Which MBA Specialization is Best for Engineers?


An engineering education teaches you how to build products and processes that change the world. But it doesn’t teach you how to market those products and manage their development. That’s where an MBA comes in, which, when paired with an engineering background, makes for a potent combination. An engineer who gets an MBA is empowered not only to create radically innovative products, but also to oversee their development and launch as well. Being an engineer with an MBA is the equivalent of owning the house and the land the house stands on.

Engineers do well in business school. They’re good at crunching numbers and understanding how separate factors can work together in a single cohesive process. Furthermore, they bring a unique perspective to the classroom, one which is rooted in quantitative logic and end results. An MBA perfectly complements an engineering background by filling in any gaps in leadership potential, business acumen, and cross-departmental communication. The engineer with an MBA can, as a result, look superhuman to employers—or even become an employer themselves.

But once you’ve decided to get an MBA, you still have to pick your specialization. And which one is best for engineers? The short answer is that there are several, and it depends on what you want to achieve. There’s never been a broader range of MBA specializations for engineers. Read on to get a profile of the best options and see which one is right for you.

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MBA in Engineering Management

Engineering management is the most obvious specialization option for engineers getting their MBA and perhaps the most flexible, too. While engineers are generally the brains of an operation, they still require a business leader to manage the overall project. Human resources and cross-departmental communication are not the natural skills of an engineer; an MBA with an engineering management specialization focuses on precisely those skills and empowers engineers to lead teams of their own, regardless of what field of engineering they work in.

In 2008, a survey by Deloitte found that more than half the members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers reported that their jobs required management skills. And of the 1,900 engineers surveyed, more than half planned to pursue further management training. A decade later, this trend hasn’t changed. Poor leadership skills can prevent an engineer from moving up the ladder and unleashing their full potential.

There’s a joke about promoting engineers to leadership positions: you often lose a great engineer and gain a bad manager in the process. At the same time, slotting a purely business-oriented manager in charge of an engineering team can create friction between departments: how can you lead a team of engineers if you don’t understand their unique needs, skills, and language? This makes an engineer who also has an MBA in engineering management an attractive hire, combining the best of both worlds in a single candidate.

MBA in Project Management

Project management may sound similar to engineering management, but there are a few factors that can make it a more attractive MBA specialization for an engineer. While engineering management is largely focused on managing teams and people, project management is concerned with leading the project itself. This makes project management a more analytical subdiscipline—one that revolves around objective deadlines, quantifiable formulas, and concrete outcomes.

A specialization in project management makes sense for any engineer who’s looking to keep their feet firmly in the processes of engineering, but with a more senior position. Project management can be applied in any sector of engineering and the types of projects being managed can range from the small (migrating a firm’s IT software) to the large (building a new bridge). Engineers who get an MBA that specializes in project management learn about supply chain logistics, budget management, and risk analysis.

Improving project performance comes with an attractive financial incentive. According to the Project Management Institute, poor project performance results in some $122 million wasted for every $1 billion invested. Engineers who have an MBA that specializes in project management are capable of helping fix that and stand to reap the benefits.

MBA in Data Analytics

Data is the hottest commodity of the 21st century. Knowing how to collect it, interpret it, and monetize it has applications across the map: from manufacturing, to marketing, to innovation. Practically all major businesses have their own dedicated data analytics department. The result is a complex landscape of data analytics tools (such as Hadoop) that are built for the needs of a business but not necessarily geared towards engineers. Process engineers, data engineers, and entrepreneurial engineers are just a few of those who can benefit from a data analytics specialization.

In general, engineers tend to be introverted, while the world of business is populated with extroverts. However, there are roles in business which lend themselves to strong quantitative skills and objective calculation. Data analytics is one of them. Specializing in this area can make the transition to the business world much more seamless for an engineer, and put their natural talents to use.

With a data analytics specialization, engineers learn how to interact with today’s big data tools. Instead of relying on a business’s analytics team for information, engineers who specialize in data analytics are able to answer their own questions and formulate new ones. That sort of self-empowerment and do-it-yourself skillset gets work done faster and better, and it can result in rapid promotion.

MBA in Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is everybody’s problem. But it’s also increasingly the problem of engineers. While the average American may need to dodge the occasional phishing attack and update their anti-virus software, engineers need to avoid potentially cataclysmic vulnerabilities in their designs. In the last few years, cyberattacks have hit power grids and government networks. Infrastructure, both digital and physical, makes an attractive target. Even voting machines are at risk. The Internet of Things (IoT), one of the most promising areas of computer and software engineering, also turns the most innocuous connected object into a potential point of vulnerability.

An MBA in cybersecurity isn’t just for engineers working specifically in cybersecurity. Software engineers, civil engineers, electrical engineers, and even industrial engineers need to be keenly aware of the risks and vulnerabilities in their line of work. Being able to communicate with an IT team, and ask the right questions, is critical in developing products that are resistant to cyberattack. Being able to ask those questions early in the process (and being able to spot vulnerabilities before they go live) is one of the reasons many engineers choose to specialize in cybersecurity.

MBA in High Technology Management

The future is high tech. And it’s not just about the fundamentals of physics and programming anymore. Tomorrow’s engineering projects are leveraging blockchain, IoT, edge computing, and AI. Knowing how these technologies work (and how to manage their development) can put an engineer in a leadership position at the forefront of innovation. And there’s a heavy financial incentive to be there: global spending on IoT is set to exceed $1.2 trillion in 2022, while the World Economic Forum believes 10 percent of global GDP will be stored on blockchain by 2027.

Leading teams and projects in these areas requires vastly different skillsets than those required in more traditional sectors. In a survey of over 3,600 people conducted by Harvard Business Review, four categories stood out as uniquely challenging in the high-tech management world:

  • A smaller ecosystem of talent
  • A persistent state of ambiguity in relation to employee accountability
  • A pressurized atmosphere of projects with quick turnaround times
  • The incentivization of the “cool” over the practical

An MBA in high technology management prepares engineers to tackle both the technical and non-technical peculiarities of tomorrow’s emerging tech. Understanding the fundamentals of a complex technology like blockchain—while also knowing how to motivate teams and corporate cultures within these high-tech fields—not only prepares an engineer for the future, but also prepares the engineer to shape the future itself.

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.

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