Can an MBA become a programmer in two weeks?

Today, I had a discussion with a customer about expectations for training. The discussion went something like this.

If a very smart MBA with little or no computer science background took a two week intensive computer science course would they then be qualified to design, build, implement, and run a complex IT system? Most IT people would immediately answer that there is no way that this person would be qualified to do this.

The training would be very valuable to an MBA who needed to manage a technology organization but would not qualify them to build and implement the technology. They simply do not have sufficient education and experience in the discipline to reach that level of capability even though they may be very accomplished in their own field.

Very often in IT we send technical people to two week classes to learn a new technology and they return with some ability to build and implement systems with that new technology. They often progress rapidly to proficiency if they focus on the new technology.

What is the difference in these two scenarios?

In the second scenario the technical person brought to the training four to eight years of computer science education and or experience. That in depth understanding of the discipline allowed them to quickly incorporate an additional sub-set of directly related knowledge and to quickly become proficient with that new knowledge. The MBA did not have a foundation of computer science knowledge to draw on and therefore was unable to assimilate and utilize the information learned in the short training course.

This seems like a strange conversation to have with a customer. In fact, that was not exactly how the conversation went. This customer, a technical person, attended an ITIL Foundations course I taught some months ago. He did well in the class and obtained the ITIL Foundations Certificate. He expressed frustration that he was unable over the last few months to take the business training he received in the Foundations course and quickly affect organizational change within his company.

This situation is reversed from the first scenario. In this situation it was a very smart and accomplished technical person attending a short course on “managing” technology. It would be very impractical to expect, given his lack of extensive management education and experience, that he could effectively incorporate this new knowledge and rapidly move to proficiency in management. Yet it is very common for technical people to have this expectation when they leave an ITIL course.

Management is a discipline that has built a powerful body of knowledge over hundreds of years. It takes education, experience, and dedication to master. It is helpful for technical people and especially technical managers to step back every now and then and recognize that other disciplines can be just as difficult to master as technology. It is also helpful to remember that we did not master technology in a few weeks. It took years of education and hard won experience to gain mastery.

We desperately need technology managers who have greater mastery of management disciplines. ITIL training is an excellent first step, and one I highly recommend. However, mastering a new discipline requires education and experience that simply can not be rushed. As this discipline matures and its impact to the business continues to increase, we must begin to put more emphasis on a foundation of education and experience that balances the technical and the managerial.

IT managers would do well to recognize this need; understand the investments (time, effort, and money) required; and begin hiring, training, and mentoring in a manner that reflects this changing reality.