Tyler Kresch isn’t turning to graduate school to help him change his job from tech sales to running a startup; instead he’s taking massive open online courses (MOOCs) to learn the IT skills necessary for that career move.
Kresch’s foray into IT may come sooner than the 2012 college graduate anticipated.
Currently working as an account manager at Procore Technologies, Kresch was recently offered a junior developer position at the Santa Barbara, California, startup. The development team was impressed with how he used his computer science skills to improve the company’s cloud-based construction management software.
”I created a small app to help with the really tricky part of the account setup,” said Kresch, whose long-term career goal involves starting a tech company. “It used to take an hour of our account manager’s time to close every new account. We now use my tool and that saves us that hour.”
For IT professionals looking to advance their careers or people who want to make a career change to tech, taking a MOOC in a technical topic can help, according to employers. The caveat: People need projects that show hiring managers how they’ve used the tech skills they learned online.
”We’re not theorists here. We’re actually buildings things,” said Chad Morris, product lead at Mandrill, the transactional email service from MailChimp. “We’re really looking at what it is you’ve actually done.”
Morris applies this metric to all job candidates, including those with a computer science degree from a four-year college.
”We rate education relatively light here,” Morris said. To him, a traditional college education and online learning hold the same value and convey the same information: that a person has been exposed to code.
The software that people develop with that code demonstrates their technical competency, which along with cultural fit, are the two metrics Morris uses to measure potential hires.
”I’m going to have to see projects that you’ve actively worked on. I’m going to have to talk to you and get a sense of how much you’ve actually retained of that information. Any of the best programmers that I’ve hired didn’t go to school for computer science.”
Kresch, 22, holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and technology entrepreneurship from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He obtained a computer science background from the classes he took on edX, a MOOC platform launched by Harvard University and MIT in 2012. The platform has since added courses from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Texas System and Cornell University, among others.
EdX offers the same courses that are taught to students enrolled in the participating schools. Unlike a regular university, edX offers the courses free to anyone with an Internet connection, and successfully finishing a course earns a student a certificate of completion instead of a diploma. Tests and quizzes are also conducted online and students with questions on the material turn to forums hosted by the professor, teaching assistants and other students for answers.
Other popular MOOC platforms that offer a similar learning setup include Coursera, which was launched by two Stanford University computer science professors, and Udacity.
Kresch earned certificates for completing two Berkeley courses on software as a service and MIT’s computer science course. He lists each MOOC in the education section of his LinkedIn profile.
The MIT course “was optimized for being taught online, which I think is a really big difference between things that are videotaped and put on the Internet versus adapted to the Internet.”
MOOCs allow students to take the courses when they have the time, a trait that appealed to Kresch, who watched the lectures and completed the course assignments during his lunch break and after work.
”There’s this big trend toward people moving away from evaluating a brick-and-mortar education and really valuing the experience,” he said. “These days your résumé—more often than not—is your online presence. It’s your list of projects that you’ve done. It’s not courses that you’ve taken.”
MOOCs proved “instrumental” to Dan Farnbach as he looked to start a career in social media.
As online editor at F+W Media, Farnbach manages the publishing company’s blog and email marketing campaigns and handles audience development on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Farnbach saw social media emerging when he entered the job market in 2001. After freelancing in the publishing industry for some years, he wanted to add technology skills to his education, which includes a humanities degree from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
Earning another degree appealed to him, but “it would have been financially difficult to put myself through college.”
Instead, he enrolled in Coursera courses, including one on social network analysis. During the eight-week course he learned how to use the open-source social network analysis program Gephi to construct social network visualizations, among other topics.
Farnbach, 34, used a social media map he created for a homework assignment to land his first freelance social media strategy job.
”That gave me another line in my résumé that led to the job I have now,” he said. “I was able to be strategic about social strategy from day one despite not having a Facebook page.”
At Black Duck Software, having tech experience trumps how a person received their education. The company’s human resources department has recently started emphasizing “that we want people with experience through whatever means. Whether it’s online course work, internships or through education,” said Tammi Pirri, vice president of human resources and administration.
