Beyond the obvious differences, these two designations have uncanny similarities. Harry ponders the MCSE vs. MBA question and asks, “Why not get both?”

Separated at Birth? MCSE and MBA

Beyond the obvious differences, these two designations have uncanny similarities. Harry ponders the MCSE vs. MBA question and asks, “Why not get both?”

Long ago in a faraway land, I once heard Novell’s CNA compared to a four-year degree, the CNE compared to a master’s, and the ECNE compared to Ph.D. While far-fetched in some ways, today the same analogy might apply to the Microsoft certification tracks. Although the Microsoft program doesn’t have the functional equivalent of the ECNE program, the MCSE+Internet does come close.

So, do you consider the MCSE to be the equivalent of earning a master’s degree? As a holder of both the MCSE and a master’s degree, I do—for several reasons. While earning my MCSE, I looked up more than once to notice that the late evening had become a single-digit morning hour. I found myself immersed on weekends in the MCSE process just like I was in the MBA days. I found myself chanting the mantra that life would be better for my children because of what I was accomplishing. So in that sense, I found the MCSE and MBA experiences to be quite comparable. Another comparison was moola, do-re-me, bucks, or whatever you call compensation. I clearly enjoyed as large a compensation increase from my MCSE as I did my MBA. Compensation dollar for dollar, I found the two educational avenues (MCSE and MBA) to be comparable in the long run. This month, I’ll compare and contrast the MCSE and the MBA and offer some reasons why you might consider obtaining both.

Compare and Contrast

First, some definitions. The MBA degree is the master’s of business administration. Depending on the university, the MBA will have either a touchy-feely management view or a mathematical, quantitative orientation. Both types of MBA “schools” require candidates to complete a dose of strategic planning (that “vision statement” thing).

The MCSE is, of course, the designation du jour in the networking profession. Known as the Microsoft Certified System Engineer designation, the MCSE requires that you pass at least six difficult exams focused on Microsoft networking solutions. Few would argue that a dollar spent earning your MCSE designation gives similar returns to a dollar invested in high-technology issues such as Amazon.com. For many, the mantra today is, “The MCSE has been very, very good to me.”

It goes without saying to an audience such as the readership of MCP Magazine that the 12 to 24 month period you spent earning your MCSE was perhaps one of the most challenging, and ultimately rewarding intellectual endeavors you’ve ever undertaken. But MBA holders often echo these same sentiments. For those of you who earned your MCSE with ease because of your 10 to 15 years of networking work experience, your peers in the MBA community did the same thing in the part-time, one-year executive MBA programs that are so popular with experienced managers.

Likewise, if you’re a networking newbie who earned your MCSE because of your strong test-taking skills, your MBA peer is the “greenhorn” who earned an MBA before acquiring work experience. Both of you probably took your first jobs after your MCSE or MBA at a salary level that was significantly lower than those reported in industry magazines. For example, MCP Magazine’s annual salary survey typically reports MCSE salary levels in the $60K range (this year’s salary survey will appear in the July issue). MBAs look to BusinessWeek, Forbes, and Fortune for their salary survey data—journals that place typical MBA salaries in a similar if not slightly higher range. But obtain either the MCSE or the MBA without significant work experience and you’ll probably find yourself in the lower quartile of these salary surveys. That’s just the way it goes. That’s why many new MCSEs, sold on $60K salary levels, end up working at jobs in the upper $30Ks or lower $40Ks at best. Same thing with many new MBAs.

Endurance over Intelligence

If you’ve successfully completed your MCSE, this means you’ve stuck with it, conquering both the intellectual challenge and the endurance test. If I were to make a rough estimate, for every MCSE I’ve seen complete certification within 12 months, there are five who didn’t (loaded with excuses galore!). And if you don’t complete your MCSE within one year, the success rate seems to drop faster and further thereafter. Call it a modern-day, neoclassical revival of Why Smart People Fail. Getting your MCSE isn’t just about being smart, it’s also about how well you can hit and surpass the wall in the grueling certification marathon.

