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 Novells
CNA compared to a four-year degree, the CNE compared to
a masters, 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 doesnt have the functional
equivalent of the ECNE program, the MCSE+Internet does
So, do you consider the MCSE to be the equivalent of
earning a masters degree? As a holder of both the
MCSE and a masters degree, I dofor 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, Ill 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 masters
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
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
youve 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 youre 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 Magazines
annual salary survey typically reports MCSE salary levels
in the $60K range (this years salary survey will
appear in the July issue). MBAs look to BusinessWeek,
Forbes, and Fortune for their salary survey
datajournals 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 youll probably find yourself in the lower quartile
of these salary surveys. Thats just the way it goes.
Thats 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 youve successfully completed your MCSE, this
means youve stuck with it, conquering both the intellectual
challenge and the endurance test. If I were to make a
rough estimate, for every MCSE Ive seen complete
certification within 12 months, there are five who didnt
(loaded with excuses galore!). And if you dont 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 isnt just about being smart, its also
about how well you can hit and surpass the wall in the
grueling certification marathon.
Same goes for the MBA. It isnt always the smartest
people who complete their MBA degrees (thank goodness!).
Indeed, more often than not, its 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. Its a good thing I prefer
racing marathon distances. But seriously, when Im
asked to write a graduate school recommendation for one
of my evening students, I place significant weight on
that persons 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
arent necessarily the ones who succeed. In other
words, its often the tortoise, not the hare, that
wins the MCSE and MBA races.
Is a Dollar Spent a Dollar Earned?
Lets 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 youre 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 theyre 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 youll be paying off at over $600 per month
for the next 10+ years? Granted, the two achievements
let you accomplish different things, but dont overlook
the bottom line in deciding whether the MCSE or MBA is
Neither Wins Outright
Finally, I can offer this personal perspective on both
the MCSE and the MBA. No offense, but just as the MBA
didnt prepare me to run a company as its CEO, the
MCSE didnt 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,
youll 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 Curriculumaint 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 Ive 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: its 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
Whats my final argument for having you consider
both the MBA and MCSE? Moola. Ive 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, heres 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 youre trying
to resolve a blue screen.
Bainbridge Island, Washington author Harry Brelsford is the CEO of NetHealthMon.com, a Small Business Server consulting and networking monitoring firm. He publishes the "Small Business Best Practices" newsletter (firstname.lastname@example.org), and is the author of several IT books, including MCSE Consulting Bible (Hungry Minds) and Small Business Server 2000 Best Practices (Hara Publishing).