B.C. MBA programs are adapting to tech sector demands

TODAY’S TECHFORCE | Student Vivienne Wang and Paul Cubbon, leader of Sauder’s innovation and entrepreneurship group

Vancouver has one of the fastest-growing tech hubs in North America—and local MBA programs are adapting to help train the industry leaders of tomorrow 

A few years into her career as a software engineer, Vivienne Wang began to wonder if she was on the right path. After obtaining a master’s degree in software engineering from McMaster University, Wang landed jobs at tech heavyweights GE and IBM. But the work, while promising, was limited in scope. “You don’t get to see the whole strategic picture; they never talk to you about why you’re doing what you’re doing,” says the 29-year-old Toronto native.

Wang knew an MBA would help her move into a leadership role within the tech sector, but not any program would do. After applying, and being accepted, to the University of Toronto and University of California at Irvine, she settled on UBC’s Sauder School of Business and became part of the first cohort in its innovation and entrepreneurship MBA, launched in 2012. Wang credits the program—with its emphasis on creativity, change management and new product development—with equipping her with the skills to land her current job as innovation practice lead at SAP.

While Vancouver’s status as a burgeoning tech hub was once characterized by a prevalence of scrappy startups, the increasing presence of employers such as SAP, Microsoft and homegrown Hootsuite has created a demand for leaders who, like Wang, have an entrepreneurial bent but need to manage a growing operation. And local MBA programs are having to adapt to that dual need.

While UBC’s introduction of career track streams in 2012 wasn’t specifically geared toward the tech sector, says Paul Cubbon, leader of Sauder’s innovation and entrepreneurship group, all three MBA streams—finance; product and service management; and innovation and entrepreneurship—address the fact that technology is a pervasive force throughout the economy. Indeed, tech-based companies became the top employers of Sauder’s MBA grads for the first time in 2015, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of graduates.

Course work for the MBA focuses on developing the ability to work lean, fail fast and test assumptions, with the technology entrepreneurship class (part of the innovation stream) operating like an incubator; open to MBA students as well as engineering and applied science students, the course creates multidisciplinary teams that develop business plans and culminates in a Dragon’s Den-style pitching contest. As far as Cubbon is concerned, the program is less about creating the next Steve Jobs than it is about filling the growing need for “intrapraneurs”—his term for entrepreneurial-minded change agents now in demand at established organizations. “The training we give people—sure you could be an entrepreneur, you could be a hero founder, but very likely you’ll go work for an early stage company and they value the same skill set,” he says. “More and more, employers are coming to us and saying, ‘We want your entrepreneurial thinkers.’”

At SFU’s Beedie School of Business, Michael Johnson, director of the management of technology MBA program, says a majority of students come from a technology background and are looking for an entrepreneurial top-up. As the oldest technology MBA in Western Canada, the program, established in 2000, has been revamped to draw on its rich pool of alumni.

In addition to its “tech-flavoured” approach to core MBA concepts like finance and strategic planning, each cohort in the part-time program takes an experiential field trip to tech hubs such as Silicon Valley or Seattle. There, they tour companies and analyze real-life business cases at companies such as Apple, Google and Salesforce, which are increasingly populated with past grads. Having an inside track to alumni in the field gives students an edge and keeps the program current, says Johnson. “They can help us with respect to what’s happening right now.”

Meanwhile, SFU is also casting an eye toward jumpstarting another branch of the tech sector in Vancouver with its graduate certificate program in science and technology commercialization. Open to PhD and post-doctoral science and engineering grads from both SFU and UBC, the yearlong course is meant to nurture more resource-intensive tech industries like biotech by introducing students to concepts such as patenting, market research and financing.

Across the Strait of Georgia, UVic’s Gustavson School of Business has piloted a specialized master’s degree in partnership with the school’s faculty of engineering and investment firm, Wesley Clover. Dubbed entrepreneurship@UVic, each cohort is a team of just three or four students who earn a master in engineering combined with a business diploma. In addition to their studies, students build their own tech company under the mentorship of Wesley Clover. At the end of the program, students have the chance to launch the company with Wesley Clover’s support or disband. Meanwhile, students in all faculties at UVic have access to its Innovation Centre for Entrepreneurs—a pre-incubator program geared to creating multidisciplinary teams by offering mentoring, coaching and, in some cases, seed funding for startup ventures. 

Whether the goal is taking a product from lab to market or taking a startup to the next level, B.C.’s business schools are aiming to produce more grads like Wang who can bridge the entrepreneurial/managerial divide.