Same goes for the MBA. It isn’t always the smartest people who complete their MBA degrees (thank goodness!). Indeed, more often than not, it’s the students who can stick it out month after month. I found the MBA experience to be much more like a 50K cross-county ski marathon than a 5K high-speed sprint. It’s a good thing I prefer racing marathon distances. But seriously, when I’m asked to write a graduate school recommendation for one of my evening students, I place significant weight on that person’s accomplishments relating to endurance, completions, and the like. I tend to de-emphasize pedigree upbringings and natural talent. My years at the podium have taught me that the people who seem to have all the privilege when it comes to getting advanced schooling aren’t necessarily the ones who succeed. In other words, it’s often the tortoise, not the hare, that wins the MCSE and MBA races.

Is a Dollar Spent a Dollar Earned?

Let’s discuss costs for a moment. Many employers have programs to give varying degrees of financial aid for either your MCSE or your MBA. But if you’re faced with self-funding either option, the MCSE wins here. Every spring, when the flowers bloom on campus, I have the MCSE vs. MBA discussion with at least one or two undergraduate sharpies. Newly minted sheepskins in hand, these young bundles of energy wonder what next step is best: get the MCSE or MBA. Well, if they’re faced with spending $10K to get the MCSE or $50K to get an MBA, the MCSE clearly has the highest return on investment. In fact, such simple analysis has forced colleges to reposition their offerings to compete with vendor certifications. Think about it. Whereas the starting salaries are comparable between the two choices (at least initially), would you rather have a $10K MCSE-related debt you could pay off in a year or two, or be saddled with over $50K of MBA-related debt that you’ll be paying off at over $600 per month for the next 10+ years? Granted, the two achievements let you accomplish different things, but don’t overlook the bottom line in deciding whether the MCSE or MBA is for you.

Neither Wins Outright

Finally, I can offer this personal perspective on both the MCSE and the MBA. No offense, but just as the MBA didn’t prepare me to run a company as its CEO, the MCSE didn’t really prepare me to be a super network engineer. Why? To ask that question is to expose some weaknesses of the both the MCSE and the MBA. On the MCSE side, one fundamental weakness is its Microsoft-centric focus on BackOffice. But through real-life experience, you’ll learn to use an array of third-party network management tools such as PingPlotter (www.nesssoft.com) and to coexist with other network operating systems such as Novell NetWare. Just try to find that educational content in the Microsoft Official Curriculum—ain’t gonna happen. Similarly, most MBA programs produce quantitative sharpies who can crank out spreadsheets all day long. But few MBAs have superior writing skills, which is one way to walk the path to promotions. And if they do, they probably have a liberal arts undergraduate degree.

What about Both?

So far I’ve only discussed the MCSE or the MBA as an either/or proposition. But today there exists a tremendously rewarding opportunity to merge the best of both the MCSE and MBA: it’s called e-commerce. On the MCSE side, e-commerce presents extensive technical challenges such as implementing an Internet-capable network infrastructure. On the MBA side, e-commerce presents the chance to apply those marketing and corporate finance skills. More important, e-commerce projects let me use my MCSE skills in the air-conditioned server farm room while engaging in MBA-isms in the top-floor boardroom.

What’s my final argument for having you consider both the MBA and MCSE? Moola. I’ve found my average MCSE-style engagements are in the $10K to $50K range. E-commerce engagements that use both the MCSE and MBA skill set, on the other hand, start in the $150K range and go up from there. Plus, e-commerce consulting gives you a chance to help launch the next Amazon.com!

Finally, here’s something for those of you who are technically oriented and have your MCSE. The traditional career path for a senior engineer in the aerospace and petroleum industries is to get your MBA in your mid- to late-30s and join the ranks of upper middle-level management. Consider that tidbit the next time you’re trying to resolve a blue screen.