The MBA-Producer Debate

Recently, an interesting discussion regarding the value of an MBA ensued in the IGDA Production SIG mail list. Most of the discussion revolved around two issues: what do you get out of an MBA, and is it worth the time and money? One thread, suggesting that producers pursue a “personal MBA” (i.e. find 30 good business books and read them in your spare time), finally spurred me to write the following response:


Speaking as an MBA (I attended MIT Sloan), I think it’s worth repeating that much of the value of an MBA comes from interactions with faculty, staff, and fellow students. Notably, reading assignments are often the first thing the typical MBA student *cuts* from his/her workload when time becomes critically short. That’s because so much of the learning comes from team projects, lectures, and class discussions. The books are really nice, but they aren’t the point.

The other problem with this discussion is that people tend to view B-school interactions purely in terms of their “deal potential”. Yes, it’s great to befriend people who may go on to positions that you can leverage (i.e. when seeking employment, business partnerships, etc). But what I find infinitely more valuable is the fact that I’m now friends with incredibly smart people, many of whom have chosen to specialize in different areas of business than myself. If I have a question about the marketing implications of something I’m working on and want an unbiased opinion, I can turn to five great friends (not to mention a marketing professor or two whom I’ve kept in touch with. They cost outsiders $500 to $1,000 an hour, but they answer my questions for free.) If I want to know how much equity you typically give an advisor to a startup, I know tons of people who’ve started companies and can give me their opinion. If you know what you’re doing, attending B-school can tremendously expand your brain-trust.

There are other arguments in favor of a full-time MBA, but I don’t want to belabor the point. Rather, I want to acknowledge that an MBA isn’t for everyone, and that some people may very well be better off with a reading list. If your career has a lot of positive momentum, stopping to get an MBA could prove unwise. Furthermore, it is quite true that the video game industry, as a whole, neither recognizes the value of the MBA (as far as production is concerned) nor “knows what to do with us.” (On the other hand, an MBA certainly helps if you want to do marketing, business development, finance, or operations.)


An MBA forces you to digest lessons via class discussion and team projects. I tend to forget anything I don’t immediately put into practice, so this has proven invaluable to me. For example, finance class projects were an integral part of my learning process — I am absolutely certain that I would not fully understand how to correctly value a project (i.e. a game pitch) or potential acquisition (i.e. a franchise or entire game studio) had I skipped the projects but read the book and/or attended lectures. The combined package was crucial.

But like I said in the original email, an MBA doesn’t make sense for everyone. Some people might benefit from a part-time or executive MBA (Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, the Co-CEOs of Bioware, often speak with enthusiasm about their exec-MBA experiences.) Some people don’t need one at all. If you’re a producer considering an MBA degree, I’d be happy to tell you more about my experience, and I can introduce you to an MBA-producer or two who will tell you what the degree has meant to them.

13 responses to “The MBA-Producer Debate

  1. As a marketer who is currently pursuing an MBA — I’m essentially two years into a BBA — I’ve also added the reading list method to my learning cycle. The list of books in my digital library is incomplete, and I’m currently planning the purchase of several additional books. I just can’t decide whether I should buy Developing Business Strategies, 6th Ed., or Strategic Market Management, 7th Ed., by David Aaker… The former is half the price of the newer edition, but the newer edition seems to contain a new chapter. When I buy business books, I try to always purchase the latest edition, especially if the previous edition was published prior to the dot-com implosion. Any recommendations, David?

    In terms of the value of an MBA, I can’t speak from experience; however, I think many producers would fare better with a degree in project management or perhaps PMI certification. While an MBA would be useful, an MBA isn’t necessary to being a successful producer. A degree in psychology, finance, or even economics would probably suffice. That said, education is not a substitute for competence. The ability to communicate, the ability to empathize, and solid people relations skills remain vital.

    By the way, what’s the educational difference between MBA programs and EMBA programs? When I compared National University’s programs, the curricula appeared to be similar.

  2. David,
    I couldn’t agree more. The true value from my MBA (Smith) came from the people who were all smarter than me in something. Sure there was information gleaned from classes, lectures, reading and the rest…but it was my interaction with classmates with so many different backgrounds that made my experience valuable. To those who may be reading, I’d like to offer some general advice that I’ve seen over the last two years of my MBA program.
    1. If you can, go full-time. I say this because the relationships you build will be stronger and more valuable. I have friends in the part-time and they hardly know each other because of the lack of time to bond.
    2. Try to get into the best school possible that fits your needs. My brother went to Insead, and I have friends from Wharton and Kellogg among others and I think the overall “What I was taught in class,” is the same. But what you really pay for is the network! I cannot stress that enough. I’m sure David has a much wider, more active and supportive network than mine from Smith. Finance is finance no matter how you cut it. Same for all the other subjects.
    3. Finally, be willing to adapt to whatever crosses your path. When I started school I didn’t want to pursue entreprenurial activities, but instead go corporate with my marketing concentration. In the final semester I took a highly regarded class, New Venture Finance, and I formed with my current business partner our business plan. We’ve been riding that wave for the past 9 months and its been great!

