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MSIT program at Carnegie Mellon: stepping stone for IT pros

This specialized program combines management, policy and technology for pros looking to advance their careers

Distance learning offers flexibility to military and international students

Even established IT professionals have to keep up with the rapid changes in technology. To help them stay current, the master of science in information technology (MSIT) program at the H. John Heinz III College at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) focuses on the needs of professionals with three or more years in the workforce. The curriculum offers a technical focus as well as the management courses needed for career advancement, and its flexible structure helps fit the program to each individual’s needs.

The nuts and bolts of it
It’s a part-time program that can be completed on campus, online or a combination of the two. Some optional activities take place only on campus, but the entire program is available via distance learning. Lectures stream over the Internet and are also available on DVD. DVDs can be helpful, especially for military students and others in areas where reliable bandwidth for streaming video isn’t available.

The MSIT degree offers four different specializations: information technology management, information security and assurance, business intelligence and data analytics, and software design and management. “It’s an ‘MSIT with a dash,’” says program director Allison Frankoski. “It’s what’s after the dash that defines the degree. Management, policy and technology are all built into the program.”

A small set of core courses combines with a large group of electives, allowing students to fill academic or career gaps. The flexible curriculum and program structure allow variable course loads to suit individual students’ needs. Students can listen to lectures on their own schedules and balance study with work and family responsibilities. Most students finish within three years, but they are allowed up to five years to complete a degree.

“In most cases, the people coming into the MSIT program don’t have the managerial background necessary to take that next step in their careers,” says David Eber, director of admissions and financial aid. “After completing this program, they are prepared to move from DBAs or programmer/analyst roles to positions as team leads or managers, and eventually to executive, director and vice president levels.”

Additional learning opportunities come from the student population’s mix. “The diversity of participants’ citizenship, ethnicity and gender gives them exposure to a cross section of society,” says Frankoski. Underrepresented minority students make up about 15 percent of the program’s total enrollment of 200. Women also make up 15 percent. And a partnership program with Tecnológico de Monterrey has brought several dozen more international students into the mix.

The admissions committee considers professional experience and the candidate’s overall fit for the program, as well as academic preparation. Prospective students are encouraged to visit the campus, but webinars are held throughout the year for those who cannot visit or who want information before they arrive. An admission ambassador program connects prospective students with current students and alumni for even more details.

MSIT gives alum a leg up in information security and assurance
Carnegie Mellon is an NSA and DHS-designated center of academic excellence in information assurance education. Alumnus Eric Kwaku Boateng completed the MSIT-information security and assurance in 2011, in just under two years.

When he entered the MSIT program he was a senior information assurance engineer at Lockheed Martin Enterprise Business Services (Orlando, FL). In 2014 he became chief information security and compliance officer for the Georgia Department of Human Services (Atlanta). “CMU gave me the credential to get a competitive edge,” he says.

In his new job, he’s responsible for managing the agency’s security program. That includes strategy and planning, as well as addressing immediate issues like security breaches or security control gaps discovered during routine audits. He must also make sure state operations meet federal standards, and keep IT security information exchange agreements current.

Getting in the door, making it work
Tuition to complete the degree is steep at $65,000, but financial aid reduces it for most students. Veterans with GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon benefits can reduce tuition to almost nothing. Women in Technology grants from the Heinz College can cut it in half for the 15 percent of students who are women. Partnerships with the FBI, Boeing, GM and Intel offer tuition support for their employees in the program.

Boateng needed some student loans to pay his tuition, but his work for the state qualifies for loan forgiveness. After he works for either the state or federal government for ten years and makes monthly payments, the remaining balance of his loans will be forgiven.

Finding the right fit
Boateng came to the United States from his native Ghana with his family after high school. His father, a pharmacist, wanted him to follow the same path, but Boateng’s interests led him to information technology.

He earned his BSIT at the University of Central Florida (Orlando) in 2005 and went to work for Lockheed Martin. He was recruited into its information leadership development program, designed to groom new leaders. He earned an MS in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI, Troy, NY) through that program in 2008.

He had served in the U.S. Navy as an enlisted man from 1998 to 2003. With his baccalaureate degree, a professional certificate in advanced computer security from Stanford University (CA), and his RPI management degree, he was commissioned as an officer in the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command Reserve Unit (Jacksonville, FL). As a lieutenant and an information dominance warfare officer, he oversees a cybersecurity team and trains active-duty officers in cybersecurity during his annual active Reserve duty.

Moving ahead
When he looked for the best school to move forward in his career, CMU stood out. One fall semester he spent weekends in Pittsburgh attending a hacking class on campus. He also participated in the Summer Campus program, a long weekend in June that brings together diverse students from around the world.

“The MSIT is designed for the individual to figure out where they fit best into the IT domain,” he says. “I narrowed it down to the IT security environment. I enjoy looking at next-generation technologies that enhance security in the computing environment.”

With a fulltime job at Lockheed, Reserve responsibilities, and a growing family, he needed CMU’s flexible program. “Professors were really quick to respond to my questions. They understood the audience they were working with. Many technical tools were available,” Boateng says.

“The threats we face in the cyber world have changed completely, and they’ll continue to change in coming years,” he reflects. “You’ve got to always be sharpening your skills and retooling yourself to address emerging threats and stay competitive in the job market.”

Inspired by a company’s request
The MSIT distance program started in 2001 as a partnership with General Motors (Detroit, MI), which was looking for a customized degree to offer its IT employees. The GM employees worked at a facility eight hours from CMU. Internet bandwidth wasn’t adequate for streaming at the time, so CMU recorded the lectures on VHS tapes and DVDs and sent them to Michigan. “It was really distance delivery, but it was groundbreaking at the time,” says Frankoski.

“The partnership with a Fortune 10 company has been very successful for both parties,” and it’s still active, she reports. Fifty-five of the current MSIT students are GM employees. They receive full tuition support from GM’s technical education program.

The MSIT program also has fifty-five students enrolled in a dual-degree program with Tecnológico de Monterrey, serving students in Mexico, plus Central and South America. It requires one week on each campus; the balance of the program is delivered via distance learning.

Helping students connect
The Summer Campus event brings distance students together in person to meet each other and CMU faculty members. They may find a research project they can collaborate on through their work or a project their company can sponsor. “They may find a mentor for themselves or mentor another student,” Frankoski notes.

Over 90 percent of students who enroll complete the MSIT program. Alumni are welcome to return for the Summer Campus, and many do. They are often invited back to participate on panels. Alumni can also come back to class to update their skills at a special half-price rate, making Boateng’s recommendation to “retool” more achievable.

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