by Bob Violino

IT pros go back to school to advance their careers

Oct 21, 201910 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

To keep pace with change, IT pros are enrolling in courses and programs aimed at expanding their horizons. Here are five areas that are paying off.

Learning is a life-long process, as many people in IT would agree. Because technology is rarely static, failure to keep up on the latest trends and skills can stifle a career.

Technology professionals, including CIOs and other senior IT executives, are embracing today’s pace of change by going back to school — whether in the form of one-off courses, or training or degree programs. Doing so keeps their skills sharp and expands their horizons.

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So if you have been thinking of brushing up on new IT knowledge but have hit on wall on what to pursue, here are some of the areas IT professionals are learning about to advance their careers or enhance their current job performance.

Data privacy

Skills related to data security and privacy are in high demand today, especially when it comes to running an IT department.

Kim Verska, CIO of full-service law firm Culhane Meadows, decided to earn a Certified Information Privacy Professional/US (CIPP/US) certification through the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), and says the skills she learned are useful both in her practice as a privacy and data security attorney and as a CIO.

“For potential clients, especially in the C-suite, [a certification] is something they’re used to their security people having,” Verska says. “The IAPP is recognizable and meets their needs as to privacy compliance.”

Beyond what the certification communicates to clients, Verska has found that studying for the test and the memorization involved “is helpful because without that rigor, I need to continually go back to look at the laws very often when a new question comes up,” she says.

Verska is considering getting the European Union (EU) version of the certification (CIPP/EU), because she is constantly working on EU privacy and security compliance issues for multinational and international clients. 

Becoming IAPP-certified and a member of the IAPP has been useful in a number of ways, Verska says. “They host great conferences and free continuing education classes, as well as providing listserv access to excellent consultation resources,” she says. “This is really important in data privacy and security, because the laws in these areas change constantly, [and] you have to be current about privacy issues and compliance.”

Technology management

After 35 years working at technology vendor HP and HPE in a variety of roles including senior director of global business services and vice president of customer and partner advocacy, Vicki Hildebrand decided she wanted to explore the business side of technology and the possibility of becoming a CIO.

“I loved my job, but I couldn’t figure out how to break through to that next level,” Hildebrand says. “When I asked my boss for advice, what he said surprised me. He recommended I go back to school to develop the skills I needed to become a CIO.”

That led her to join Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies Executive M.S. in Tech Management program, which is aimed specifically at executives with more than 10 years experience.

“After completing the program, I can say without hesitation that the skills I learned were an absolute necessity,” Hildebrand says. “It’s not enough for the modern CIO just to have engineering experience; they need to learn business strategies to help them manage that technology.”

Today, every company is essentially a technology company, Hildebrand says. “To reach the C-suite level I was aiming for, I needed to acquire the skills I was missing,” she says. “I was well-versed in tech, but I needed to learn how to see a bigger picture to be effective in managing global operations and projects with varying and complex scopes.”

Throughout the 16-month program, Hildebrand learned that and more through a variety of courses, including one in Operational Management in IT. She was paired with a mentor who helped her develop and defend a master’s project in front of a mock board of industry leaders and faculty.

“My mentor not only helped me realize I still wanted to learn and grow, but was also a support system while I went through the [MS program] and continued to be after I graduated,” she says.

Hildebrand joined the U.S. Department of Transportation as CIO in 2017, not long after graduating the program. In 2019, she became

vice president and CIO at health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont.

“It can be daunting for seasoned professionals to acknowledge what they don’t know,” Hildebrand says. “But addressing knowledge gaps is the first step towards training an executive to lead your company into the future.”


In 2018, when Gary Simms was vice president of strategy at financial services company Wells Fargo, he realized he needed advanced skills in cybersecurity. Simms was heading up the development of the company’s technology strategy, including IT architecture, infrastructure, applications, and cybersecurity.

He enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University’s CISO certificate program (several years earlier he had received a CIO certification from CMU).

“When I choose to complete my [CISO] certification, I wanted to obtain skills that would allow me to be a better strategist through understanding the dynamics of information and cyber security and how they aligned to the overall business and information technology strategies — in order to continue my career growth,” Simms says. “I knew that continuing my education would help open doors for further advancement.”

Now a distinguished architect and global information security strategist at retailer Walmart, Simms is putting the knowledge to good use.

“These skills provide guidance and knowledge to assist me in delivering a global information security strategy and roadmap for the products and technologies that we use at Walmart,” Simms says. “It’s critical that we develop a robust information security technology strategy that will meet the needs of our technology and business partners, while providing the security that we must have to be the most trusted retailer.”

In his role, Simms works with various functional areas of the company to build a strategy for managing risk.

“The threat landscape is constantly evolving, so keeping your knowledge and skills current is critical to adequately protecting an organization,” Simms says. “One of the things that attracted me to Walmart was our CISO Jerry Geisler’s commitment to lifelong learning, and how he instills that philosophy in his team.”

Data analytics and artificial intelligence

Few areas of IT are drawing as much attention as data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). Companies are eager to leverage these resources to glean more business insights from their data.

Not surprising, CIOs and other IT leaders want to get a handle on what’s going on in these areas. Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO at Nutanix, a company that provides hyperconvergence technologies and cloud services, is a case in point.

Pfeiffer is currently attending a series of courses at the University of California, Berkeley Fisher Center for Business Analytics that are designed for IT professionals and cover various data analytics topics.

“I’m interested in the application of data science to business and, most recently, in inclusive analytics,” Pfeiffer says. “This is crucial to my role as a CIO because I can better understand data and how to leverage it for my team. It helps me understand the technical aspects of our product that include AI, that much more.”

In addition, Pfeiffer has taken several online technology courses on automation and scripting provided by Girls in Tech, a global non-profit organization focused on the engagement, education, and empowerment of women in technology.

“I find the online format less intimidating than in-classroom learning when I need to be hands-on,” Pfeiffer says. “Having an understanding of these concepts helps me set strategy and architectural direction for the team.”

Pfeiffer is also interested in machine learning and natural language processing, and in spring 2019 attended a day-long training program called “AI for the CIO.” In that program a series of technologists explained the various methodologies, tools, systems, and models in use today.

“Although it was quite technical, the focus on CIO level really made a difference for my ability to ingest and recall the materials,” Pfeiffer says. “I also take the occasional online game training course so that I can get better at playing my favorite video games. I like to stay connected and current in the consumer gaming space, since these applications are the leading edge in interaction design and machine learning. I know I could take classes on how to develop games, but I’d much rather learn through playing.”

Culture and workplace transformation

Ever since taking on the roles of CIO, CISO, and chief compliance officer at IT and business services provider WorldView, Marc Johnson has taken part in a seminar program called the Servant Leadership Workshop, to bolster his leadership skills.

The program is offered by the Servant Leadership Institute, an organization that provides training and education programs for leaders, and focuses on an “others first” approach to leadership.

“I believe we never stop learning if we truly desire to be the best,” Johnson says. “A leader is so much more than a manager. This is why I felt the workshop was key to expanding my knowledge.”

One of the workshops Johnson has attended is “Culture Transformation: Unearthing Possibilities in Your Workplace,” which among other things is designed to teach attendees how to understand the foundational building blocks of cultural change in an organization, increase employee accountability, and break down silo behavior between functional groups.

“This workshop provided additional avenues and engagement techniques that I had not used before,” Johnson says. “The business world knows only one constant: change. Keeping that in mind, I constantly strive to learn new things, expand my breadth of vision, and create an environment where continuous improvement is a given.”

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