By Andrew Fraught
AS A KID GROWING UP IN BALDWINSVILLE , N.Y., ASPEN Olmsted scraped together enough dollars from his newspaper route to buy what was, in 1979, a state-of-theart gaming system—the Atari 2600, whose rudimentary graphics, nonetheless, helped to launch a computer programming revolution.
“It was the Stone Age,” recalls Olmsted, PhD, professor and program director for Fisher’s new Information Technology (IT) program, which includes a concentration in game development. “I could teach students to build those games in an hour or two in a mobile app class.”
Forty years later, computers are more than just fun and games, touching nearly every aspect of the human experience. In August 2018, Olmsted relocated to Fisher—from South Carolina’s College of Charleston, where he taught for a decade—to lead the development of, not only a gaming program, but also a concentration in cybersecurity. That involves protecting computer systems, networks, and programs from digital attacks.
Together, the gaming and cybersecurity fields are billion-dollar industries that continue to grow. Fisher IT graduates will have a distinct advantage in landing hightech work, particularly in cybersecurity, Olmsted says, where 3.54 million jobs will go unfilled by 2021 because of a lack of expertise, according to the research group Cybersecurity Ventures.
“Technology companies know the best solutions come from people with divergent backgrounds,” Olmsted says. “A lot of schools have homogenous student populations that, while they tend to produce people who have had longer computer experiences than Fisher students, they also think in one specific way because their life experiences are similar.”
At Fisher, 32 students, all but one of them from underrepresented populations, are enrolled in the IT program, which started in the fall. They include sophomore Adriel Rodriguez, who is majoring in IT after he took part in the Miami Bitcoin Hackathon last year. Participants were charged with creating computer programming to use the so-called cryptocurrency “in innovative ways.”
Rodriguez, of Chelsea, enrolled in Fisher’s program after exchanging emails with and then meeting Olmsted. He felt an immediate connection. “Professor Olmsted is super cool, and he has an entrepreneurial spirit,” Rodriguez says. “He motivates every single person in class.”
Olmsted’s entrepreneurial streak goes back more than two decades. He is the founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance Software Corporation, which creates customer relations management tools, or CRMs— applications used by nonprofit groups and the entertainment community. He sold the software portion of the business, but continues to do consulting work for the company.
Olmsted got hooked on teaching after his alma mater, the College of Charleston, asked if he’d be willing to lead coursework in the computer science program. The experience would, serendipitously, give his life its new locus. “I quickly learned that the eagerness of students is what I really liked,” Olmsted says. “The industry started to change. Businesses just wanted technology done, and they didn’t care how it was done. I was more interested in collaborative work with students and other faculty to really find better solutions to problems.”
Students face myriad professional opportunities. Gaming programs, for example, are popping up in novel ways. As more businesses peddle their goods and services online, “gamification” software is helping to remake commerce. “Students may not build Xbox games, but software for kiosks and websites,” Olmsted says. “Those sorts of things will have more game features in them. Our game development program is really designed to give students a broad programming understanding.”
These are heady times for Fisher’s IT program. Once the college graduates three students from the cybersecurity program, the National Security Agency (tasked with protecting communications networks and information systems) will begin offering internships. Separately, the federal government’s Scholarship for Service program covers up to three years of tuition costs for students who work in a cybersecurity-related position.
The program could also receive federal technology education grants because of Fisher’s success at enrolling Latino students. “There are lots of opportunities with the federal government,” Olmsted says. Last spring, he took part in a White House-sponsored webinar that announced a boost in funding for cybersecurity education.
The nation has had to play catch-up to protect its digital infrastructure, Olmsted says.
“The internet came and we connected more and more equipment, whether that was hardware in our power grid or computers in back offices,” he notes. “It started to become important to think about those interfaces. But we do that poorly, because we as humans tend to trust people by nature. So we overlook the vulnerabilities in our systems.”
But not if he can help it. Olmsted is using his entrepreneurial acumen to generate interest in Fisher’s program among would-be students. Absent a marketing plan because of time constraints, he resorted to a “guerilla approach” to lure inaugural class members. Naturally Olmsted resorted to the tools he knows best.
“I created a Facebook group, and in that group I would post job opportunities, internships, webinars, conferences, and scholarships,” he says. “I tried to encourage anyone with an inkling of interest to join that Facebook group and see the value they can get in Fisher’s program.”
Olmsted eventually plans to reach out to Boston Public Schools to publicize the program, to Latinos in particular. Additionally, he’s connecting with women, who have long been underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Women accounted for just 18 percent of computer science degrees conferred in 2015, according to the National Science Foundation.
For now, there are just three women enrolled in Olmsted’s classes, one of whom has decided to pursue work in cybersecurity. But he is taking steps to boost participation. Last year, Olmsted took students to the Cambridge headquarters of IBM Cybersecurity. The technology company is actively recruiting women for work. (Women interested in cybersecurity have abundant scholarship opportunities, Olmsted says.) Meantime, two of his female students have applied to participate in next year’s Women in Cybersecurity conference, which is being held in Colorado.
Fisher is also providing online IT coursework to five students. In time, Olmsted expects professionals who already are working in technology fields to take courses to build their knowledge. Those with an associate’s degree will be able to get a bachelor’s degree in two years, he says.
Olmstead has even discovered that there’s another sector within the Fisher community eager to learn the language of information technology: the admissions officers. It’s their job to articulate details of the program to prospective students, and they have found in Olmsted a willing tutor.
“Aspen is regularly in touch with my office to get the latest application and admitted lists so he can follow up with students and provide further details on his program,” says Tom Englehardt ’09, MBA, Fisher’s director of admissions. “His efforts are noticed and appreciated.”
With jobs whose annual salaries not unusually top $100,000, Olmsted is hoping to steer students into decades of fruitful work. “The demand will be there for the life span of these students’ technical careers,” he says. “The opportunities are unlimited.”
- Student Life