Rainmaker: New MSIM grad returns to the classroom … as the instructor

March 07, 2012

A Rainmaker is someone who makes things happen – a fitting description of W. P. Carey’s information systems alumni. This month’s Rainmaker is May 2011 MISIM graduate Chris Olsen.

When Christopher Olsen crossed the stage at Wells Fargo Arena to receive his Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) in May, 2011, he had no way of knowing that within a few months he’d be back in class – but this time at the front of the room.

“I had just graduated and finally gotten my free time back when I heard the CIS program was looking for a C# (sharp) programmer because the current professor was taking a medical leave of absence,” Olsen said. “I saw the post on a Wednesday and I responded later that day and they needed someone to fill the position by the following Tuesday. I think I got it because I was one of the few people to respond, and C# is what I’ve been doing in my current job for the last four years. It just happened to be a perfect fit.”

So, on Tuesdays and Thursdays Olsen travels to Tempe to teach three undergraduate classes back-to-back. The rest of the week he’s on the job working for Lockheed Martin at Luke Air Force Base, where he’s a software engineer.

“Teaching is a new experience that is both challenging and fun. The students are great to work with and interested in learning,” Olsen said. “I get a lot of questions about my work experience from students. You can tell they are curious to know what to expect in the working environment and which particular skills will help them get ahead. I enjoy helping others learn and teaching provides that opportunity.”

Olsen said that working two jobs can be intense, but “it’s a breeze compared to going through the MSIM program while working at the same time.” His work schedule is flexible, which helps. But on the days he teaches he’s working or driving between jobs for 14 hours or more – 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“The MSIM program taught me how to apportion my time between tasks and I always try to work smarter, not harder,” he said. “I’m always looking for ways to be more efficient with my time.”

A career booster

Olsen’s personal story started earlier in life than the CIS majors he’s now teaching in class. While others in his high school in the state of Washington were focusing on getting a diploma, Olsen was doubling up. During the summer before his junior year he passed a college entrance exam that allowed him to attend a local community college. By the time he graduated from high school he had also earned an associate degree.

Olsen then moved to Arizona, where he attended DeVry University, and thanks to the college credits he amassed during high school, he received his bachelor’s degree in two years. He then entered the working world, first as a programmer for Aspen Systems in Phoenix, and then as a project engineer for Performance Software, also in Phoenix. In 2005, Olsen moved to his current job as a software engineer at Lockheed Martin, located at Luke Air Force Base.

It was a fast start, but after he had been at Lockheed for a while he decided his career needed a jolt – specifically a master’s degree. “I was looking at my own org chart and said, ‘Oh, that’s what I need to do to get there,’” Olsen said.

He began researching master’s programs and the W. P. Carey School’s MSIM fit the bill.

“I originally looked at getting an MBA, but given my current background in CIS, I felt the MSIM was more beneficial because it’s still in my knowledge area,” Olsen said.

What Olsen learned at the W.P. Carey School is lining up well with his duties at Luke. He isn’t working in business development yet, but he is involved with more project management duties because of the kind of projects and contracts his unit is undertaking. Olsen now is working on project estimation costs, scheduling tasks and more.

“Now it’s a little easier to do those tasks with some of the things I learned at W. P. Carey, such as using formulas and best practices,” Olsen said.

Personal presence

He credits the knowledge he acquired at W.P. Carey not only with changing how he approaches his job at Luke, but also for the confidence it has given him. Olsen said he has started to speak up more during meetings and to suggest to managers new ways of accomplishing jobs and achieving goals.

“We’re kind of a small group at Luke. My managers noticed that my knowledge has changed, so I’ve been invited to more meetings than I was before,” Olsen said. “Two months back, we were ramping up to re-compete on a current contract and I was actually invited into some of the meetings where they were coming up with man hours and doing some estimates on potential projects scheduled for the next five years. So I got to be a part of those meetings, which I don’t think would have happened without the knowledge I gained.”

Having worked almost exclusively in the CIS field, Olsen said one of the most rewarding aspects of the MSIM program was working with other students in groups. He found the group-work both challenging and useful, as it helped him to understand that dealing with large projects often means working with people who have different opinions and backgrounds.

“Just working with others and trying to find common ground, negotiating your stance or someone else’s, and compromising and coming up with the best idea was a very useful experience,” he said. “I don’t think that if every assignment was just do-it-yourself I would have gotten that.”

Olsen especially prized the fact that fellow students in the MSIM program came from various backgrounds and could bring real-world expertise to the mix.

“Everybody has a different background. I had an engineering background; other people were doing business analysis,” Olsen said. “It was a wide range, so everybody’s view of how a business should operate was different. But I felt that was pretty useful, because if you were lacking knowledge in a specific area, you could kind of lean on your teammates, whereas if you all came from the same background you may not hear some other experiences.”

The road ahead

With his master’s degree and newly found experience in hand, Olsen was ready to start a new phase in his career. Little did he know that more than one door had just opened for him. Olsen now is in the enviable position of weighing his possible new career options in the public or private sector, in management or even academia.

“I’m considered a senior engineer right now, so I can stay at this level and be an expert, or take the next step to a management position,” he said. “The other option would be to go into the teaching side, but I would think that if I were going to do that, I probably would want to get a Ph.D.”

Whether he opts to go back to school and pursue an academic career, Olsen already has jumped a major hurdle in moving up the organizational chart.

“My MSIM should open doors, because a lot of times nowadays companies are looking for a master’s or two years of working experience,” Olsen said. “That was one of the main reasons I went to get a masters. I kept saying to myself, ‘How are you supposed to get two years of experience if no one will give you a chance within your current company?’ So the master’s degree should get my foot in the door and then give me that opportunity to get the two years of experience. I feel very lucky.”

MSIM: Evening or Online