MBA Student Values Online Program’s Flexibility, Real-World Focus

May 23, 2013





MBA Student Values Online Program’s Flexibility, Real-World Focus

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As an undergraduate student majoring in computer science at North Carolina State University, Charles D'Andrea often found it impractical to work collaboratively when writing a piece of code. But as a full-time technology specialist for Vanguard in Charlotte, N.C., who also is part of a five-member student team in the Jenkins Professional Online MBA program at NC State, D'Andrea quickly learned that collaboration would be critical to his success both in graduate school and in his career. Serving on that student team, with its four other members located in Raleigh, N.C., D'Andrea says he has learned to work collaboratively more quickly than he would have in a traditional school setting. Participation on the team has also helped prepare him for the increasingly virtual world of work that has emerged in a marketplace driven by rapid advances in technology.

Business and Technology

A graduate of Sanderson High School in Raleigh, D'Andrea decided as a freshman at NC State that he wanted to pursue an MBA degree.

"I walked into my academic adviser’s office with a plan on how to get it, and she kind of laughed at me," says D'Andrea, who graduated from NC State in May 2010. "I knew I was very interested in technology and I wanted to be a leader of innovative products and projects within technology," he says. His business inspirations are his father, Tom D'Andrea, who also has an MBA and is vice president of pharmacy services for Neil Medical Group, and Mark Zuckerberg, a co-founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook.

"My father inspired me as a business leader and owner, and I find the story of Mark Zuckerberg, as a young innovator within technology, inspirational," he says.

Online MBA Wanted

Two months after graduating, D'Andrea went to work as a software engineer for Fidelity Investments in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and then moved to Charlotte in November 2011 to take his current job with Vanguard. The following spring, in applying for an MBA program, he decided to apply only for an online program, and only at NC State. As someone who works full-time, D'Andrea says he wanted the flexibility of an online program that would allow him to be a working professional student in a part-time program. He also liked the focus on technology and innovation at NC State, as well as the total cost of the program, $35,000, which he says is much lower than other programs he looked at.

Flexible Schedule

In addition to a one credit-hour class during a "campus residency" over a long weekend on the NC State campus after the first few weeks in the MBA program in fall 2012, D'Andrea took two three credit-hour classes his first semester. He spends about three hours a week watching video lectures and reading assigned materials, and another six to ten hours on homework, or roughly the same amount of time he likely would spend in a traditional MBA setting, he says. But the online program gives him flexibility he would not have in a traditional program.

Professors typically post two to three lecture videos and related materials at the start of the week for the week's classes. D'Andrea will pick an evening or several evenings during the week to watch the lectures, and then will read the assigned materials and complete his homework over the weekend. Professors also post times when they will be available during the week for online meetings with students. D'Andrea values all the flexibility, including the fact that lectures are given and videotaped specifically for online students.

"You can't rewind a professor in a live lecture," he says. "And you can't speed it up."

Teamwork Critical

Students in the Professional Online MBA Program at NC State collaborate together in small teams throughout their coursework during the program, which through flexible scheduling can last from 21 months up to six years. In his marketing class in fall 2012, for example, D'Andrea's team competed with other teams in a virtual marketing game simulation. Each team functioned as a company in the mobile phone industry that needed to design and execute a marketing plan for a group of products. Each week, the professor would run the simulation for a year based on each team's choices for its product that week, including factors such as the number of units it wanted to produce, the size of its sales team, and its advertising budget. D'Andrea's team met at least twice a week through conference calls. One call would last 30 minutes to an hour and focus on planning for the week, and the other would last three hours and focus on decisions that needed to be made that week for the marketing simulation.

"We would review the results of the simulation for the previous week on our own individually, and come to the meeting with ideas, and then discuss them," D'Andrea explains. He says a big lesson for him has been the need to be more assertive during those conference calls.

"Everyone else was so outgoing and outspoken, I tended to hang back a little more," says D'Andrea, who says that was "a bit of a shock" because, as a computer science major, he always had been one of most outgoing and outspoken students. But feedback from other team members made it clear he needed "to speak up," he says. "Don't be afraid to start talking and perhaps interrupt."

In a marketplace in which virtual communication among collaborators working in remote locations is becoming commonplace, he says, the need to be assertive will become an increasingly critical skill.

Lessons Learned

D'Andrea says the NC State Jenkins MBA program is yielding positive returns for him on all five "pillars" on which it is built -- "technology," "partnerships," "academic rigor," "real projects," and "value." The curriculum, and the way it is delivered, are rooted in technology. His student team is integral to his academic work. His courses, from economics and statistics to marketing and people management, are rigorous, heavily dependent on research, and focused on real-world problems. And he is learning lessons he is already applying in his day job.

In his people management class, for example, he learned that people have differing personality types, and differing leadership and decision-making styles. So in working with his own supervisor and co-workers, he now tries to identify their specific decision-making styles and personalities and "gear my message correctly," D'Andrea says. That class also has given him greater perspective, from a manager's point of view, about how to work with different types of employees and use different types of strategies to build teams. Dr. Lynda Aiman-Smith, the associate professor who taught his course in people management, encouraged her students always to do their own research and make research-based decisions rather than simply "going with the gut," a lesson that D'Andrea says is serving him well.

He also says he has been able to use what he learned in his statistics class for the work he does every day supporting business intelligence tools used by marketing teams and investment analysts at Vanguard.

"I've learned a lot of the statistical methods they're using every day," he says, "the types of decisions they're trying to make by using these tools."

Advice for Prospective Students

Students who enroll in the NC State Jenkins MBA program should be prepared to work hard, work collaboratively and apply what they learn to the world of work, D'Andrea says.

"It takes consistent discipline as an online student," he says. "Stay on top of work. Don't get behind. Talk with your team frequently. Don't always rely on email. Talk on the phone with your team. Try to get to know one another. It's more personal and messages don't get lost or misunderstood."

Students also need to "keep relationships working well within the team, even when you're not seeing each other face to face," he says. "It's so easy through email or on the phone, especially email, to misunderstand someone."

When he graduates, D'Andrea says, he will be "more confident in my ability to understand management practices and knowledge I've learned, confident in my abilities to put those into practice and hopefully others will feel confident in my abilities as well."

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