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From Roofer To Web Engineer: How Switching Careers Lead To New Opportunities

Ben Dalgaard - Northwestern University MSIS

Fact of Reality #1:  The current unemployment rate in the United States hovers around 8.3% according to the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  This rate does not factor in those who have given up on looking for a job or those fresh out of school who haven’t yet been able to find one.  So the real unemployment rate is unknown.

Fact of Reality #2:  There is a severe shortage in supply of developers.  Companies like Google and Facebook make the news for hiring engineers en masse.  The Internet giants can’t hire programmers fast enough.  But what about those outside of Silicon Valley?  Come to a Tech Cocktail mixer, and you’ll quickly discover the staggering number of startups all over the country desperate for good engineers.

The solution to this problem can’t possibly be as simple as switching career paths.  After all, the issue must stem from a deeper, systemic issue of the macro-economy, right?

Not for Ben Dalgaard.

“When I graduated from the University of Iowa in 2006 with a degree in math and physics, I was optimistic about my odds of getting a job.  I knew I was entering into a shaky job market, but I figured the merits of my major would set me apart.  It didn’t work out that way.”

After an initial unsuccessful job hunting stint, Ben reluctantly moved back to his parent’s suburban Chicago home to accept the roofing position his dad offered him – not exactly the caliber work he expected from a math and physics degree.  It didn’t take long before Ben gave the job search another go, this time in St. Louis.  But again, Ben returned home without any luck.

“My dad could sense the frustration coming to a head and realized this could very easily be a lingering issue.  It had already lasted for three years,” says Dalgaard.  ”He suggested I look into computer programming.”

That’s when Dalgaard found Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Information Systems program.  This two-year, online and/or on-campus program is suited for both those looking to change career paths as well as those looking to gain a more specialized training. Ben fell into the former category.

Since Ben was unsure of the particular path he wanted to pursue, the MSIS breadth of courses allowed him to discover his interests without having to commit prematurely.  Additionally, because MSIS doesn’t require any programming background, Ben’s lack of experience made Northwestern’s program the ideal fit.

Upon enrolling, Ben quickly learned a variety of foundational programming languages, but of even greater importance, the program taught him how to think like a programmer in order to understand and successfully manage technical projects:

“I think the most important role my education played is to help me feel comfortable learning new technologies and attacking large problems that don’t have an obvious solution.”

Eventually Dalgaard settled on a specialization in Database and Internet Technologies as he felt it to be a solid complement to his pre-existing skill set.

Two years later

Two years and one MSIS degree later, and Ben’s job hunt went from night to day. Upon finishing the program, Dalgaard quickly accepted an IT position with Donlen, the highly regarded fleet management software recently acquired by Hertz.  ”Obviously I was quite happy about the ease of finding a job, although I can’t say I was surprised.  You’re hard pressed to find graduates of the [MSIS] program who’ve had any problem landing a job.”  To fill the little free time that remains, Ben has also taken a position as an adjunct professor at Robert Morris University teaching beginning Java and basic programming.

Of the core courses required in the MSIS program: Java, databases, computer networks, a thesis project, and a leadership course – Ben is finding unexpected value from his leadership training.  As a self-proclaimed introvert and detail oriented thinker (math and physics will have that effect on the brain), his leadership course provided the ability to better conceptualize the big picture as well as the skills to better communicate with his introverted counterparts.

The degree is what got Ben’s foot in the door, but his new multi-dimensional skill set is what will allow him to thrive. “The Hertz acquisition is an exciting time at Donlen.  The IT department is expanding rapidly and there are a lot of opportunities for growth,”  Dalgaard adds. “Before, I would have been satisfied with merely having a job.  Now I realize that my ability to communicate with engineers and management alike puts me at a unique intersection.”

From unemployable to employed and in hot pursuit of advancement, Dalgaard is grateful for the new wealth of opportunities that lies ahead.  ”I think back to my time as a roofer.  The thought of standing on a metal roof in the heat of a Chicago summer really puts into perspective how lucky I am.  I’m grateful for my dad’s short-term job fix, but I’m really grateful for his advice to seek further education.”

Editor’s Note: This article was sponsored by Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies where Ben Dalgaard decided to take on his career change, landing him in a market with a shortage of talented developers and engineers. It just so happens Tech Cocktail stirs up quite a bit of purple pride, as CEO and Co-Founder Frank Gruber is also a Northwestern alum.

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About the Author

When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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