How Online Courses in Programming and Leadership Changed My Career

Kenneth Palmer

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  • I’m the senior director of a $5 billion data company; before that, I was a manager at Ford.
  • I took 25 online courses and earned certificates from Coursera, edX, and LinkedIn Learning.
  • Focusing on hard skills like data analysis as well as management helped me move up in my career.

This as-told-to story is based on a conversation with Mike Crabtree, the Senior Director of Data Operations & Engineering at Driven Brands Inc and former Manager of Data Engineering at Ford. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

My job history is very colorful and all over the place: I’ve worked as a Kmart cashier, fishmonger, Ragu factory worker, and Geek Squad member. I’ve cleaned fish in the blink of an eye and oversaw the machines that chop the broccoli and chicken for Bertolli frozen meals. 

While these jobs were valuable experiences, at one point, I realized that if I wanted to break out of the cycle of poverty, I had to put in the work. I started by getting my undergraduate degree in computer information systems at the University of Louisville, studying what I felt were employable skills.

But what really put my career on a rocket ship was taking online courses from platforms like Coursera, edX, and LinkedIn Learning. I’ve earned over 20 professional certificates in topics from data analysis and machine learning to strategic management and international leadership, which helped me eventually land a management position at Ford and a senior director role at Driven Brands Inc, a $5 billion renevue data company.

Laptop on table with logos of top 20 schools with the most popular free online courses, including Yale, Harvard, and Stanford 4x3

Rachel Mendelson/Insider



I can’t stress enough how much continual online learning has helped me advance my career. I was able to learn from professors at the best institutions, including MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania.

While I’m planning on starting my MBA at the University of Michigan in May, I’ve probably spent as much time (if not more) learning from these courses for a much lower combined cost than the average college degree.  

For anyone looking for a big career jump, here are four lessons I learned from taking online courses — and how to make the most of online learning. 

Unlike in college, I could focus solely on the meat of what I needed to learn.

Affordable online classes to learn Python 4x3

Codecademy; iStock; Gilbert Espinoza/Insider



When you go through a traditional undergraduate college experience, there’s a fair amount of baseline, foundational classes you have to get through before you reach the core of what you’re majoring in. It might not be until your second or even third year that you really get to the meat of what will help you most in your career.

I knew I wanted to be as marketable as humanly possible after graduating, so I started taking online classes while I was getting my degree. Courses like MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python and Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science helped me dive right into what I needed to know early on, and I kept building from there.

Later on, I was able to take more challenging courses, like Stanford’s popular Machine Learning specialization and a data science program from Johns Hopkins.

Taking management courses helped me advance much faster.

My goal was always to get into data and analytics before using it as a springboard for landing a management role. To learn how to be a better boss, I took supplementary courses in everything from inclusive leadership to strategic communication.

I have a hypothesis that most successful leaders that are going to take companies to the future have a mix of all the skill sets — that beyond writing SQL queries, it’s critical thinking that will help them make better business decisions.

Asking for feedback led to me to connections to top-level experts.

Dr. Andrew Ng, the DeepLearning.AI founder who leads the Stanford Machine Learning course on Coursera.

Dr. Andrew Ng, the DeepLearning.AI founder who leads the Stanford Machine Learning course on Coursera.

Coursera



With online learning, you get what you put in. While you can take some online courses without ever (or rarely) interacting with the faculty itself, I highly encourage taking advantage of that feature if it’s available. 

One of the biggest surprises for me was how involved the instructors are in these online courses — it would always throw me through a loop when I’d send out an email complaining about a homework assignment and get a response from an actual professor. When I had several questions about the algorithms for gradient descent in my Machine Learning program, Dr. Andrew Ng and his team responded and helped.

When you’re from an impoverished background like I am, it’s easy to have this mindset that the teachers at top institutions are in their ivory towers and we’ll never hope to reach them. But because online courses are so accessible, they presented a much smaller gap to cross in making connections that otherwise would not have been afforded to me. 

My certificates showed my personality and work ethic to employers.

Mike Crabtree working on a laptop with his golden retriever next to him

Mike Crabtree



While many of the courses on edX and Coursera are free, paying for them earns you a certificate of completion you can display on your LinkedIn page. 

Beyond showing off your dedication to personal growth — always a plus with employers — it can also help you stand out. Most technical professionals run into the risk of being pigeonholed as “the IT guy” or “the data person.” Having a range of courses on your page shows you can do more than your job title suggests — I also took some courses in entrepreneurship and business analytics as well as management and programming.

The bottom line

Mike Crabtree and his wife on vacation.

On vacation with my wife — something I can afford to do with the career I have now.

Mike Crabtree



Because of taking online courses, my career advanced very quickly in a short amount of time. I jumped from being a business analytics intern to landing a data scientist role at Ford, where I became a lead data scientist and eventual manager of the data engineering team.

Now, I run the entire data platform — the data, the teams, the infrastructure, you name it — for a company with more than 4,000 retail locations across several different business segments. 

I even went full circle and taught an online course myself through DataCamp, keeping in mind what I loved most about all the ones I took.

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