Harvard Neuroscientist Discovers New Passions in TMMBA Program

Meet Jim Berg, the valedictorian of the TMMBA Class of 2020. He doesn’t fit the typical TMMBA profile. He is not an engineer; he does not work at a tech company, and the big data he works with is brain mapping data of mice. So why did a classically trained neuroscientist with a Harvard PhD decide to get an MBA? We recently Zoomed with Jim to explore this question, find out where he is today, and discover the highlights from his TMMBA experience.

Jim Berg in a laboratory

Why did you decide to pursue an MBA?

I started to think about an MBA a year or so before actually applying to a program. At the time I was in my sixth year with the Allen Institute for Brain Science and had already been in a management role for five years, and I found I really enjoyed management and organization and I was good at it. When I started to research MBA programs, I was a Senior Manager of the electrophysiology data collection team. My PhD and subsequent training were all highly specialized in the scientific approach and technique, and while the Institute gave me unparalleled scientific mentoring, I was a fish out of water when it came to business areas like resource planning, team building, finance, and operations. I loved my job very much, but I also had a desire to make a bigger impact in my organization.

What was your career plan at the time?

The business skills and knowledge I knew would improve my prospects for promotion to Associate Director, which was the next step in my career. However, I faced a challenge in advancing within my own department because there was already an Associate Director. With the breadth of knowledge I would gain with an MBA, I knew I would be more competitive should a position become available in an adjacent department. I also knew that an MBA would make me a better fit for a position that would interface between the Institute’s business units and the scientific data production groups. It was inevitable that with the Institute’s continued increase in external funding, there would be more opportunities for Associate Director level positions in the organization.

Why did you ultimately choose the TMMBA Program?

The cohort model was a huge selling point for me. My PhD program was a cohort, so I was familiar with the advantages of going through an experience with the same group of people. In the case of TMMBA, I liked the accelerated format and mix of courses. Plus, the diversity of the cohort was a positive. I knew it would be diverse, but I did not realize how diverse until the program started. I remember the first day of orientation thinking, “this is the least white classroom I’ve ever been in.” This diversity aspect was something that I’m very grateful to have had in the program.

Also, the technology slant was very appealing. My role was to interface with large-scale data generation and analysis, and the TMMBA experience would position me well for companies that deal with ‘big data’ should I decide to change organizations.

Lastly, it was the network. In my role now I’m lucky enough to have a TMMBA alum from 2005 as a mentor in the adjacent Institute of Immunology. It is great to have TMMBA in common and it really helped in forming our professional relationship. Plus, I have met so many great people, now friends, from my TMMBA experience. I have people to turn to when I have a problem to solve – it is fantastic!

What is new with your career post-MBA?

Sometimes in life, one can try to plan the heck out of things and they go somewhat according to plan. That was kind of the case with me, but not quite. By our June graduation, I was ready to hit the ground running and get to the next level of Associate Director. Well, things worked out a bit differently. The Institute started to use a new model where they would establish multiple Institutes under the Allen Institute umbrella organization. It was announced that a new one would be launched formally in January of 2022.

[The Institute] selected the scientific leader, Karel Svoboda, and he was advised to hire an Operations Director as soon as possible. The interview process started and in September I was officially named the new Operations Director for the new yet-to-be named science division under the Allen umbrella.

Congratulations! That is fantastic. How do you think your MBA helped you land this new position? Do you have an example of something you learned that you applied in your new position?

As far as the interviews go, I felt like there were so many aspects of the MBA that I could lean on. I felt very comfortable answering operational, leadership, and financial questions. After all, I had just spent 18 months immersed in the MBA, so I was in my element. Also, a lot of the discussions centered around culture and building a new organization so the entrepreneurial content was super useful. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing as all of it helped me outline my 100-day plan during the interview. It was great to feel confident and competent when talking with the other Ops Directors who interviewed me.

Now that I am in the job, I pull from so many things that I learned in my classes. One thing, which might seem kind of boring, was something from our Financial Accounting course in our first quarter. It was the Starbucks versus McDonald’s case. The discussion centered around why a company would lease versus buy and how to best leverage capital vs. operating expenses. Part of what we needed to figure out was whether to continue to purchase and maintain servers on-premises or go to a cloud provider, this case came back to me in a flash! It was as if I was taken back to that class in February 2019. I knew the way to go. I do not think I would have known quite how to handle this business issue had it not been for this case. There are so many of these kinds of examples, but this one comes to mind.

Jim Berg, TMMBA grad poses with his family on a park bench

What advice do you have for future TMMBA students?

Four things:

  1. Take time for yourself and your family. Be sure to schedule that time and keep it blocked off on your calendar. For me Sundays were family days. No school and no work. I never compromised on this. Even if you do not have a partner or kids, do this anyways. It is important to take care of yourself because the program is intense.
  2. Make sure your support network is on board and fully bought into the decision. I attribute my success in the program to my wife, Grace. She played a huge role in making this doable. With two small children and a full-time job herself, this was no small task and I feel incredibly lucky to have had her support. I would not have done it without her. So be sure your partner is all in with you.
  3. Think of the TMMBA experience as a sandbox to try new things. It is a place where you can test things out. For example, if you want to try a new meeting technique with your study group you can. We tried something called “time cop” so that we would keep to our agenda. It is great to test things out more easily and with less risk than you could at your day job.
  4. Utilize the TMMBA Career Management team! My career coach was amazing. She was a straight shooter and really helped me figure out what I needed to do and who I needed to talk with as I looked to use my MBA to advance my career. The team offers so many workshops on resumes, LinkedIn, negotiating, etc. take advantage of all of them.

How would you sum up your TMMBA experience?

That is an easy one – life-changing.