How Northwestern MSIT Influenced Me

Aaron Ballew (MSIT '05) shares how the program impacted his professional and personal life.

Aaron Ballew (MSIT '05) is senior director of portfolio marketing at GTT, a global telecommunications company.

Aaron BallewEvery day, he leverages lessons he learned during his time at Northwestern in the Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) part-time program option. He shared what some of those lessons were, as well as why the MSIT program is so important to him and his family.

How would you describe the MSIT program to someone who has never heard of it?

Think of a technical MBA with the proportions reversed. There are people with plenty of real-world business experience, perhaps even an MBA already, who need to get into the technical details to inform their decisions back at the office. This program could be a fit for them. There are also people like me who came up through a technical discipline and are quite fond of it, but want to be let out of the secret laboratory once in a while.

How would you describe your experience in the program?

Going to school with working adults is something special because everybody wants to be there. People take it seriously. Being in class or studying is precious time away from work and family, so that time had better be well-spent. It makes for an intense experience that’s very rewarding. At this point you won’t believe me if I say it was fun too, but it was. I made lifelong friendships that I value as much as the education.

What were some highlights from your time in the MSIT program?

There were many highlights at Northwestern, both in and out of the classroom.

  • I enjoyed meeting up with my classmates after work in downtown Chicago, where most of our offices were. There are lots of great options for delivery and take-out while you’re studying.
  • It really stuck with me the first time one of the instructors (MSIT founder and former MSIT Professor Chung-Chieh Lee) hopped on a conference bridge from his home at 8 p.m. to help us through a difficult homework problem.
  • A meaningful moment for me was the first time I was able to help another student land a new job. I only made an introduction, but that bit about professional networking you hear in the info sessions is real.
  • The strategic marketing course made an impression on me. Many years later, I was managing a strategic marketing team.

What are your primary responsibilities in your current role?

I lead two marketing functions for a fast-growing telecommunications company. One is product marketing, the other is digital marketing. We do a lot of the fun stuff that people envision about marketing, like making videos and coming up with “the message.” Behind the scenes, we manage a pretty sophisticated marketing technology stack that helps us reach the right people, track their interactions with us, and analyze the data we capture.

In what ways, do you leverage what you learned in MSIT in your day-to-day work?

It’s everywhere. MSIT helped me get comfortable with separating business value from technical perfection. I’m still drawn toward the technical weeds – that’ll never change – but I don’t get discouraged when we have to halt development on some technical masterpiece because the business priorities change. I’m often the one pulling the plug so that resources can be redirected to higher-value work.

Your wife is an MSIT graduate, too. How important is the program today to you and your family?

Yes, my wife is a 2010 alumna. MSIT was a great fit for her as well. We didn't meet through the program, but we’re in the same industry. After MSIT, I stayed at Northwestern for several years to pursue my PhD in electrical engineering, so I interacted with the MSIT faculty a lot. On the personal side, fellow grad student and current MSIT adjunct instructor Alan Wolff officiated my wedding, which happened to be held in Professor Lee’s front yard. Many of our family’s closest friendships originated at Northwestern.

What advice would you give to a prospective student considering the MSIT program?

You won’t be the first person to try to balance a career, school, and a family all at once. You won’t be the first person to change jobs in the middle of the program. You won’t be the first person to have a baby or get married during the program. You won’t be the first person to stretch your finances or take out a loan to further your education. If you put this off until there’s a better time, there won’t be a better time. You will, however, wonder whether you could’ve pulled it off. Finish that application that I know you’ve already started. Good luck!