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How Online Courses in Programming and Leadership Changed My Career

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  • I’m a senior director at a $5 billion data company. Before that, I was a manager at Ford.
  • I have taken 25 online courses and earned certificates from Coursera, edX and LinkedIn Learning.
  • Focusing on hard skills such as data analysis and not just management has helped me advance my career.

This story is based on a conversation with Mike Crabtree, senior director of data operations and engineering at Driven Brands Inc and former manager of data engineering at Ford. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

My career has been very varied and ubiquitous. I have worked as a cashier at Kmart, a fishmonger, a factory worker in Laghu, and a member of the Geek Squad. I supervised a machine that cleaned fish and chopped broccoli and chicken to make Bertolli’s frozen meals in a blink of an eye.

These jobs were valuable experiences, but at some point I realized that if I wanted to break out of the cycle of poverty, I had to work. I started with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems from the University of Louisville. I learned what I thought was an employable skill.

But what really rocketshipped my career was taking online courses from platforms like Coursera, edX, and LinkedIn Learning. I have over 20 professional certifications ranging from data analytics and machine learning to strategic management and international leadership. This eventually landed him a management position at Ford and a senior director position at Driven Brands Inc, a $5 billion revenue data company.

A laptop on a table with the logos of the top 20 schools that offer the most popular free online courses such as Yale, Harvard and Stanford 4x3

Rachel Mendelsohn/Insider

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

I’m starting my MBA at the University of Michigan in May, but at a total cost that’s much lower than the average college degree, I’d probably spend just as much time (if not more) out of these courses. ) have spent

For those looking to jumpstart their career, here are four lessons I learned from taking online courses and how to get the most out of your online learning.

Unlike college, I was able to focus only on the essence of what I needed to learn.

Affordable online classes to learn Python 4x3

Code Academy; iStock; Gilbert Espinoza/Insider

After going through a traditional college experience, you have to take a fair amount of baseline and foundation classes before you get to the heart of what you’re majoring in. Really get the gist of what works best for your career.

After graduating, I wanted to be as marketable as possible as a human being, so I started taking online classes while completing my degree. Courses such as “Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science” helped me quickly understand what I needed to know early on and continued to build from there.

After that, I was able to take more challenging courses such as the popular machine learning specialization at Stanford University and the data science program at Johns Hopkins University.

Taking the management course helped me progress faster.

My goal has always been to start with data and analytics before using it as a stepping stone to a managerial position. To learn how to be a better boss, I took supplementary courses in all areas from comprehensive leadership to strategic communication.

I hypothesize that most successful leaders who take their companies into the future have a combination of all skill sets. This means that you don’t just write SQL queries, you have critical thinking that helps you make better business decisions.

Asking for feedback allowed us to connect with top-level experts.

Dr. Andrew Ng is the founder of DeepLearning.AI and leads the Stanford Machine Learning course at Coursera.

Dr. Andrew Ng is the founder of DeepLearning.AI and leads the Stanford Machine Learning course at Coursera.


With online learning, you get what you put in. Some online courses can be taken without (or infrequently) faculty interaction, but we strongly encourage you to take advantage of that feature when available.

One of the biggest surprises for me was how involved the instructors were in these online courses. I was constantly in a loop sending emails complaining about homework and getting responses from real professors. Dr. Andrew Ng and his team answered and helped me when I had some questions about the gradient descent algorithm for machine learning programs.

People like me who come from poor backgrounds tend to think that teachers at top institutions are in an ivory tower and we will never reach out to them. However, online courses are so accessible that the gaps to traverse were much smaller when making connections.

My certificate showed my character and work ethic to my employer.

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

Mike Crabtree

Many edX and Coursera courses are free, but you can pay to get a certificate of completion that you can display on your LinkedIn page.

Not only does it demonstrate your dedication to personal growth, but it’s always a plus for your employer. Most technical professionals run the risk of being categorized as “IT people” or “data people”. Having different courses on your page shows that you can do more than your job title suggests. I have also taken several courses in entrepreneurship and business analysis, management and programming.


Mike Crabtree and his wife on vacation.

On vacation with my wife — What can I do with my current career?

Mike Crabtree

Thanks to taking online courses, my career progressed rapidly in a short period of time. I jumped from a business analytics intern to a data scientist role at Ford. There, he became the lead data scientist and eventually manager of the data engineering team.

I currently run an entire data platform (data, teams, infrastructure, etc.) for a company with over 4,000 retail outlets across several different business segments.

I even went full circle and taught an online course myself through DataCamp.

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