Earning an MBA degree means many hours of classes and studying, personal sacrifices and stress. Is it worth it for an IT professional to pursue such a degree? Yes, according to some who have done it.

Many IT professionals have been focusing more on business, a trend that began in the 1990s. In a recent Computerworld (U.S.) survey, nearly 30 per cent of the 6,408 respondents with bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D.s said their degrees are in business.

The number of IT managers who have earned or are studying for MBAs is rising, said Mark Polansky, managing director of the advanced technology practice at executive search firm Korn/Ferry International in Los Angeles. “As the demand grows for business-savvy CIOs, there will be an ongoing increase in the number who hold these degrees,” he said.

Sharon Mandell formed a small software company early in her career. The company did well and in fact grew to the point where Mandell felt she didn’t have the experience to run it. She closed the business and in 1998 joined Tribune Publishing in Chicago as director of advanced technology. Mandell was soon promoted to vice-president and chief technology officer.

The bachelor’s degree Mandell had earned in computer science had prepared her for technology issues, but not for business functions such as measuring financial returns and planning budgets. “I’d go to business meetings and not understand the reasons behind decisions,” she said.

When Tribune Publishing in 2000 offered to pay for an executive MBA program at the University of Chicago and provide flextime to attend classes, Mandell jumped at the chance. Executive business programs enable people who already have experience as corporate managers, such as Mandell, to continue working while they study.

Mandell attended classes every other weekend, six hours each on Fridays and Saturdays, for 20 months. Studying and homework took two to eight hours per week. After receiving her MBA in March, Mandell felt much better-equipped to make business decisions. “Some of the issues are not necessarily intuitive [to technology managers], such as how a decision will look on Wall Street, negotiating contracts and measuring returns,” she said. “I gained a much broader view.”

Mandell, who in June joined San Jose, Calif.-based Knight Ridder Digital as CTO, doesn’t think the MBA has had a major impact on her salary. But Mandell said she has gained respect from senior executives who previously viewed her as “just a technologist.” In meetings, “I’m heard more because I understand the language and can present technology in business terms,” she said. IT projects are more likely to get approved because Mandell can better quantify the potential business value.

Those thinking about an MBA program shouldn’t underestimate how school will affect their personal life, family and work, Mandell said. It was particularly challenging for Mandell, a single mother, who had to balance studies with priorities such as caring for her daughter and doing her job well. She still wants to run her own company and said her business knowledge will help her when she does.

Gary Baxter also aspires to be a CEO. Baxter was a project manager at Andover, Mass.-based software vendor ISI Systems Inc. (now CGI USA) while he studied for an MBA at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. He had earned a degree in management information systems before launching a career in mainframe application development, and he saw an MBA as a way to meet his goal of becoming a business leader.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be a technology person my entire career,” Baxter said. “Companies were looking for technology people who had business skills, and I wanted to get that experience.” He attended night classes for three years, with ISI paying the tuition. Baxter completed the program in 1992 and then worked as a consultant at ISI. Four years later, he was offered a CIO post at Maine Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co. in Portland.

Baxter said the MBA helped him land the job because the company wanted someone knowledgeable in all aspects of business. “I can go into any meeting and feel confident that I’ll understand the business issues they’re talking about,” Baxter said. “I can hold an intelligent conversation with vendors, venture capital firms or CEOs.”

Baxter’s business knowledge made him a more effective CIO. For example, when he’s talking to a marketing executive about how IT can support a campaign, Baxter understands more clearly what marketing hopes to accomplish and how to reach the target audience.

Although Baxter said he didn’t use the MBA to negotiate higher salaries, he acknowledges that achieving higher pay through career advancement was one of the incentives for getting an MBA. The biggest incentive, though, was to get the background to take on more challenging positions. “There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have this job if I didn’t have an MBA,” he said. “I’d probably be working as a project manager or senior technology consultant and be earning half as much.”

Baxter recommends that IT professionals consider going for an MBA if they hope to be executives. “The earlier in your career you can get it, the better,” he said. “As you get older, it becomes more difficult” to find the time or energy.

An MBA can also help people committed to staying in IT. Paul Costello earned an executive MBA from the University of Miami while working at the university as director of IT administration and budget control. The university paid for the program, in which Costello took classes on Saturdays for 45 weeks over two years and studied about four hours each weeknight and eight hours on weekends.

There was immediate payback. “I gained insights about business and finance that helped me do financial analyses of projects and IT products,” Costello said. He said his responsibilities and salary increased much more than they would have without the degree. Costello became more involved in functions such as negotiating contracts with IT vendors and developing requests for proposals.

He has stayed with the university because he considers the work challenging and rewarding, largely because of the added responsibilities. Having an MBA “will give you insight into the organization you serve, because practically every organization has a business element to it,” Costello said.