    I also agree that the MBA is not for everyone. I have met many people who are very successful and never pursued one. Bill Gates anyone? But their companies are usually filled with MBA’s. You really need to do a self-assessment and know what you want to do. You will not get much value if you float through the program.

  3. Any recommendations, David?

    Unfortunately (in this context), a large percentage of the readings at MIT Sloan are HBS cases and other reading selections that have been compiled into course packets, which leaves me little to recommend. There were several textbooks (i.e. for accounting, econ, etc) but I didn’t think very highly of them. The only three that stand out in my mind:

    * Getting To Yes (Fisher, Ury). A great negotiation book. If you’ve never read a book on the subject, I’d highly recommend reading this one.

    * Analysis for Financial Management (Higgins). A surprisingly readable text, given the subject matter. This teaches you how to value a project or entity, forecasting, how to sustainably grow a business (from a financial perspective), etc. Reading this will also teach you a large percentage of the “buzz words” a business person might know. That said, it’s still a relatively technical book and people mind find themselves drifting away from it without a professor to explain things, assign projects and problem sets, etc… but anyway,

    * The Entrepreneur’s Guide To Business Law (Bagley, Dauchy). The title says “entrepreneur” but I think anyone would enjoy this book.

  4. While an MBA would be useful, an MBA isn’t necessary to being a successful producer.

    There are very few positions for which an MBA *is* absolutely necessary. It’s simply very useful for some people at certain moments in their lives. I always make sure to mention that in any discussion of this sort.

    A degree in psychology, finance, or even economics would probably suffice.

    Hmm… now I think you’re comparing apples to oranges. Each of those things represent a (small) component of what an MBA gives you. I think a producer would benefit tremendously from a better understanding of marketing, finance, strategy, communications, organizational processes, business law, negotiation, etc…

    Psychology rears its head in marketing, OP, and negotiation, but it’s just a part of a much large puzzle; plus, you’d be missing the targetted application of it. Finance is just finance. Econ is just econ. It’s a bit like saying “you don’t need to buy a car — just buy a set of tires.” If you need a car, you need a car, and you can’t just buy pieces of it. If you don’t need a car at all (because you live near the subway, just to drag out this analogy forever…) then that’s another story. 😉

  5. By the way, what’s the educational difference between MBA programs and EMBA programs?

    Sorry, almost forgot about this. The answer is “I’m not sure.” EMBA programs try to cram all the important components of an MBA in a year’s time, if I’m not mistaken. What that means is you have less time to explore topics of particular interest to you (I chose entrepreneurship and marketing.) It also means less time to get to know your classmates and professors. Lastly, I think they trim some of the less “hardcore” coursework (such as communications) in favor of things students probably haven’t picked up on their own, like economics, finance, accouting, marketing strategy, etc.

  6. Also as someone who was a Project Manager and earned a full MBA (went from part-time while working to full-time to finish for a few months) I wouldn’t recommend the degree as necessary to be in Business. But like everyone is suggesting, it’s easier 🙂 Not having some core concepts and the important social interaction probably handicaps you down the road, if not earlier in your career. Presuming you can start your career effectively without an MBA, as you rise and earn more responsibility, you need to have some of the basic business skills and knowledge in order to be effective. That includes negotiation (“GTY”, Fisher/Ury like David cites) basic cost and financial accounting, marketing, and strategy. But to emphasize: Those social interactions are also really important, because no matter how good/bad they may be in a college setting, learning to work on business issues with others is pretty vital for later work (IMO at least). From my engineering training, every thing is task oriented. Meaning, every task has a definite solution. Not so in business. In fact, learning to be flexible with others and being able forecast indefinite things is pretty key if you’re going to be a manager. And being able to test drive some canonical business ideas and problems in small case groups is great training for the possible trauma of large or fast projects in the future.

    And for my two cents, Competitive Strategy, Michael E. Porter, a must read

  7. Hmm… now I think you’re comparing apples to oranges. … It’s a bit like saying "you don’t need to buy a car — just buy a set of tires."

    Well, yeah. Producers who pursue a "personal MBA" are building their car — their education — through information M&A.

  8. Well, yeah. Producers who pursue a “personal MBA” are building their car — their education — through information M&A.

    Sure. Not disputing that. I thought you were implying that a degree in economics is approximately as useful as an MBA (to producers.)

