Author Al Dea shares insights on how to make the MBA experience count [Show summary]
Al Dea is a 2015 graduate of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s MBA Class of 2015 and author of the new book, MBA Insider: How to Make the Most of Your MBA Experience. Listen to the interview!
Al Dea discusses his path to the MBA, and shares wisdom for ensuring a meaningful MBA experience [Show notes]
Our guest today, Al Dea, earned his bachelors in Marketing and Theology from Boston College in 2010 and then became a Deloitte Analyst and Consultant until starting his MBA at UNC’s Kenan Flagler Business School. He earned his MBA from Kenan Flagler in 2015 and returned to Deloitte for a couple of years. He then worked in product management starting in 2017 and today is a Senior Manager in Product Marketing at a leading high tech company. On the side he started MBASchooled in 2015 and more recently Careerschooled.com. And, he just published his first book, MBA Insider: How to Make the Most of Your MBA Experience.
Can you tell us about your background? Where you grew up? What do you like to do for fun? [2:23]
I grew up in upstate New York and went to Boston College where I was a marketing and theology major. I got my MBA and then moved to San Francisco partly because I didn’t want to do winter anymore. I have an older sister in LA but family still in upstate New York, so I travel often to see family and friends. I am a runner which is challenging in San Francisco. I wouldn’t consider myself a writer but always had a journal growing up. I am also a sports fanatic, and follow basketball, football, baseball, you name it.
How did you get interested in marketing and product development? [4:35]
I knew I wanted to spend some time doing consulting in my career – it wasn’t a matter of if, but when. I also knew there were other things I wanted to try. In business school you do an exercise where you write down all the things you think you are good at, along with examples, and get some feedback on it. From that you get a better sense of things you like doing and actually are good at, where do they fit, and in what types of companies and industries. What I really like is being an evangelist or ambassador for things. I also enjoy the idea of understanding who you are serving, in this case the customer, and to be able to come up with a solution, so product marketing is a really good fit for me. I still use the core skills I learned as a consultant, but I continue learning every day.
What did you find most difficult in the MBA application process? Does anything stand out? [7:45]
From a tactical level I got waitlisted at every school I applied to, and ironically enough five years ago, when I did the blog post for Accepted, that was one of the things that I wrote about – the experience of getting waitlisted. So that was a challenge. Strategically in the application process, this is such a big decision and takes a lot of effort. There is a tendency to treat every single outcome as binary – you get accepted or rejected, and it puts a lot of pressure on people. You apply, submit some things, and the admissions committee decides if you are in or not. I put a lot of undo pressure on myself. I have to get in or else my life isn’t going to work out. I was 24-25 and to feel like so much was riding on the rest of my career, I put so much pressure to “make it right.” Things have a way of working out, maybe not in the moment but in the grand scheme of things. Talking to prospective students now, I say, “You are not going to appreciate it, but it’s going to be okay. As things happen, we’ll work on them together.”
What was most valuable in your UNC MBA experience? [15:37]
For me it was a supportive and collaborative community. Lots of great resources, smart people, you’ll find at any top program, but having supportive collaborative people was incredibly valuable. Business school is a unique environment because you can try and fail and those around you will help you make sense of it – a professor in the field or classmates give you tough love or confidence to move forward. There are many things I tried in business school because people were willing to open doors or give me feedback and I learned from it.
Going to an MBA program that is a little smaller is a big benefit to me. I like to build deep relationships and that is a little easier at a smaller school and that added a lot of value to me. Going to school in Chapel Hill is not the same as going to school in New York City – the people who chose to go there are cognizant of being there in the community and town. Sometimes a big allure of being in a program in New York is often New York itself. They wanted to throw themselves into school and UNC as opposed to focusing more on NY and what it has to offer.
What could have been improved? [19:08]
The flip side of going to a small school is your network is smaller. At the time I was trying to recruit for tech internships on the west coast so had to hustle a little harder. The second thing is classes are taught based off research professors typically do. For the work I was interested in – B2B marketing in high tech – there weren’t that many classes focused on that topic so there were things I had to learn a lot on my own. Schools have improved a lot since I went because high tech is such a big field for MBAs now.
Did you know before you started your MBA that you wanted to go into high tech product marketing? [21:12]
I definitely wanted to work in a tech company. My work at Deloitte was helping large organizations figure out how to create a better customer experience. I helped them think about their own strategy as a firm and how to offer innovative things to meet customer needs. I wanted to be at the forefront so I knew I wanted to work at a tech company but through my time at business school and back at Deloitte, I connected the dots related to product marketing.
You went back to Deloitte after graduation. Did you feel the MBA experience was worthwhile considering you ended back where you were before? [22:42]
I was happy to go back to Deloitte for a few reasons.
#1 I was sponsored by them so financially it made a lot of sense.
