting is being able to help managers and executives find improvement opportunities that they hadn’t thought about. I have had first hand experience with clients who are very appreciative of the objective view and executable solution that I provided to their problem.”

Possessing the management skills to make these decisions is crucial to help the former engineer make decisions not just on his own company’s behalf, but others’, in his new management career in consultancy.

“One of the key MBA skills I gained was learning not to just focus on getting the right answer, but to be aware of how to get there. There are always several ways to solve a problem, but in real life there are several constraints, so knowing which path to take is critical. I think it has made a huge difference in my approach to solving problems. Now, when I look at the problem, I don’t just jump in; instead I take a step back and focus on figuring out the best approach to solve the problem. 

Alex Moher, a student at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, hopes to follow Shah’s footsteps and effect a career change, albeit on a different path. “I felt like I needed a more interactive career.  After working in a lab, where most of your day is running a machine by yourself, I feel drained and unfulfilled.  Hopefully, I will be able to transition successfully from chemist to marketing, where creativity and communication is a bit more involved in the job description.” He aims to use his technical skills to help him in his communications with the customer.

It can help, suggests Chen, for technically-minded students to attend technically-inclined schools, as material is taught, “in a language that they readily understand.” However, this is not always desirable, particularly for those looking for a career change. “The flip side is that this environment may be too close to their undergraduate and graduate work and may not stretch the students out of their comfort zone. That is a driver for some technical students to choose business schools with more of a holistic approach, such as Wharton. At the end of the day it comes down to the goals and objectives of the individual - students should select business schools which best meets their needs.”

MBA skills: Two way traffic

Peer-to-peer learning is one of the central tenets of the MBA, with management skills being attained not just through standard pedagogy, but from one’s classmates. Accordingly, to take part on a reputable MBA program, one must have something to offer. While those coming from a technical background may lack some of the management skills someone from a professional services background might possess, for example, they can still make significant contributions to the classroom discussion.

For Jeff Norman, a senior compliance engineer at the Midwest Reliability Organization and, like Moher, an MBA student at Carlson, it is his analytical skills which really allow him to contribute to the discussion. “My technical background leaves me well prepared for any analysis.  When looking at group projects, the value I bring is the ability to dissect a problem, identify possible solutions, compare trade-offs between solutions, and assess the surrounding environment of the problem.  If these are all properly considered better results are accomplished.”

“My background,” says Shah, “was in operations – manufacturing, warehousing, and logistics – which helped me understand things at ground level. So when it came to understanding a business, devising a new strategy or an improvement idea, I was able to evaluate and determine if it would actually work. This provided me a significant advantage over other students who had sales, finance or other similar backgrounds. During class projects, teams preferred having members with STEM backgrounds to develop more holistic solutions.”

But of course, it must be two-way traffic. “My advice to others who are looking to transition to a management career,” says Shah, “is to be open minded and build a strong professional network while at school. During your MBA you will meet the most diverse set of very talented and interesting people. You can learn a lot from them and it will help shape your career.”

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