Michael Senkbeil’s first time taking classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was in the early ‘90s when he enrolled in the Computer Engineering program. Working in several technology-forward companies while in school, his college roommate introduced him to Chortek LLP, an accounting firm based in Milwaukee that focuses on small businesses and their owners.
At the time, Chortek was looking to expand from a traditional certified public accounting firm to add services supporting business use of information technology. In his more than twenty-five years with the business since then, Michael has played a significant role in Chortek’s growth and expansion into new services as a partner at the firm.
Michael put his higher education pursuits on hold because he was focused on his career and raising a family. That said, earning a college degree remained a personal goal. He was excited to learn about UW-Milwaukee’s online Bachelor of Science in Information Science and Technology (IST) offered through UW Flexible Option.
“I’d already had a lot of success in growing a career, building a business, and doing the type of work I really, really enjoyed,” he said. “But I did have that one regret, that I wanted to complete that education, and I’m really happy that it was able to be done.”
The program is part of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Information Studies (SOIS), which has been a part of the online learning space for over twenty years. Michael says the 100 percent online bachelor’s degree program fit perfectly into his busy schedule, and being able to return to the same school where he began his undergraduate education was a special experience.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that our traditional education system in Wisconsin is embracing this online approach and catering to the demographic like me who want to maintain a career and family life while making progress on education,” he said. “It’s a great combination there.”
Flexibility at the Forefront
The UW Flexible Option IST bachelor’s degree is a competency-based program, meaning students learn at their own pace and enroll in 12-week subscription periods instead of traditional semesters. With the All-You-Can-Learn tuition model, there are no limits on the number of credits you can take, so Michael was able to complete as many courses as he wanted to during each subscription period—be it one course or several. With his pre-existing credits from UW-Milwaukee transferring seamlessly, he also entered this bachelor’s degree program with junior standing.
“It was time-efficient, cost-efficient,” he said. “The topics and the way I get to spend the time on the curriculum and on classwork were well worth the time as opposed to going back to a program just to get a degree that didn’t apply to what I was doing in my business or my career. It was a win-win.”
While in the program, Michael championed the expansion of IT consulting services at Chortek’s new office in Washington, DC. Despite needing to commute from Wisconsin to DC for a full week each month, Michael made significant progress on his degree thanks to the UW Flexible Option. The firm has since divested of that office in order to focus on their southeastern Wisconsin home market.
“The competency-based design of learning at my own pace and sometimes four or five hours at night after work, and being able to make a lot of progress several days during the week allowed me to still have a life outside of school and work,” he said.
The online learning format helped Michael maintain a work-life balance and still have time for hobbies. This includes spending his winters as a certified National Ski Patroller at the Ausblick Ski Club in Sussex, Wisconsin, where he serves on the board of directors. Michael also enjoys time on the golf course with his wife, Virginia. Her support during the UW Flexible Option program was critical to ultimate success.
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Coursework That Complements Career Work
At Chortek, Michael leads the managed IT services team that provides an outsourced IT department to businesses from ten to 250 users. Components of managed IT services include management advice, vendor management, and cybersecurity consulting. The firm’s focus on IT services has increased considerably throughout Michael’s tenure, as over one-third of Chortek’s revenue and personnel are now technology-oriented.
“Continually evolving the IT solutions to match the business needs is the name of the game,” he said. “We have a great team which delivers that, and I’m definitely having more fun than I’ve ever had in my career as we continue to grow.”
Michael says course materials in the IST program matched up nicely with his responsibilities at the firm, and he’s been able to take much of what he’s learned and apply it directly to his work. Courses on the business software system selection process have improved his ability to collaborate, while courses on cybersecurity provided a solid framework for expanding his knowledge of the field.
After completing the UW Flexible Option program with a 4.0 GPA, Michael has used the new skills he’s acquired to further support his team at Chortek, including one of his employees who is enrolled in the UW Master of Science in Cybersecurity.
“It’s great to have had that experience, to be able to work on a capstone project with this team member,” he said. “It’s come full circle pretty nicely.”
Both Michael and Chortek are proponents of the UW System. He and a colleague (who happens to be his former college roommate) have shown support for nonprof-IT, a program through UW-Milwaukee that offers students real-world experience by assisting local nonprofit organizations with website redesign, social media campaigns, and technology assessment. They watched students give their final presentations last year and are interested in continuing to serve as mentors for upcoming semesters.
If you’re considering the online IST program to further your education and IT expertise, Michael’s biggest piece of advice is to form connections while working toward and completing your degree:
“The program is a very efficient way of getting the course knowledge and experience that you need to earn your degree, but make sure not to underestimate the value of networking with the colleagues, businesses, and organizations that you interact with in real life after having your degree. The academic knowledge is important, but so are the experiential and social connections that you need to build during your education.”