#2 I did an internship in product marketing but couldn’t definitively say that was what I wanted to do. Working at a big consulting firm is like being part of a fiefdom. There are lots of groups within them. Going back gave me the chance work with a lot of people I had enjoyed working with before, and had the mindset of working hard but keeping one eye open since this is something I knew I didn’t want to do forever. In the end I was happy to go back. A good lesson for me from that experience is that I can always make the most of something, but I think that when you proactively manage your career things tend to fall into place.
Are you glad you spent the time and money for an MBA? [25:22]
I am. Undergrad business courses expose you to the concepts and terminology and understanding the basics of business. What business school teaches you is how marketing decisions will impact the balance sheet, or how a supply chain issue is really a customer service problem. It is about the integrations and how they connect together.
I had lots of valuable experience working at Deloitte, but the experiences classmates bring into the classroom and how they dealt with particular issues, you can’t get that in undergrad because no one has the experience yet.
The third thing is with the way that classes are taught in business school there is never enough time to get through all the material in the allotted time. You have to also think about how to learn best and develop a process for how to synthesize information and apply it.
Check out our recent podcast episode, Is an MBA Worth It, or Is the Sky Falling Down on the MBA Degree> >>
How did you come to found MBA Schooled and CareerSchooled? [28:05]
When I was in business school one thing I thought about a lot was that there are a lot of great places to find info when you apply, but when you are in business school you are constantly bombarded with decisions you have to make, but there is not as much information available about how best to make those decisions. I wanted to create a blog to walk through what business school is like, how one can use it to accelerate career goals – essentially pulling back the curtain. CareerSchooled is in the same vein but is for anyone, essentially asking what do you need to do in the future of work to have a career that you not only enjoy and find meaningful, but that helps you evolve and grow. I have always believed in the mantra of learning and teaching because it helps you master something and also lets you look out for other people.
Do you have guest writers or is it all you? [30:11]
It is all me for the most part. I do make use of some freelancers to help with graphics or editing and the like since I also have a fulltime job. I really enjoy it. It is a lot of me building relationships with students, business school administrators, and individuals in the business world who have interesting experience. I synthesize what they are doing in such a way to make it helpful to my audience.
Can you tell us about your new book, MBA Insider: How to Make the Most of Your MBA Experience? Why did you write it? [31:28]
I wanted to help people make the right decisions about business school. It is a huge investment and I asked many people who had been to business school, if you knew then what you know now, what would you do differently. What I heard again and again is, if I had a better sense of what I was getting into I wouldn’t have had such a slow start. The book gives people bite-sized info in terms of how students can navigate issues, and yes, it will still be crazy, but instead of stressing about five things maybe you’ll just be stressing about two. It helps you come in with a game plan.
Do you have a favorite interview in it? Or lesson shared? [35:50]
One interviewee went to Stern and wanted to do something at the intersection of business, education, and non-profit world. He ended up doing an internship at a large financial institution. He got a fulltime offer from the firm and debated if he should take it or not. He thought about it a lot and realized this was not aligned with what he knew he wanted, but it is really hard to turn down a lucrative job offer. But that is what he did, because the more he reflected on it the more he realized it wasn’t the right fit. He did find an opportunity doing consulting in the higher education industry, which was more aligned with what he set out to do, took longer to get, but was the right move upon self-reflection.
Another is an interview with a Fuqua MBA student who took the time to step back and think about what she had done and what she wanted to do in the future. What I love about her story is about how intentional she became about using self-reflection, using that insight to take on new opportunity or making space to consistently be intentional about her career. Helped her realize she didn’t need to figure everything out right away. As long as I keep the feedback and have a goal and good process for making the right decision in the moment.
Any tips for MBA applicants? [39:50]
If you are a current applicant, you have lots of places to go – Accepted is a great place and I used it.
Don’t just look at school websites – talk to students or alums, get a different mindset – current, someone two years out, someone 10 years out, but all helpful.
Second is if you already applied or got in congrats, but don’t stop. Think about what life will be when on campus, getting a pulse, get MBA Insider, but overall do research – if I knew then what I know now, honing in on a couple things that would be really valuable. What can you do now to make Day 1 even better?
What would you have liked me to ask you? [41:54]
Challenged me to give more specific guidance of what to do. If you’ve already gotten in, save money. Business school is expensive, so save money for tuition or any trips you might want to take. Second, if you are thinking about a pre-MBA internship now is the time to act on it. It’s a great way to get one more experience in to test the hypothesis of what you think you want to do after business school, but you’ll need to quit your job early, interview and get a new job. Last thing is to continue the self-reflection you have done so when you do get to campus you can test those career hypotheses. Career stuff starts really early, so if you need to talk to people in the field or students, do so, and continue working on your resume. When you get to campus all the time you put into your existing resume will have to happen again, as each school has a format you need to have yours in. Get the resume template in advance if you can and do it now. Create a brag book or list of accomplishments or things you have done that will help you prepare for when you start talking to recruiters.
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