Completing my Executive MBA journey

Two years ago, in April, I wrote about the start of my Executive MBA journey. Fast forward 24 months, and here we are! I’ve completed 24 modules (out of 25) of lectures, pre- and post-assignments, and also the big one – the development project (in the form of a thesis)!

I still have three more days to attend classes, but all in all – I am about to complete my journey and receive the Executive MBA graduation diploma in April 2021. Because of the coronavirus crisis, I think we delayed our studies slightly, but more or less, this is the schedule we set out for.

I did my Executive MBA at the Hanken & Stockholm School of Economics faculty. You can see their program description and details here.

I wanted to reflect a bit on this and hopefully share some insights for anyone else pondering a similar path in their life.

Why the Executive MBA, and why not { insert a weird acronym here }?

When I was young – which I still am, but I used to be younger – I set out to build businesses. This left me without a proper higher education degree at the time. And turns out, when you really love what you’re doing for a living, you get by and nobody is asking for those Computer Science degrees. It hasn’t really troubled me much in the past 20 years, but I kept thinking that perhaps I should get a more formal business-focused education on the side.

A Ph.D is admirable, but the requirements (for me, at least) are quite tough. Often you’re looking at five years of studying and research, while perhaps not working at the same time. I playfully did the math, that perhaps if I earned $100,000 a year, times five, equals half-a-million in lost salaries (plus the time value of money factored in just for additional fun), plus the tuition fees. No, at this age I feel it’s beyond my reach.

Executive MBA differs from MBA a bit, that you usually work on the degree while working full time. The average age for people starting their EMBA is 42 years (I turn 44 this year, so I hit that average nicely). It’s also intended for people with 10 years of professional experience.

After reading through a lot of content on MBA, EMBA, DBA, and similar degrees, I felt that the EMBA is the most fitting for me. It’s a generalist’s approach to running or building a business. My background in consulting has perhaps prepared me well for that, too.

Was the Executive MBA degree worth it?

Focusing on my studies for two years was taxing. Overall, I spent about 1800 hours on studies and about 30 000 euros on the program (fees and materials – we didn’t do any of the field trips because of COVID-19, sadly). It is a lot, both in time and energy spent. It’s also a huge ask from my family and business partners. “Sorry, I can’t join you for fun Friday night. I need to finalize my paper for EMBA,” was something I would frequently say in the past two years. This, of course, before COVID-19. I would also often skip Netflix, good wine, dinners, meetups, user group meetings, long walks in the evening, and ad-hoc trips – because the studies often dictated how much time each weekend was required to meet the deadlines.

I’m indebted to my family for supporting me through the two years. I had heard horror stories that people get divorced or end up moving to a motel to get their assignments done for school. We had a pact with my wife that I would aim to work on my school stuff when it would least disrupt the routines with kids. I woke up at 5 am quite often to work on the stuff. I’m happy to say that I think my kids didn’t even realize I am doing the EMBA degree, as I would either work during the day when they were at school or early in the morning.

The program has 25 modules, each consisting of three days of lecture and the usual pre-assignment, combined with a post-assignment. A post-assignment for most modules would be to author a paper – usually 4-10 pages – in a few weeks, based on academic and business literature.

I spent a moment checking through each of them: I wrote about 69 000 words or 280 pages of text. This excludes the Excel-based analysis, PowerPoint presentations, and Power BI analytics. I didn’t keep count how much I read, but it’s perhaps safe to say that most modules required anywhere between 20 to 200 pages of articles to be read before the class. Some articles were tiresome to read; others were a joy—quite many from HBR.org.

Working on an assignment while the kids are playing

But was it worth it? Yes, I would say it was. I set out to gain a holistic and general understanding of running and building a business: leadership, vision, strategy, finance, management, and similar aspects. It was fun to focus on each one of these at a time. Some modules were rather easy – like data analytics and digital transformation – but others were super tough – like accounting. I did learn a lot from each module.

For me, the idea – with an Executive MBA degree – is not inherently a nice diploma and “EMBA” in my LinkedIn profile page, but more the journey and how I got to grow professionally during these two years. I played with the idea of continuing my studies for a Ph.D. or a DBA but gave up on those dreams as I feel my heart is more in actually conducting business than researching it.

Was it easy to make time for it?

Yes, but also no. For the first year, I aimed to complete all assignments ahead of the deadline, usually a Sunday at midnight. I hate working during the weekends, so I would push hard to complete anything before Friday evening. This way, I would have time during the weekends to read the articles or finalize other tasks I hadn’t completed yet for school. It was sometimes tricky to balance work, family, hobbies, kids, projects, community stuff, and school. Often, it was just a matter of planning ahead.

Here’s me on the left, with my classmate Toni during our summit event we organized in 2019.

After the first year, I somehow got the “hang of it,” and producing papers and reading tens or hundreds of pages of articles became easier. It was still tough but manageable. I think I also learned better how to spend my limited energy and focus on the necessary things. A 120-page article? Sure, I will read it but don’t expect me to memorize it or read every word.

What articles did we read? Here’s a small selection (some of these might be paywalled and require a subscription at HBR.org):

We also read a few books – Foundations of Finance, for example. That was for an exam we had in the middle of the studies, and I read the book twice. Those were long evenings.

I did let go of many things for school. A night out, lazy holiday morning on the balcony, fiddling with hobby projects – all had to make room for school. I wrote a few articles on these approaches, like how to regain my focus and to spend time at the gym with a purpose. I realized quite early in 2019 that I need to maintain my physical fitness; thus, I really invested in my time at the gym.

You also learn to optimize. Sometimes I just had too much on my plate and had to spend the weekend working on (almost) overdue assignments. I prided myself that I never submitted anything late, and I tried to be on top of things before each class. Still, a few times, I submitted a paper 30 minutes before the Sunday midnight deadline because something turned out to be more challenging than I anticipated.

