Beyond Programming: Dispelling the Misperceptions About a Career in CIS

When you think of computer information systems, or CIS, you might envision someone sitting behind a computer all day, writing line after line of code. However, a career in CIS looks far different from that image. Earning a degree in CIS gives students the opportunity to combine people skills and technology know-how to positively impact organizations. Add to that a healthy job market, 100 percent job placement and higher-than-average starting salaries, and a career in CIS starts to look very attractive.

CIS professionals are the bridge between the technologies deployed by companies and the non-CIS employees in the organization. As Assistant Professor of CIS Sal Aurigemma explains, “A CIS professional will look at business needs and current processes and work with the organization to use technology to solve problems or improve processes.”

CIS professionalsTU’s CIS program, established in 1982, is one of the earliest to be offered in the U.S. Its goal is to train students to make organizations run more efficiently through the use of technology by exposing them to a cross-disciplinary foundation comprising marketing, management, finance, CIS and accounting courses. Students gain knowledge in a wide range of topics, including business application development, database systems, telecommunications protocols and infrastructure, information security, systems analysis and design, and project management. Courses in focused areas such as healthcare informatics are also offered.

The CIS program is a good fit for someone who likes to solve problems, enjoys technology and is interested in learning more about digital information management. Prospective students also need to have strong interpersonal skills.

Demand for students equipped with this unique combination of skills has grown in recent years and is projected to increase in the future, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. Jobs are available in just about any industry, from energy and finance to technology and health care.

Lori Leonard, Collins Endowed Professorship of management information systems at TU, says, “The rapid change in technological advances has created a need throughout the world for CIS professionals who can identify uses for these new technologies and help implement them within businesses.”

With such a high demand for skilled professionals and competitive starting salaries, why don’t more students take advantage of the opportunity to earn a degree in CIS?

“Prospective and new students can sometimes be intimidated by CIS because they think it involves too much programming,” says Aurigemma. “However, CIS is a very business-focused degree with a technical foundation. We stress having an understanding of programming because you will be working with developers and should fundamentally understand the technologies you will be working with, but you do not have to be an expert programmer to succeed in CIS.”

Leonard adds that TU continually evaluates its program to ensure the university’s curriculum keeps pace with industry demands, equipping students to meet the current needs of employers.

In fact, it’s not unusual for students in TU’s CIS program to receive job offers before graduating; some even have jobs in place before the start of their senior year. Data compiled on TU graduates by the Collins College of Business Career Center show a 245 percent increase in CIS job postings over the last five years, a 100 percent job placement rate in 2013 and a median starting salary of $62,500.

“For the foreseeable future, CIS is a great career to be in,” says Aurigemma.

Carrie Rollmann (BSBA ’05, MBA ’08), Supervisor, SAP Finance, Phillips 66

06-09-14-Carrie-Rollman-110Like many CIS students, Carrie Rollmann wandered into the major. She began her studies at TU in 2001 as a mechanical engineering major. “I was good at math and problem solving and my dad was an engineer,” she said. At the time, engineering students were required to take a basic CIS class. One of the course requirements was to build a webpage. “At the end of the class, I had built a webpage, and I loved it.” She initially chose to minor in CIS, but halfway through her sophomore year, decided to make it her major.

That same year, Rollmann interned at Atlas Pipeline Midcontinent, working part time during the school year and full time in the summer. Atlas offered Rollmann a full-time job early in her senior year, and she was excited about the opportunity to stay on with the company.

Fast forward to the last week of April as Rollmann prepared to give presentations for two senior projects she led in a final CIS course. “Employers will sit in on the presentations to see students or to recruit,” says Rollmann. “I was the project manager for two projects the class did together; and after giving the presentations, someone from Deloitte Consulting asked me to lunch.” That lunch turned into an office tour and an informal interview, and ended with a job offer.

“In 2005, the job market wasn’t particularly strong, and here I was with two job offers,” she recalls. Rollmann had a hard time making a decision and went to Atlas’ CFO, also a TU alumnus, for advice. “He said, ‘As your employer I want you to stay. But if I was your parent, I’d tell you to go.’”