  9. Unfortunately (in this context), a large percentage of the readings at MIT Sloan are HBS cases and other reading selections that have been compiled into course packets, which leaves me little to recommend.

    I didn’t intend to request recommendations for only curricular textbooks. Perhaps you should create a Library page, or start posting book reviews? What business books have you read? What are you currently reading? Of the business books that you’ve read, which would you recommend?

  10. Perhaps you should create a Library page, or start posting book reviews?

    Not bad ideas; perhaps I will!

    I haven’t consumed many business-related books recently, but I can recommend Wisdom of Crowds, Tipping Point, and of course, Henry’s new book Convergence Culture. On the fiction front, I’ve really been enjoying George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series. I also finally got around to reading Ender’s Game, which was really good (and, I’m told, is the favorite of most MIT undergrads.)

    Nowadays, I spend most of my reading time on blogs and other websites; I read about 20 with some regularity.

  11. I have to agree that the video game industry does not value or know what to do with MBA graduates.

    The fact of the matter, and I’m speaking for the UK video game industry here, is that most video game developers are run by people either in the industry from the hey day of last generation video games development where companies, budgets and team sizes were small enough to not need MBA skills or young vigorous start ups (made up of younger less experienced members of older companies) who haven’t really figured out the inherently broken models of business, intricacies, pitfalls, and global nature of modern day video game development

    Either way these two groups are now discovering that making video games is a global exercise that requires immense budgets, teams and business skills. No matter what discipline throughout the development community you are involved in be it production, business development or marketing you are developing game products locally for a global mass market involved in or leading teams that are growing into the fifties and sometimes hundreds with all that entail.

    The MBA doesn’t just give you a wide fundamental understanding of general business administration, organisation and leadership skills it teaches you how global markets and large scale business organisations operate, it teaches you the factors necessary for completive advantage, it teaches you tactics, strategies and models that are utilised to create successful diversified products that can be sold to a global market.

    The video game industry has seen staggeringly fast growth from a small localised industry to a global entertainment industry. That growth has been based primarily on following the same broken business models.

    The industry may not value or know what to do with MBA graduates but the industry certainly needs people with MAB skills. There is no universal MBA student we all study core models and then specialise in our own key areas. Each MBA gradate is different. However all MBA graduates are versed in the language of global enterprise and is a extremely valuable tool and assets for any organisation they are involved. The games industry needs the skills. Disciplines and knowledge that MBA graduates can bring for the next stage of its growth. The game industry is here to stay its getting bigger and bigger new markets are developing each and every year.

    The question isn’t weather producers can benefit from an MBA the question is how can the industry afford not to have MBA students helping guide the future growth of the world’s fastest growing entrainment format.

    I completed my MBA in 2006 and specialised in the video game industry.

  12. Its true that a Videogame industary doesnt know what to do with a MBA guy, but they seriously need a guy who can support in terms of business. Also i had a question that weather a guy from Art background does an MBA either full time or execuive MBA, after workiing in the gaming industary for 5 to 6 yrs. So is it useful doing MBA after a good experience and does it value in industary. As an Artist the guy knows the in and out of the industary, as he has worked in it and would be useful in terms of business and productivity(production). So i havent seen many Artist doing an MBA. Also people in Advertising agencies dont find people with an Art background done either marketing or Finicial MBA. So it it actually usefull for an Artist do pursue an MBA? I am also an Artist and working in console gaming company.

  13. Just wanted to chime in on this with a little real life experience. I went to college for a year and a half and dropped out to work in production (newsmedia) in Chicago. I was an honor’s student at Columbia College in fiction/film and can still remember a flyer I saw posted saying that a college degree from an arts school would not even get you a job bagging groceries (the letter was written by some hotshot hollywood producer)…

    After 3 years in production, it was obvious that there was a ceiling as to the future of my climb up the ladder. Simply put, in a world of degreed professionals the lack of my degree may not have put me out of their league–but it surely weighed on me that a degree was something I could have easily completed and moved forward from.

    So I went back to school, got a BA in Management & Marketing, and alot of what I had learned by hard knocks rang clear through my coursework in marketing research, strategies, and accounting classes. A degree made me much more composed within my abilities and definitely raised my confidence level with professional grade work.

    So I went straight into an MBA at that point, but like most people I am a night school student. I do go full time and work full time, and I love it. Most of what I learn goes right into practice in my workday, and what I already know is more articulated by exposure to the formal education of an MBA.

    If you have the stomach–as many creative people fall queasy at the sight of “formal procedures” and “number crunching”–to enjoy learning the brass tacks of business, and you actually see yourself in a principal role, I say get an MBA, especially in production. Nobody is going to disqualify you because you have a better understanding of business. If anything it simply complements your creative repetoire.

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