Many IT courses at colleges and universities focus on theory and technical knowledge to help ready students for the workplace. That’s a sound foundation, but it’s just a start.
At Cornell University, a graduate-level course called Business Intelligence Systems goes a step beyond by having students solve real-world business issues with data and analytics, with Boomi supplying the critical integration platform as a service (iPaaS) component.
The 16-week course, with more than 300 students over its five-year history, is giving students hands-on experience in data acquisition, integration, and business intelligence (BI) in practical use cases relevant to the business world.
“We want to give students real skills and experiences to put on their resumes — that’s how you get a job after graduation,” says Jeff Christen, data warehousing manager and information science instructor at the Ivy League school in Ithaca, N.Y., a Boomi customer since 2014.
“There are hot jobs in the BI and warehousing space,” Christen adds. “If you’ve done a tough project, worked with Boomi and other leading tools, and can answer questions about data based on real experience, those are great skills to bring to the job market. I think it’s a huge win for students.”
A ‘Crazy Idea’ Gains Widespread Support
Christen conceived the class as a “crazy idea” in 2016, based in part on his observations of a shortage of skilled BI and data warehousing professionals at Cornell and beyond. A course that covered the full lifecycle of BI systems, using industry-leading tools, would give students valuable skills in the fast-growing market for data and analytics.
A Cornell veteran for over 20 years, Christen secured internal approval and support from Cornell IT, including John Parker, Cornell’s integration architect and a Boomi Community Champion. And Christen got backing from industry partners including Amazon Web Services, data visualization tool vendor Tableau, and WhereScape, a data warehouse automation provider.
With enthusiastic support and assistance from Boomi, Boomi Integration was introduced to the Business Intelligence Systems course in 2018, expanding the focus to cover APIs and data integration, especially across cloud-based systems.
“Beautiful data visualizations and analytics are just the tip of the BI iceberg,” Christen says. “The other 80 percent is the acquisition and modeling of disparate data. That’s a big component of any BI system, and that’s where Boomi comes in.”
Projects Aim to Analyze and Optimize Cornell Services
At Cornell, students use Boomi and other partner technologies to solve actual business issues at the university, drawing on internal data sources. Projects that vary by semester have included the following:
- Library subscriptions. One project helped the Cornell library optimize its digital subscriptions budget by analyzing costs and usage. With that data, the library could make informed, cost-effective decisions that increased value to the university.
- Health diagnostics. Another project had BI Systems students helping Cornell’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center identify weaknesses, make improvements, and optimize cost-efficiency in providing diagnostics to external customers.
- Dining services. Working with Cornell dining services, students captured and analyzed information from multiple source systems to devise key performance indicators (KPIs) and dashboards to reduce food waste and ensure profitability.
The student-led dining dashboard was ultimately adopted by Cornell dining services, delivering KPIs every morning rather than once a quarter, as was done in the past. In another case, a common fault handler devised by a student was later adopted into Cornell’s Boomi production environment.
“I wanted to incorporate a project each semester that solves a business problem for one of Cornell’s business units and gives students experience with raw, messy data,” Christen says. “The real world is never as clean as a class exercise.”
Meanwhile, a Boomi lab exercise had students on a “treasure hunt” for Salesforce data that had to be unearthed via a REST API reverse-geocoding call to the Google Maps API.
A Unique Blend of Technical and Business Experience
Christen prepares some source data for student access, but for the most part, students are left to solve nitty-gritty data issues on their own. As part of the course, students receive no-cost Boomi training and access to Boomi how-to information.
“Students have to get their hands dirty with flawed data and figure out how to sew it all together,” Christen says. “They have to determine the data elements they need, how to handle outliers, and processes around data profiling and cleansing. They have to ask questions and dig deeper.”
Ultimately, hands-on experience with tricky aspects of data integration plays well in a job interview, Christen notes.
“Employers don’t want to hear about a project that went through smoothly without a hitch,” Christen says. “They want to hear about how students were able to utilize the tools at their disposal to overcome hurdles and figure out workarounds around imperfect information, and that’s what’s at the heart of the program.”
The unique blend of technical knowledge and practical experience in solving genuine business issues improves job marketability.
“Students can hold higher-level, business-focused conversations not only about a certain data process, but how to apply skills to a company’s strategy, whether it’s to generate more revenue or cut expenditures,” Christen says.
Strong Support From Boomi and Other Partners
Cornell has enjoyed strong support from Boomi and its other vendor partners. For instance, Boomi provides no-cost licensing of a multi-tenant sub-account, set up with permissions to prevent both cheating and access to Cornell production systems.
Boomi also provides support and tailored student training, while several Boomi leaders have been guest lecturers to the class.
“A really big and rewarding part for our students has been Boomi guest lecturers talking to them about working in the field and experiences after graduation,” says Preslava Staneva, an integration developer on Cornell’s four-person Boomi team who works on the class. “The students have highly engaged with the Boomi guest lecturers.”
With initial Boomi training, course students are able to take additional courses at no cost and progress to Boomi Certification, adding another jewel to their resume.
Other Universities Are Interested in Boomi in the Classroom
Christen and others supporting the BI course are especially gratified whenever a graduate reaches out to report he or she has found a job.
“In our end of semester surveys, a typical theme is that this is a course that pulls everything together — that gave me something to talk about in my job interview,” Christen says. “Hands-on experience directly translates to jobs, which we’ve seen time and again.”
Christen and Staneva recently shared Cornell’s success story of the Business Intelligence Systems course at a Boomi Higher Education User Group virtual session. With interest from other higher ed institutions, they’re helping peers replicate Cornell’s success.
“Cornell has really been a pioneer with this class,” says Laurence Ross, a Boomi account executive working with Cornell. “As a result of Cornell’s success with the class, we at Boomi are seeing other universities looking at incorporating Boomi into their classroom curriculum.”