Getting Darden MBAs into the Digital Game

By Robyn Swift

Professor Alex Cowan — a seasoned entrepreneur, author and instructor — has been on the forefront of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business’ efforts to elevate the digital fluency and technological sophistication of its MBA students.

In the following Q&A, Cowan discusses his innovative courses and how he is helping Darden students develop the skills needed to launch successful careers in the tech sector.

What courses are you teaching at Darden this year?

I am teaching three classes across the MBA, Executive MBA and the new Master of Science in business analytics program: “Software Design,” “Software Development” and “Digital Product Management.” I’m also piloting a program with Professor Casey Lichtendahl called “Analytics-Informed Design” where second-year students have a chance to integrate and practice their newfound skills in product design, data science and application development.

All of my courses are aimed at the same core capability, which is to get MBAs in the game with digital, giving them a skillset that will support the ambitions of most of the many current students who want to be product managers, for example, or pursue entrepreneurial ambitions.

Do you see your courses as complementary or fundamental to today’s job-seeking MBAs?

I think they’re on their way to becoming the new fundamentals. If your company isn’t amplifying their employees by automating away rote tasks, they’re going to be outcompeted. If they don’t have ideas on how machine learning is going to change their industry and they’re not developing capabilities in that area, I think that’s a big problem for the company’s durability.

This isn’t to say that general management doesn’t matter. It absolutely does. That’s what I love about being at Darden. I am focusing on teaching new skills you need as a general manager to operate in an innovation-intensive environment focused on digital executions.

What is the biggest takeaway you are aiming for students in your classes?

What I hope they get out of it is creative confidence. To interface with a modern, interdisciplinary team in digital you need some foundational understanding of product design, data science and application development — also known as coding.

A classical management view might be, “I don’t need to know all the details. I’m a manager. I will delegate to specialists.” That’s not wrong. Delegating or, more so today, enabling your team is important. However, successful innovations generally happen in small, seven-to-twelve person interdisciplinary teams. While they’re potentially good for scaling, handoffs kill innovation. The implication is that to foster innovation, a general manager needs to understand the work of their teams to a greater extent than they might in a more traditional environment. Once you’ve experienced being in a high-functioning agile team, this becomes intuitive.

You’ve started companies and consulted widely. What drew you to teaching?

I’m 43 now, and I started my first company when I was 19. I’ve been running a company or responsible for a P&L for a big chunk of the last 25 years. I wanted to try something different.

I began with writing, which led to speaking engagements. From there, I moved to online course work and then to time in the classroom at Darden.

Cowan offers courses on Agile Development and Digital Product Management on Coursera.

You live in the Bay Area currently and have deep experience in the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Do you believe the Darden MBA has a unique value add to the Bay Area ecosystem?

I do. I’m a generalist myself, and I think adaptive generalists are a big part of how you drive innovation and how you make a business successful.

There are certain table stakes like having great technical talent to bring ideas to life, but tons of products fail and there’s a lot of wasted effort. Some of that is inherent in the uncertainty you have with innovation. I think a strong general manager with the right training can beat the odds, though. For example, just by knowing when a team should be in discovery mode versus testing and learning mode versus building and scaling mode can give you many more opportunities for a big, successful outcome.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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