With encouragement from the leadership at Atlas, Rollmann began her career with Deloitte. Her job entailed traveling across the U.S. to clients’ offices to help install SAP and transition the organizations from older processes.

In just three years, Rollmann gained a wealth of experience and was ready for her next opportunity. She joined ConocoPhillips in 2008 to work on the company’s SAP application and has since transitioned to management roles, first managing SAP developers and now overseeing the finance group that supports end-to-end, customer-facing processes. Following ConocoPhillips’ repositioning in 2012, she led a project to separate the company’s IT systems and now works for Phillips 66.

Rollmann says her education at TU gave her a good understanding of business basics. “That’s the great thing about CIS: You not only get the technical exposure, but also the business exposure. It’s a good foundation to build on and a great testament to the flexibility of my career and degree.”

As a manager, Rollmann has had the opportunity to hire and interview a number of students from multiple college campuses. She says, “The CIS students from TU are top-tier. They are prepared. TU has a wonderful program that sets them up for success.”

And what does success for Rollmann look like? She sums it up in two words: “Happy customers. There is nothing better or more fulfilling than working with a group of customers and solving their challenge with a great IT solution.”

Emily Halliburton Munn (BSBA ’13), Business Systems Analyst II, Flint Hills Resources – a division of Koch Industries

Bentonville, Arkansas, native Emily Halliburton originally intended to study international business and the Chinese language when she arrived at TU in 2009. She followed that path for about two years, until she traveled to China as part of an international business class. “I realized then that continuing in my Chinese language studies was not for me. I’m glad I got to go to see the culture, but Chinese is a very hard language,” says Halliburton.

During the trip, she contemplated switching her major to CIS, a degree that offered creative problem solving balanced with structure, something Halliburton thought was a better fit for her personality. She was also drawn to the marketability of the degree, knowing it would offer additional opportunities for her. She changed majors and began coursework in the CIS program during her junior year.

Though taking the three programming classes required as part of the degree program might intimidate some students, Halliburton stresses that these classes are less about gaining comprehensive technical knowledge and more about knowing basic functionality. “I’ve found that those programming classes teach you how to think,” she says. “They can be relevant to any major because you learn how to break a problem down into parts.”

It was during one of those programming classes that Halliburton found out about internship opportunities at Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries.

“One of my professors spoke highly of Koch, and it struck me as a good opportunity.” She traveled to Wichita for an interview and was offered an internship for the summer following her junior year. She says, “It was a very real experience. I worked on a specific project and felt like I produced real value. At the end of the summer, Koch offered me a full-time position, and I felt very lucky having a job already lined up going into my senior year.”

As a business systems analyst II, Halliburton supports all compliance applications within Flint Hills Resources, a refining company that is part of Koch Industries. Halliburton serves as a liaison between the business and the technical group to make the programs function better for users.

“My favorite thing about this job is being able to help people solve their problems,” Halliburton says. “Compliance is important, and it’s rewarding to know that I’m adding value to my company through the systems I support. It’s always challenging, and every day is different.”

In her role at Koch, Halliburton also travels to university campuses, including TU, to recruit for the company, an opportunity in which she takes great pride. She advises students to maintain a strong work ethic. “The grading and feedback from professors ties well with the CIS program. They did a great job teaching us to work hard and practice good time management and prioritization skills, all of which set you up to be successful in this industry.”

She also stresses the importance of communicating well and getting along with others. “You would think that in an IT position, you sit at a desk all day and code, but I spend a lot of time working with others. If you’re not able to communicate and work well with others, it can be harder to do your job.”

Patrick McFadden (BSBA ’08), Application Developer, ThoughtWorks

PatrickBeachViewPatrick McFadden discovered the CIS major through a classmate in one of his network security classes. A freshman aspiring to be in TU’s Cyber Corps program, McFadden had a stronger desire to learn more about the business aspect of technology than to pursue a career that would have him primarily sitting in front of a computer.

“After talking to my classmate and learning more about the degree, I decided to make the jump to CIS,” he says.

McFadden completed his degree in 2008, and worked for ConocoPhillips for two years, first in the Bartlesville office, and then in Houston.

