Julia Nelson came to the University of Minnesota seeking an undergraduate degree that would catapult her into a career in an up-and-coming field. For her, the most exciting industries are those that move the swiftest and morph the fastest, so she of course found herself delving into computer science and information technology, areas of study whose curriculums break a sweat to keep pace with the warp-speed advancement.
Nelson declared computer science as her major, but soon wondered how she could better incorporate the business coursework she was concurrently pursuing at the U of M. She met with an advisor who encouraged her to check out the Information Technology Infrastructure (ITI) program, designed to combine technology and business management skill sets, ultimately educating students to be leaders in IT. The program was a perfect fit for Nelson.
“My track within the ITI major is development and operations (DevOps), which has to do with the development of software for a company and the testing, training, and structure organization that goes on behind the scenes of that software implementation,” she says. “It’s nice because it weaves a lot of ITI components together—you have coding on the software development and you’ve got a business element because you learn how to communicate with your team and to higher-ups.”
Experiencing the ITI Program
The ITI program set Nelson apart from many of her peers in a few important and beneficial ways. Because the program is geared toward nontraditional students returning to school to finish a degree or refine their knowledge, the courses are structured to accommodate the busy lives of students with full-time jobs. For Nelson, this meant that she could work two jobs during the week (as a suites manager at U.S. Bank Stadium and as a tech specialist for CTV North Suburbs) while also going to school full-time.
“It’s nice not to have to worry about your schedule. Most courses are after 6 p.m., so I can live in Northeast Minneapolis, work, and take classes,” Nelson says. “I like to stay busy.”
“The ITI program is really good at building a whole bunch of skill sets. I have a long list of languages I know how to write, so if an employer is looking for X, Y, or Z, I can shell that out. Through the program, you’re getting tech, you’re getting business, you’re getting communication skills—this is what companies are looking for. It’s everything they want.”
Another differentiator of the ITI program is the fact that all of the instructors work full-time in the IT industry and pull from their actual experience to provide examples and case studies for how to apply classroom knowledge in the workplace. Many of the students, too, already work in the IT field, and so younger, traditional-aged students like Nelson not only gain knowledge from professionals who know what they’re talking about, but they also expand their network in the Twin Cities through connections in the classroom.
Then, of course, there’s the course material. “We learn a lot about the different types of business structure and programs that are going to be useful in the real world,” Nelson says. “I already see programs we discussed in class in my current jobs. ITI mixes computer science courses with business courses, so I’m learning programming and coding skills as well as communication skills. The fact that the ITI program acknowledges that that’s a need in the industry is really great.”
Having graduated in the spring of 2017, Nelson is now applying to jobs and going on interviews. Thanks to her experience in the ITI program, she feels confident she’ll land a great job.
“The ITI program is really good at building a whole bunch of skill sets. I have a long list of languages I know how to write, so if an employer is looking for X, Y, or Z, I can shell that out,” Nelson says. “Through the program, you’re getting tech, you’re getting business, you’re getting communication skills—this is what companies are looking for. It’s everything they want.”
Joining the “Boys Club”
“I full-heartedly believe that IT is the place to be because it’s just growing so fast. If more women don’t come and see the opportunity that’s here, then the whole tech industry misses out on the female perspective,” Nelson says. “Most women say they want a successful career, and working in IT can give them that. Many tech companies are looking to hire women.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women hold only 25 percent of computing jobs. And that’s in an industry that continues to expand. In 2016 the tech sector grew by 3 percent, approaching 7 million workers nationally, according to CompTIA, Inc.’s CyberStates research. With the average tech employee making $108,900 annually (more than double the national average wage), this is an industry that any smart undergraduate would be wise to consider.
However, the tech industry continues to be dominated by males, and it’s sometimes referred to as a boys club full of “brogrammers.” Nelson takes issue with this, arguing that diversity within tech can only make it stronger. As one of three women in her graduating class of 32, the gender gap makes itself known, even at the progressive U of M. Nelson stresses there’s tremendous growth in IT and therefore plenty of opportunities. The question is how to make more women come to the same realization that she did.
“In the program, I never felt like I was being held back by being a woman, but I was always aware that I was usually the only one in a classroom full of men,” Nelson says. “I set my mind to doing exceptional work on all of my projects, proving that I was just as smart, just as capable as everyone else. Starting in computer science and ending where I am in IT, I see my growth, and I feel so much more confident in my ability.”
Nelson’s dream job is to one day own a tech startup, developing her own software. She wants to implement fresh ideas and manage her own business. Before that happens, though, she will likely go on to graduate school. “Doesn’t matter if I have to start at the bottom,” she says, “I know that I’ll be able to push through it to get to the top.”