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MBAs make their way in engineer-crazed tech world

VC and start-up fever have seized Silicon Valley, and new business grads want in on the action. But they often don't know where to look--and the tech industry isn't always seeking them out.

Editor's note: This is the second story in an ongoing series profiling college graduates throughout the United States as they hunt for technology jobs. Check out CNET's special report, "Wanted: A job in tech," for a story tomorrow on a grad student who landed a job at Google, where he'll apply his operations chops to cloud computing.

Will you find MBAs here? The quirky, relaxed office environments of most tech companies (pictured here is Twitter's) are a far cry from where most business school students imagine they'll end up. CC: Enrique Dans/Flickr

Julia Davis doesn't quite fit the profile of a typical candidate for a business school degree. After graduating from Lewis and Clark College in hipster mecca Portland, Ore., with a degree in psychology and an art minor, she worked at an art foundry in New York before ultimately finding her way to a consulting firm in San Francisco--and then to Skolkovo, a business school near Moscow in Russia. She finished the 16-month program in December, (most master of business administration, or MBA, programs are two academic years) and has spent the spring on the hunt for a job.

"I wanted to take my career in a more international direction," Davis told CNET. "I looked at the options and one of them was the Skolkovo program, which is co-sponsored by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the U.S., so it has a brand name school associated with it. It was a new program, and it was focused on emerging markets, and the growth story in emerging markets was very compelling."

Julia Davis, who recently obtained her MBA in Russia and then began the job search for gigs at Silicon Valley start-ups, is shown here at conference in Moscow. Skolkovo

There's another reason why Davis isn't your typical MBA: She's planning to head to a tech start-up when she graduates. When she spoke to CNET, she said she was in talks with an early-stage start-up in a strategy role. You'll find lots of diverse characters in the tech world, but people straight out of business school with no prior experience in the industry are rare among them.

"I'd always been passionate about technology," Davis said. "I lived in San Francisco, so I was sort of in the thick of it, and then when I moved to Russia I saw not only everything that was happening internationally with technology but also innovation and entrepreneurship, and I just realized that it was an exciting space to be in."

Valley outsiders
For decades, college students and young professionals have dreamed of attending business school for a chance to be the ultimate insiders, with all that suggests: the best network, the best corporate acumen, the best access to the best jobs on graduation. But with the technology industry booming once again in pockets of innovation like the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City, MBA candidates and recent graduates all too often find that they're the outsiders.

The Silicon Valley of 2011, flush with easy money and full of "hacker" energy, has an insatiable hunger for engineering talent, with colorful war stories emerging from the hiring process: bidding wars over young developers, exorbitantly high salaries just to keep a rival company from getting the goods. But young graduates who don't have technical expertise, even if they're armed with degrees from the most elite business schools in the country, have to fight a little harder to prove that employers want them.

"The engineers that I'm friends with are just like, 'Oh, my God, there's a waterfall of opportunity,'" Davis said. "They're inundated with offers. A lot of times when you hear about the war for talent that's happening in the Bay Area, it's definitely engineering-focused now."

"Entrepreneurship and venture capital are, like, two of the hardest things to break into" out of business school, said Christopher Muir, a Williams College graduate wrapping up his first year in the MBA program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "I know this just from trying to do it myself, and seeing friends."

Tech companies, from a behemoth like Google to a hyped start-up like Instagram, are in the business of making money, and they need financially savvy minds to avoid venture-fueled meltdowns like the ones that littered the landscape after the tech bubble burst in the early 2000s. So why can it be so tough for new MBAs to find their way in an industry that's hiring like mad?

One of the biggest problems is that the technology world is such a pack of insiders that, with the exception of companies like Google and Facebook that are in heavy hiring modes, most wouldn't think to look too far outside their existing networks to find new business talent.

"You have to build your own network. If you want to go from MBA into consulting, that's a fairly easy transition, whereas the MBA to technology, a lot of the tech companies--every tech company I speak with--they want to hire from inside their network," Davis said. "I usually have conversations with people because I've been introduced by a friend of a friend, or I know someone who works at that company."

The same has been true for Christopher Muir at Chapel Hill, who got lucky, at least for this summer. Earlier this year he was re-introduced to Jordan Cooper, one of his brother's college friends from Dartmouth, in a purely social context. Cooper is working on a start-up in New York called HyperPublic while he serves as a partner at Lerer Media Ventures, the investment firm co-founded by former AOL and Huffington Post exec Kenneth Lerer and his son Ben. Muir mentioned to Cooper that he was interviewing for a job with a large venture capital firm. Cooper told him he ought to work for a start-up instead, and so Muir scored a dual internship at HyperPublic and Lerer Ventures for the summer.

Different sense of timing
But Muir highlighted another problem: The hiring schedule that graduating MBAs are used to simply doesn't conform to the start-up world. A second-year MBA will anticipate interviewing for a job several months before graduating, or may expect to receive an offer from a company where he or she has interned before the second year of the MBA program has even begun. Start-ups don't hire like that. When they realize they need to fill a job, they fill it. Planning ahead often doesn't happen because a year-old company likely has no idea what'll be happening in six months.

