Why Did a White Hat Read a MBA?

Several friends in different social circles had talked up the Quantic MBA since it was free. But I was a cybersecurity professional. Why did I need to read a MBA now?

I decided to do it anyway, and I am glad to report I have survived.

There’s a nice certificate verifiable on Parchment too.

Why I Did It

Perhaps the answer can be best summed up with a career ladder that describes the various paths available for many careers. In short, do you want to be a technical or head towards management?

A generic career ladder. Source: 21st Century

Personally, I have my own internal conflicts on career ladders. Especially in the field of cybersecurity, which is incredibly broad, there is little hope of knowing everything. If one had to know everything before advancing the career ladder, most would never make it simply through the imperfections of their knowledge. But people still need to rise the ranks because cybersecurity never exists in a silo; cybersecurity supports business and cybersecurity is a subset of risk management. In other words, we need technical professionals to pivot towards management to communicate with competing stakeholders on cybersecurity matters. In fact, there is a dearth of such professionals; many cybersecurity professionals dislike the idea of pivoting towards a more generalist role. But that is only half of my story.

The other half of my story is personal. Someone who has childhood ambitions of eventually helping the world needs to understand the operating language of the world. As much as we may bemoan capitalism for its ills, capitalism has emerged as the least terrible system to provide acceptable living standards for many people. The acclaimed sociologist, Prof. Ezra Vogel, makes a compelling point that 300 million people were uplifted from poverty during Deng Xiaoping’s era.

“(Deng) guided China through a difficult transition from a backward, closed, overly rigid socialist nation to a global power with a modernizing economy.”

Ezra Vogel, Wall Street Journal, 2011

In order to work in the dominant economic system to fulfil any sort of lofty dreams, I had to understand how capitalism works. I needed to understand how businesses operate. The fact that the MBA was free meant icing on the cake; I was nudged to undertake this anyway.

A Digital MBA… What?!

In the American context, the subject of MBAs is one of hot debate. Traditionalists swear by the brand name of a MBA as a proxy for the connections you have hung out with. This has led to terms like the “M7” schools, which is reminiscent of “old boys’ clubs” in schools with long, established brand names. M7 MBA case studies get propagated worldwide; I have personally seen a fair share of M7 MBA material back in Tembusu College when attending a negotiation workshop, and again in several Quantic MBA assignments.

The Quantic model differs considerably from a traditional MBA. In “edtech fashion”, Quantic delivers its content with a microlearning approach through a mobile application, unlike a more traditional classroom approach with weekly case discussions. A first-order question emerges: is the Quantic MBA rigorous enough?

A fellow Quantic MBA reviewer takes the view that the microlearning approach leads to far greater positive results than he expected. However, some would still express reservation that the lack of in-class time implies the Quantic MBA resembles a distance-learning MBA that does not replicate the networking potential and in-class rigour of a traditional, physical MBA.

I take a more nuanced view on the matter. Perhaps the expectations are set that obtaining an MBA means one is set for life in the world of business. That’s an incorrect expectation; a graduate in Physics (e.g. me), with years of not practicing the craft, will eventually degrade in processing ability. I can still remember some deeply-ingrained fundamentals, but I will not be set for life in a Physics career. Likewise, obtaining the Quantic MBA, to me, simply marks the commencement of me realising how much I do not know in the world of business, and the extent of the vicissitudes I will need to navigate.

But if the question was, “Does the MBA provide enough breadth for exposure?”, I will say “yes”: first, I am now aware of concepts like a sales funnel and can understand how it can be created and optimised with search-engine optimisation. I now understand what a convertible note is, or a share swap. But a MBA does not suddenly provide me carte blanche rights to claim I am a marketing expert, or a full-time venture capitalist. Only on-job-training can provide such experiences, should I undertake such a journey. But at least I can now watch Shark Tank and understand if Kevin O’Leary offers a snarky (sharky) royalty deal that dooms the company because all that royalty payable could have otherwise been ploughed back into the business!

What’s a Cybersecurity Professional Doing with Business?

Cybersecurity supports business. Yet, it is not the profit driver in most deals. In business parlance, cybersecurity typically falls under a bucket together with other departments like legal, audit e.t.c. as “cost centres”. In other words, there is always business pressure to minimise cybersecurity cost, yet staying compliant with ever-increasing governmental regulations.

As a technical professional, these are some of the everyday dilemmas faced with the profit centres. Clearly, for a business, it wants to maximise its profit centres and minimise its cost centres. But cost centres are relevant for they help mitigate risk. For e.g. legal services help review contracts to ensure the firm does not sign itself up for an onerous deal, whereas audit services keep project teams honest, rather than siphoning corporate cash into their own pockets. Cybersecurity services, no matter how technically robust they are, ultimately aim at mitigating cybersecurity risk. In IT systems, this means maintaining the confidentiality, integrity and availability of an IT system. But the business wants to be as cost-effective as possible.

Because understanding capital is important, I had to understand how my work can be done without rendering the business uncompetitive.

Did I Enjoy It?

Personally, yes. I enjoyed it because it was learning. But this comes with certain cavaets, some unavoidable and others that leave room for improvement.

In any MBA programme, networking with fellow professionals is paramount. The Quantic MBA seems to speak to tech professionals (in fact, Quantic calls its school “Quantic School of Business and Technology”). Clearly there is a bias for tech professionals, which I personally enjoyed, since we spoke common languages and had a common architecture (pun intended).

However, despite having the largest “Quantic Population” in Asia, and having the 3rd largest “Quantic Population” by country behind the U.S. and U.K. (as of time of writing), I did not manage to meet most of my coursemates physically.

Map of Quantic students in the APAC region. Size of circle proportional to number of students. Source: Quantic

All projects were completed remotely due to various contingencies such as fluctuating COVID-19 measures. I understood that Quantic used to organise physical meetings, but these had to be shelved for virtual country meet-ups. It felt different. Thankfully, as COVID-19 measures begin to ease, there exists scope for such meet-ups. As of time of writing, I will finally be attending one small 5-person meet-up soon, after two delays due to a member contracting COVID and another receiving a health risk warning.

Perhaps where I felt there was greater scope for enjoyment was in culmination of the course with a capstone project like the EMBA course. I felt that the final exam was somewhat anti-climatic because it felt too similar to the learning material and was too focused on definitions rather than application. I thought the course could have culminated in a final group project, where we could prepare a pitch, and thereafter, play the role of venture capitalists to review other projects and pitches to make a judgement if said firms were investible at their respective asks and our reasoning for our judgement, similar to Coursera’s peer-marking concept. Quantic could, of course, make it more entertaining by mixing legitimate pitches with scammy pitches, or pitches that were wholly uninvestible no matter how one sliced it, for due diligence purposes (double meaning intended).

Notwithstanding, I enjoyed the journey.

Will I Recommend the Course?

After all that is said, I still take a view that the Quantic MBA is not for everyone. First, it is no longer free. Next, some people may never need to take such a course. Neither is this course a magic pill. But if one’s objective is knowledge and networking with tech professionals, why not?

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