‘Across the Street’: The Disconnect between MBAs and Engineering Students
By Ali Chaudhry and Rishabh Bhargava
“TGIF” is a weekly tradition for Stanford master’s students in computer science: A Friday afternoon happy hour — and a chance to unwind from the long week and to catch up with classmates. Every now and then, a few unfamiliar faces — business school students — show up at the happy hour, looking for an “engineer.” Their conversation might go somewhat like this:
“Do you know how to build an app?” the business student might say. “I have a brilliant idea — I just need an engineer to implement it.”
“I actually don’t know how to build apps,” the CS master’s student might respond.
“So who here knows how to build an app?” the business student might continue. “I may even be able to offer equity.”
“I don’t know,” the CS student might respond. “Many of us don’t know how to build apps.”
“But how is that possible?”
“We’re computer scientists, not app developers.”
As two Stanford master’s students — Ali in business, Rishabh in computer science — we can assure you that this scenario is far from fanciful. As both of us have witnessed firsthand, MBAs and engineering students often fail to connect. And this comes at a cost — in friendships not formed, projects never conceived, and companies left unbuilt.
The two of us met two years ago, on our first day at Stanford, at the Bechtel International Students Center. Rishabh was starting his master’s in computer science, Ali was starting his MBA. We left Bechtel that day in separate directions — Rishabh to the engineering quad and Ali to the business school. But little did we know how much our lives would overlap. Ali has spent significant time in the engineering school studying machine learning, whereas Rishabh has taken courses at the GSB and spent a summer as a PM at a technology company.
Another commonality has been the intelligent, thoughtful, driven classmates we’ve encountered — both at the GSB and at the engineering school. The profiles of these students have differed: Ali’s GSB classmates were all competent in functional roles (sales, for instance), domains (say, healthcare), or industries (consulting) — but most lacked the technical skills needed to build a product. Rishabh’s classmates were talented engineers — but most had little work experience or functional expertise. Combined, our classmates would make for some excellent startup teams, we expected.
But we were wrong. And before leaving Stanford, we wanted to better understand this disconnect. So we did what only a former consultant and an engineer would do — we convened eight focus groups of engineering and MBA students — and also surveyed an additional 150 participants — to try to unearth the roots of this disconnect, and to explore what, if anything, Stanford might do to address it.
Here’s what we found — with a few suggestions for how we might close the gap.
Lesson 1: The disconnect is real
In our focus groups and from our surveys we heard a consistent message: Engineering students don’t want to start companies with MBA students.
Over 95 percent of MBA and engineering students in our survey believe there is a “strong disconnect” or “somewhat of a disconnect” between the two communities. On the one hand,many engineering students admit that they’re unwilling to work with MBA students. (As one engineering student put it, “I struggle to imagine a scenario in which I would reach out to an MBA student to start a company.”) On the other hand, many MBA students said they felt “clueless” as to why engineering students are so averse to working with them.
Lesson 2: Engineering students don’t know what value MBAs bring to a founding team
Engineering students acknowledged needing a business person as an employee later on, but mostly not as a co-founder. As one engineering student explained,
“Ventures early on are mostly product driven, and having a business background is not that important yet.”
Over time, they believe they can pick up skills they lack, such as sales. Many of these students pointed to the Stanford GSB Ignite program (a 10-week “mini-MBA”) as a sufficient source for initial business knowledge. And a full 60 percent of engineering students said that their peers believe that MBA skills are “easily learnable.”
If MBA skills are so easily obtained, these engineering students wondered, why add an MBA to a founding team? Engineers and MBAs had very different ideas of the kinds of skills MBAs can bring to the table. Certain skills (we call them “Tier 1”) came up in conversations with both MBAs and engineers. Other skills (“Tier 2”) came up more seldomly with engineers, yet others (“Tier 3”) were raised exclusively by MBAs.
MBAs in our focus groups pushed back against the notion that MBAs can’t contribute to “product,” arguing that their “domain expertise” (market understanding), “product intuition” and in some cases, technical background enables them to add substantial value in the “building” process. (Just under 40 percent of the latest MBA class have technical academic backgrounds.) Many MBAs also argued that engineering students don’t fully appreciate the difficulty of learning business skills — both because engineering students tend to have less work experience, and because engineering students — in constant demand from employers — come to think they can learn and do anything. As one MBA student put it,
“[Engineering students] don’t know what they don’t know — they don’t realize that these skills can be complicated and difficult to develop.”
Engineering students also told us that they struggle to assess the skills or domain knowledge of MBAs — particularly when dealing with a “soft” skill like “marketing.” As one student put it, “MBAs speak so confidently about themselves that it can be hard to separate the signal from the noise.” And finally, engineering students questioned the work ethic of MBAs. “We work all weekend on problem sets,” one student said. “MBAs party all the time.” MBAs, for their part, pointed to their peers who “take 22 units, work part-time, and spend time on independent studies and projects.”