At ConocoPhillips, McFadden was part of a network engineering group that worked on a backup power supply and disaster recovery plan. He also provided application support for the natural gas trading floor in Houston.

“In Houston, I met up with one of my friends, who was also an CIS graduate,” says McFadden. “He had a job doing quality assurance for ThoughtWorks in Chicago and was enjoying it. I thought it sounded like a great opportunity, so I interviewed with the company and got hired as an application developer.”

ThoughtWorks, a global consulting company that provides software design and delivery, employs 2,500 individuals and maintains 29 offices in 12 countries around the world. In his four years with the company, McFadden has done everything from application development, quality assurance and continuous delivery development, to consulting work for a multitude of clients.

Joining the ThoughtWorks team has afforded McFadden the opportunity to gain a wide range of experience, whether in learning new programming languages or operating in different technical environments.

“Our work is project-based, so it changes every six to eight months,” he explains.

ThoughtWorks also uses its resources to focus on the use of IT solutions in addressing social and economic justice issues, something McFadden is especially passionate about. He commits part of his time collaborating with other ThoughtWorkers on a project called OpenMRS to help countries in Africa maintain accurate medical records systems at an affordable price.

McFadden travels almost every week as part of his job, leaving Chicago at 6:30 a.m. Monday mornings and returning home Thursday evenings. His work takes him to locations across the U.S., and occasionally, to international locales. During one of his longest stints, McFadden worked in Brazil for four months on a project to help the local ThoughtWorks team ramp up operations in the company’s newly established office. Though life on the road may not suit everyone, he loves having the opportunity to travel frequently.

Consulting with clients is something McFadden enjoys most about his role at ThoughtWorks. “I like talking with clients and trying to understand the problems they have and how improving their technology can ensure the business continues to stay relevant.”

Joe Parker (BSBA ’08, MBA ’10), IT Analyst, Williams

JoeParkerMajoring in CIS proved to be the perfect fit for Joe Parker, who has always been a self-proclaimed technology nerd.

“Both of my parents worked in technology, and it rubbed off on me,” he says.

After graduating high school, his love of technology took him to Oakland University in Michigan, but Parker didn’t enjoy the large classes and limited interaction with professors. He left to earn a two-year computer networking degree from ITT Tech, and then attended a community college in Michigan for one semester before his dad accepted a position at Bank of Oklahoma in Tulsa. Parker moved with his family and transferred to TU.

One of the most important lessons Parker took away from his CIS undergraduate studies was an understanding of how to learn, citing a senior project class as an example.

“We had to build a website in ASP.NET using SQL Server for the Tulsa Area United Way—a language and database we hadn’t learned in our programming classes.”

Though he didn’t appreciate a task he felt unprepared for at the time, Parker says that, “In the real world, that’s common. You get thrown a task that you don’t know how to do, and you have to teach yourself how to do it.”

After completing his undergraduate degree in 2008, Parker enrolled in the MBA program at TU while balancing an internship in the IT infrastructure group at Tulsa-based Williams. During his second year as a graduate student, he began working full-time in the infrastructure group developing reports on Williams’ asset management system and maintaining the health of the company’s file servers across the country.

Parker transitioned to a role as an IT analyst four years later and relocated to the Williams office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I came to the northeast because I thought it was the best opportunity to advance my career with Williams,” he says. “The northeast is a hotbed for natural gas companies. You have new growth, drilling and opportunity. I thought I could get experience here that I couldn’t get in Tulsa.”

In his role, Parker oversees the process for establishing IT infrastructure in new office buildings as well as projects to improve field site communication in remote areas and manage security access control.

Parker notes that he uses skills learned in his systems analysis and design classes at TU to perform his job today. “We learned a lot of requirements gathering and documentation skills which are hugely important to me in the field doing project management,” he says. “They are skills I apply in every project I work on.”

Something Parker especially enjoys about his job is having employees from the Tulsa office travel to the northeast for a site visit. As he leads employees on the site tour, Parker shows them how the company’s servers are deployed and how server operations impact the business.

“I enjoy the people I work with, and my job is a blast. I look forward to coming to work every day and seeing how what I do has a direct impact on the bottom line at Williams.”

Learn more about earning your MIS degree at TU.