Coffee. My best friend.

Here’s a quick excerpt from the first paper I authored for school in 2019:

“The hypothesis is that marketing should not just be treated as a singular business function, but as the defining fabric that revolves around the core idea of what the customer wants. The mental model presented in the article provides a simplified tool for mapping and understanding both the managerial focus and managerial scope as they relate to the broader perspective of marketing within an organization.”

I’ve since gotten better at writing papers.

What about COVID-19? Did it affect the overall journey?

I feel that COVID-19 both affected my studies positively and negatively if you can even say that. I really enjoyed the classroom days (pre-COVID) – 8 hours of pure focus without a laptop. No emails, IMs, calls, or anything to distract you. You could really immerse in the topic at hand and have meaningful discussions within the table and during breaks. I loved it.

With COVID-19, our faculty quickly transitioned to Zoom-based lectures. That was tough. Spending 24 hours in Zoom over three days is taxing. I was spent after each Friday afternoon – the lectures usually ran from Wednesday to Friday.

In a classroom, I would make notes by hand. It was rewarding and ensured I would ingest and digest the lessons more comprehensively. In Zoom, it doesn’t work like that. We were asked to keep webcams on through the day, so you felt the need to focus your gaze on the lecturer. I did use OneNote briefly, but in the end, I resorted to just using Post-Its and the occasional text file here and there for some insights I needed to revisit after the lecture.

COVID-19 also gave me clarity, especially during the second half of 2020. As I was exiting Microsoft in Q4/2020, I knew I had to push hard to complete the assignments and get my development project (the thesis) done. As I didn’t have to travel or commute, I had an extra 2-3 hours/day to focus on these tasks.

Yet, I felt that during 2020 the lectures’ quality was not at the same level as in 2019. Delivering something virtually requires so much effort from the presenter and the audience that I feel the rules have to be rewritten. And this is where perhaps I felt the burden of the journey at times – 8 hours in Zoom, sometimes with very brief breaks where you literally do not exit your home office. Those days were long.

Perhaps a useful insight was given to me by someone in the staff of our faculty. “Jussi, consider the fact that we are all in the same boat here.” Even if I’m not known as someone who complains, I did provide feedback during one particularly exhausting Thursday lecture over Zoom. It put things in perspective for me, and I felt it was easier to adjust since then.

Development project

The finale of the Executive MBA journey is the development project. Some call it a thesis, we call it a DevProject. The aim is to focus your research on a narrow-enough topic and produce a 50-page paper. It needs to stand academic rigor, but also be nice enough that someone will actually read it. At least once.

We had about 11 months from the planning phase to the deadline of this paper. Initially, I felt it’s simply too long – 50 pages is nothing! Why do we need 11 months? I thought. Well, yes and no – it depends on your topic, too. If you chose something you knew intimately well, there is less reading and ramping up to be done.

Initially, I figured I’d research something around sales or management. The problem is that those topics have been so deeply researched that you’d have to read hundreds of pages of existing literature to get to a point where you can ask a meaningful question. And then you can actually start your work.

I jotted down a few ideas in April 2020 for topics I felt would be interesting:

  • How are companies utilizing AI to grow their business?
  • What is the impact of COVID-19 on remote work?
  • Understanding marketing for developers

I discarded the first two, as I felt COVID-19 would be endlessly researched by the time I already got to the finish line. And perhaps so, even if now I feel it would have been an interesting topic.

My development project then became titled “Understanding organizational advocacy in the context of modern marketing: The Avocado Reach model framework”. It ended up being a 70-pager, where I look into modern marketing intending to understand how Developer Relations/Developer Evangelism/Advocacy works. It’s a tricky topic, just challenging enough, yet not deeply researched yet.

As there was very scarce literature on this, I created a custom model framework for this. That was a joy, as I got to build something fresh instead of picking pieces from an article written in 1976. I learned a lot during this process, even if I was fairly well used to handling large Word documents after writing +10 books in the past. But even so, this was a challenging task.

I got started in the summer of 2020. I had most of my surveys and interviews done by the end of August, and I got to analyzing my data for weeks in September. And in early October, I submitted my thesis for review and grading. This was about five months before the deadline, but I figured I’d rather get it done and dusted than spend the Christmas break working on an endless document.

I’ll do another blog post on the findings from the thesis.

Other insights

I bought a license for Grammarly, the app that checks your grammar while you type. It was indispensable throughout my Executive MBA journey. I wrote about 2 million words in total through the app.

Before each module (and class), I downloaded all pre- and post-reading to my OneDrive. It was much easier to digest the docs in PDF format on my tablet than to hunt for the weird single sign-on-enabled links from the school portal. For each book we had to read, I would track down the original version in a digital format, too.

For each assignment, I would separate the content in a Word document and graphics in PowerPoint. By doing this, it was easy to revisit the data later if it needed adjusting as I had the ‘originals’ in a separate file.

I signed up for HBR, as oftentimes, I would find additional insights from their vast article stash. It was money very well spent.

The graphic below is from one of the assignments, where I created a mapping of all relevant stakeholders for a given company. I utilized AI to generate the profile images, and then fiddled with the presentation in PowerPoint, before creating the actual assignment document.

In closing

Coming to the finish line in my Executive MBA journey is bittersweet. It has kept me busy for two years, and now I find myself with more excess time than I ever imagined. Perhaps this has been one of the learnings that even seemingly large projects are manageable when you break them down and just put a consistent effort – week after week. “Show up,” as they say. For me, this has worked for my fitness efforts, for this blog, for my businesses, and school.

Much of the learnings from the program have been very, very, useful. Some aspects have been less useful, and that’s the key. Pick and use what works for you, discard the rest.