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Meet the Instructor: A Passion for Databases & Exploring Career Paths

When Aspen Olmsted began college in Buffalo, NY in the 1980s, he was an economics major. While working part-time for the Buffalo Philharmonic he was introduced to the power of programming and databases and quickly added a minor in computer science.

“The Buffalo Philharmonic bought a client server system with a database behind it to do their ticketing and fundraising. I was just a part-time worker, but the rest of the organization sort of ran the other direction,” Olmsted said. “I started writing code against the database so I could produce things like their season tickets or their renewal notices. I was really hooked from that point.”

Today, Olmsted is hooking others as an adjunct faculty member in the New York University Tandon School of Engineering in the Computer Science and Engineering department and instructor for the latest MicroBachelors® program on edX: Introduction to Databases. In this interview, he shares more about why he got into databases, the skills you’ll learn in the MicroBachelors program, and the types of career paths database skills unlock.

What’s compelling about databases? Why were you hooked?

Having access to your data and figuring out the key points to capture so you can then report on it is a big piece of most businesses today. Try to think of an application that doesn’t have a database behind it, it’s really hard. Games have databases behind them. Websites have databases behind them. Business software has databases behind them. Databases are everywhere.

I’m really a minimalist. When I was a programmer, I was a C programmer, which is this really compact language. Database programming is very similar. I can deliver a lot of value in a consulting job with one line of code. I like that minimalism of databases. It’s also this concept of non-procedural programming. In languages like Java or C++ or C, that’s procedural programming where you say, “Okay computer, now do this. If this is true, do this other thing.” But in databases you say, “Go get this for me. I don’t care how you do it, just do it.” It’s more rewarding, right? Just seeing the results come back. You can teach people quickly to get some benefit from them, so even learning a little bit of database skill, you can see that benefit come back.

What will students take away from the Intro to Databases program?

The Introduction to the Databases MicroBachelors program is a very applied program. There are 52 labs that are hands-on experience for the students across the three courses.

The best part is when you walk away with this course, you’ve written 52 successful queries that solve real problems. At the very end of that last course, I have a lecture sharing other things you need to learn—I give you the links for reading, we talk about other commercial databases like Microsoft SQL, Oracle, IBM Db2, MariaDB, and noSQL databases. Students really walk away with concrete skills they can use, but also knowing where they need to go next.

Did you know? NYU’s MicroBachelors program in Introduction to Databases covers much of the material required to take the MySQL8.0 Database Developer Oracle Certified Professional exam.

What types of career pathways do database skills unlock?

I really think there are two pathways for students. One pathway is you’re working and you want to find a way to transition from your current job to a more technical job. The other pathway is you’re going to apply for another job someplace else that’s more technical.

Applying Database Skills to Your Current Job or Experience

Whenever I’ve taught a project management course to an undergraduate class, I always say you’ll probably find yourself someplace in the world working where you have a project that you’re a stakeholder in where you’re bringing in a piece of software, and you may be the user of that software and making decisions about it. That’s a great context to think about learning new skills because lots of people have been involved with a software change at their work, or some sort of change that we’ve all just gone through here with COVID-19 where suddenly people are working from home and we have different functional requirements working from home. We look at these challenges and there’s opportunities there. If you can pick up the technical skill, your organization can start leveraging you. Databases is typically one skill your organization is short on. There’s never enough people who could answer questions efficiently.

You can be into marketing or customer service or lots of different domains and leverage that to help the organization capture better data. Often my best advice is don’t throw away what you already have. If you work in Best Buy, great. You know a lot about retail, you know a lot about things they do, you know a lot about that customer experience. How can you marry that with these new skills you’re learning to find the right job? It may not be at Best Buy, but in that retail sector where you’ve got all this domain experience.

A Critical Foundation for Cybersecurity and IT Jobs

In our first MicroBachelors program, Computer Science Fundamentals, you learn three things. 1) Programming, and we program in Python; 2) operating systems, so we spend five weeks going through the structures that operating systems use; and 3) networking. Databases builds on top of that because we learn programming in a different way: non-procedural programming.

Did you know? MicroBachelors programs are designed to be stackable. Each program comes with real, transferable college credit that, combined with previous credit you may have already collected or plan to get in the future, puts you on a path to earning a full bachelor’s degree.

Students with these core skills across these two MicroBachelors can go into more computer science areas, information, technology areas, cybersecurity areas. These skills are really the foundation of almost any of these technical disciplines. [For example,] to have any discussion about cybersecurity, you really need to know all of these areas we have in these first two MicroBachelors programs. You need to understand programming to understand the vulnerabilities we leave behind us. You need to understand the operating system to understand how the host in the machine has vulnerabilities. You need to understand networking and how we transmit data and the vulnerabilities there. Then in databases, that’s how we store critical information and that’s often where those vulnerabilities are exploited. It’s really a critical part going into cybersecurity. It’s a critical part going in information technology, because these are the systems we maintain. It’s a critical knowledge base if you’re going to computer science because now you’re going to build on top of this with things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, more software engineering, or core programming, those sorts of topics.

Learn More: NYU Introduction to Databases MicroBachelors Program

Created by top universities and influenced by Fortune 1000 companies, edX’s MicroBachelors programs are the only path to a bachelor’s degree that make you job-ready today and credentialed along the way.

Learn more about NYU’s Introduction to Databases MicroBachelors program and other MicroBachelors programs on edX.