"Internships, and especially full-time jobs can say, 'OK, we need help for three months this summer,'" said Christopher Muir, "but then you'll go back to school for your second year and at the end of the summer there's, like, a 5 percent chance that they'd say, 'We're going to need you in nine months when you graduate.'"

But the flip side of this is that the tech industry, in turn, might not realize that so many MBAs have caught the Silicon Valley fever. Business schools, particularly elite ones on the East Coast, are known for more or less shipping armies off to massive investment banks each year, rather than for producing talent with the creativity and flexibility a technology company needs.

"I consider myself a fairly unconventional business student because of the fact that I just don't like banking," said one soon-to-graduate MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, who asked to remain anonymous because he was currently in the interview process with both Google and Facebook. "I'm totally OK with it, and perhaps there are some people who think that it's strange to pursue tech or something other than a guaranteed-highest-paying potential job out of business school, and I guess I don't really care what they think. I know that what I'm doing is fulfilling for me, and I suspect that what they're doing is probably not fulfilling for them."

Jeremy Frank, a second-year MBA student at New York University's Stern School of Business who has been working part-time at mobile start-up Foodspotting, said that if you don't attend one of the business schools known for producing candidates likely to head to technology companies--Stanford, MIT--you aren't likely to have recruiters seeking you out.

"If you want to go from MBA into consulting, that's a fairly easy transition, whereas the MBA to technology, a lot of the tech companies--every tech company I speak with--they want to hire from inside their network."
--Julia Davis, business school graduate on the tech job hunt

"I wouldn't say there's a massive presence of either large or small tech companies that are recruiting here, at least not in the MBA program," Frank said. "Google and Yahoo definitely have a presence, Apple not so much. Obviously, a lot of them are based in California and they do some of their recruiting on a geographic basis, but we also are not traditionally a tech-heavy school."

Frank's part-time job at Foodspotting came around through a connection from a friend from NYU, a former co-worker of Foodspotting exec Soraya Darabi when they were both employed at magazine publisher Conde Nast.

"They say that at business school you don't learn anything, that it's all about the network, and I guess the network came through for me," Frank said.

But he's trying to make it easier for fellow Stern graduates to find jobs at tech companies, particularly those in New York, by making the business school more visible in the vibrant local start-up community. "I'm an officer in the technology club here, and one of our biggest priorities as a club is to increase NYU's presence in the New York technology community, because traditionally we are a little more of a finance-oriented school, but that's changing a lot," Frank said. "The membership in the technology club over the past three years has grown dramatically."

Entrepreneurial spirit
Some business schools are going a step further and creating entire programs and initiatives designed for the cultivation of future entrepreneurs. Stern has an "entrepreneurship exchange" with NYU's broader Berkeley Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, which can provide stipends for students who want summer internships at start-ups but may be dissuaded by the fact that these jobs can't pay anywhere near as much as an internship at Goldman Sachs or Accenture.

Both student- and school-wide initiatives are making things brighter, according to Andrew Chang, another second-year Stern student, who, after graduation, is headed to a job at Kantar Video, an online video research and analytics company where he interned last summer. "A lot of my friends are going into technology, and I'm pretty excited," Chang told CNET.

Chang also mentioned another strategy MBAs can use to break into the tech industry: Found a start-up yourself. "There are a fair amount who have actually been incubating their own start-ups, and a couple of them even, instead of doing the traditional summer internship between their first and second years, spent time developing their own start-up projects, which I think is more and more prevalent."

In business school, no matter whether you're hoping to work in a skyscraper on Wall Street, somewhere on Google's brightly colored campus, or in an anonymous loft full of MacBooks and big dreams, you're going to need to know how to hustle. For the tech industry, it's a particularly deft hustle: not just going to class but also to local technology meetups, learning what start-ups and venture capital firms are getting talked about, and browsing Facebook to see which high school and college friends might be working at tech companies where they could make a few intros. The strategy required in navigating the tech job world as an MBA, one could say, is not at all unlike the creative effort necessary in the day-to-day work at one of those companies.

There are some who say that this period of frustration, as MBAs find themselves second-class hires in an engineering-crazed tech industry, will be a temporary one.

Davis, the MBA candidate who sought new opportunities by obtaining her degree in Russia rather than in the U.S., said she thinks the market for business school graduates in the tech industry is about to go up as the current crop of start-ups matures. "I think in six to nine months there will be a lot of additional support needed for the product that's being developed now," she said. "A lot of the feedback that I got was that they were really interested in my skills and expertise, but that they wanted someone like me in six to nine months. What I've been hearing in general is that many companies are focused on building up engineering talent and they're focused on building the product right now. My part of it, which is like, marketing growth, product management, isn't going to come for a few months."

But some young MBAs are hungrier to start sooner rather than later.

"There are so many exciting start-ups going on. People want to be part of something on the ground floor," Chang said. "Why go work at an established company when I could help create what the digital media of the future looks like?"