Lesson 3: “Predatory behavior” by MBAs has alienated engineering students
Many engineering students worried about being a means to an end for MBAs — in fact, they identified this as the most important driver of the disconnect. Some spoke of receiving emails like “I have a ‘brilliant’ idea — I just need someone to implement it.” As one engineering student said, “At the end of the day, an idea is just an idea. There’s a lot more risk when you are executing. MBAs want to run a lot of stuff, but not do much actual work.”
The MBA students with whom we spoke didn’t necessarily disagree: 72 percent said that some MBAs engaged in “bad behavior,” and that “at the GSB, we sit on a high horse.” Of course, this attitude isn’t endemic to the business school. As one engineering student said, “CS students are also high aspiring and don’t want to work on other people’s ideas.”
Lesson 4: MBA students may not understand whom they need
Seventy-one percent of engineering students surveyed said MBAs have trouble identifying the right technical person to join their team. To quote one student,
“MBAs don’t need a computer scientist from Stanford for their start-up; they need a web developer.”
While MBAs seeking a technical partner might immediately look to a Stanford CS student, many of these engineering students won’t be a good fit — either because they lack the relevant experience, or because they have very different academic or career interests.
Lesson 5: There’s a culture gap
As one engineering student told us, “Walking into the GSB feels like entering a different world.” Other engineers said that the GSB community’s labeling of all other Stanford departments as “across the street” creates a sense of distance — furthered by the GSB’s exclusive classes and student groups. The result is an environment where “GSB students go on weekly trips together and do everything together, closing themselves off to the rest of the campus.”
While some GSB classes are open to non-GSB students and many events are open to everyone at Stanford, the perception of exclusivity remains. This makes it harder for engineering students to get to know MBA students.
Many engineers “would like to be friends with MBAs before working with them,” as one student we spoke to put it. “It’s like dating before marrying.”
While the disconnect between MBAs and engineers is real, we believe it can be bridged through new programs and changes in behavior. We highlight some of these below.
Suggestion 1: Better understand the value that MBAs bring to a founding team
Many of the perspectives we heard on the value that MBAs bring to a founding team relied on anecdotes and personal experiences. This, in part, explains the variance in how business and engineering students perceived the value of MBAs.
Which is where research could play a role. Is the primary value of MBA students in founding teams restricted to sales, domain knowledge and communication? Are these skills actually needed in the early days of a start-up? And if so, can engineers really pick up these skills as quickly as they think they can? Without research, it’s hard to do more than guess at these questions.
Suggestion 2: Bridge the cultural divide and create organic ways for engineers and MBAs to form teams
Here are three ways to do so:
Create more cross-departmental courses: More cross-departmental courses would enable engineers and MBAs to work together — helping them get to know each other and to better understand each other’s skill sets. More GSB classes should reserve spots for engineering students, and should make the enrollment process easier. In contrast, classes in the engineering school are already open to everyone, including MBA students.
Creating more cross-departmental courses was the highest-rated solution in our survey — both by MBAs and by engineering students.
Create a “thought partners” program: Given their complementary skills and approaches to problems, MBA students and engineering students can be paired to help each other think through their career and personal aspirations, while also getting to know each other. Students could opt-in to be part of the program, indicating what they are looking for in a “thought partner,” and a nominated committee of students from both schools could pair students together. Over half of MBA and engineering students thought that a program like this would significantly address the disconnect.
Demonstrate the value that MBA students bring: Many of the skills that MBAs bring to a founding team, such as sales or customer discovery, are hard to quickly demonstrate in a conversation — they need to be “shown,” and not “told.” Lower-risk opportunities, such as class projects or short-term collaborations, can help MBAs demonstrate their skills to engineering students. Half of MBAs and 38 percent of engineering students thought that a program like this would strongly address the disconnect.
Suggestion 3: Provide MBAs with basic fluency in engineering/CS concepts
As one MBA student admitted, MBAs “don’t know how to speak to engineers to get them excited about an idea.” At the same time, a number of engineering students spoke highly of MBAs with technical backgrounds, explaining that these students both could contribute to and communicate about technical projects.
Building from this, the MBA program might offer tailored mini-courses or guides to provide business students with fluency in core engineering concepts — helping them more effectively understand their technical needs and more smoothly interact with engineering students.
Likewise, the business school might encourage MBAs to take engineering courses (or create its own set of technical classes).
A path forward
Not every business project calls for collaboration between MBA and engineering students. However, for the projects that would thrive under an MBA-Engineering partnership, we want to help remove the obstacles in the way. And as eight focus groups and an extensive survey taught us, these obstacles are real.
Yet, the cultural walls between the GSB campus and the engineering quad aren’t insurmountable. In this piece, we offer a few specific suggestions for bridging this disconnect — better communicating the value of an MBA, creating more formal opportunities for business and engineering students to get to know each other (and to know each other’s skills), and helping MBAs build fluency in technical topics. The result, we hope, will be new friendships, new companies, and a better, more collaborative university.