”We don’t need someone to have the piece of paper from the university or the certificate from the online course work,” she said. “If they’re able to take courses and they’re able to demonstrate the ability to do the work that we need, that’s what we’re looking for.”
The Burlington, Massachusetts, company recently hired an entry-level engineer with an unconventional education. The employee’s background consists of a high school education, University of Phoenix online courses in programming and internships at Microsoft and Black Duck.
”He has shown to be an exceptional coder already and our user interface team could not be happier with the work he’s producing,” said Pirri, whose company offers consulting services for enterprises looking to adopt open-source software.
Given the strong demand and competition for tech workers with desired skills, employers shouldn’t dismiss the education MOOCs offer.
”A company that doesn’t entertain the thought of potentially hiring someone [with an online education] is limiting themselves and their ability to accomplish the development projects that they need to get done,” said Pirri. “We should be blind to where the university degree comes from. It should be based on the skill set.”
The up-to-date material offered by MOOCs makes them ideal for learning IT topics that are relatively new, like antispam, an area that’s important to a company like MailChimp since its business is based on sending email.
”Antispam has only existed as a subject for the last 10 years,” Morris said. “Really only in the last five years we’ve got a reasonable handle on how it all works.”
MOOCs allow Morris’ staff to “cherry pick” the antispam material they may need a refresher on as well as stay current on the latest developments.
To millennial-generation employees—and those coming after them—education is just another aspect of their lives that can be digitized.
”In the generation that’s presenting itself now, coming out of high school and beyond, they’re learning 24/7 through online courses,” said Pirri. “That’s just how they’ve learned and received their education. It makes sense for us to embrace it.”
Younger employees aren’t the only ones enrolling in MOOCs.
Peter Sisk, senior software engineer at The Institute for Health Metrics, used a combination of evening and online courses to acquire the skills necessary to work in software development.
”I still don’t have anything like a proper computer science background,” said Sisk, who holds an undergraduate degree in civil engineering. “The online courses help me to fill in a lot of the missing material. There’s nothing to lose but some time and plenty to gain.”
Sisk’s online studies include completing a Coursera course on Scala taught by Martin Odersky, who wrote the language, and finishing 75 percent of a comparative computer language course. MOOCs offer the opportunity to stop or pause a course without academic or financial repercussions, said Sisk, who is in his 60s.
”If you get busy at work or you don’t have the time, you stop taking the course,” said Sisk, who stopped the course after taking a new job that lengthened his commute. “You don’t lose a ton of money. You don’t have a grade that follows you down the years telling you what a failure you are.”
Sisk’s online learning wasn’t brought up when he interviewed with his new employer, a Burlington, Massachusetts, nonprofit that collects and analyzes hospital patient care data to develop better clinical procedures. They were more interested in his skills, he said, adding that his MOOC education could have worked in his favor during the hiring process.
”It indicated to them that I am still interested in new ideas and acquiring new skills. Perhaps that had an effect.”
Even if a hiring manager is wary of the education MOOCs offer, taking online courses can still aid a person professionally.
”If you’re taking a Coursera class you’re actively seeking that information,” Morris said. “That says you’re interested enough in the concept to be aware that these things exist.” Job candidates can use completion of online courses to show their passion for a topic even though, at the moment, not all employers may be “giving the big thumbs up for completing these things,” Morris said.
For IT job candidates with the desired skills and work background, “anything you can point to in addition to your real world experience is a benefit,” said Jack Cullen, president of IT staffing firm Modis, especially if people can show that their course work added value to the business.
Cullen noted that a certificate from a MOOC is not the same as earning a certification through a traditional certification program. For example, companies seeking a network engineer certified in Cisco Systems technology want someone who earned a certificate through an authorized program.
”There’s a difference between course work and certifications,” he said.
But that course work can give candidates an advantage in the competitive IT job market.
”If they’re competing against someone with the same skill set but you’ve taken additional course work that’s going to probably push that person up the food chain into getting the job.”