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NOVA board member, bank SVP enrolls in NOVA IT classes to prove a point

Todd Rowley

Todd Rowley is in his 50’s, with a long and successful career behind him. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, a graduate degree in Banking Finance and an MBA.  He participates on, and even chairs, several important boards—the Board of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce (formerly the Fairfax County Chamber), the Virginia Tech Business School Advisory Board, the Northern Virginia Workforce Development Board, and he is Vice Chair of the College Board for NOVA. He is a respected member of the community, with 35 years of banking and investment banking experience, and he is a Senior Vice President and Commercial Market Executive at Cardinal Bank, headquartered in Tysons. Rowley is married, with two grown sons; and he and his wife live in a neat home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Fairfax. Rowley pretty much has it all. You would think he would be spending his weekends chasing golf balls. But Rowley is a go-getter. He doesn’t want to just rest on his laurels.

A few years ago, Rowley watched the economy flounder and local industries slide. In talking with friends, he realized there were a lot of guys like him—mid-fifties corporate professionals—who felt they were in danger of being laid off. After 30 years, they were being told on Thursday to not come back on Monday. They had done nothing but work hard for their entire careers. What would they do if they found themselves looking for work, especially so close to retirement?

People from circles outside the banking industry would say, “Go into coding. Anyone can do coding!” Rowley was understandably skeptical. Sure, it’s easy for an IT geek to say, “Anybody can do coding,” but could anyone really write code for computers?

Rowley decided he would conduct his own empirical study to determine if “anyone” could indeed take a class or two and emerge writing code. If it was true, this would be good news for scores of unemployed or underemployed professionals or those in danger of losing their jobs due to the sagging economy. The specific thesis: Can non-IT folks really learn to write intelligible code? The broad one: Can an old dog learn new tricks?

One spring afternoon, Rowley sat in NOVA’s Commencement ceremony watching dozens of eager young graduates walk the stage to receive their IT diplomas. He turned to his NOVA Board colleague and said, “I want to take some IT classes at NOVA.” There was a brief quizzical look. A few days later, Rowley picked up the phone and called NOVA’s former president, Robert G. Templin, Jr.

“Bob, I want to take some coding classes at NOVA.”

Silence…. “Okay…. Ummm, why?”

Rowley went on to explain about the conversations he had been having with colleagues and computer nerds. He said he wanted to see for himself if the average non-IT guy could learn to write code.

Templin said, “Okay, Todd. No problem. I’ll take care of everything.”

Rowley explained that he wanted to go through the whole system, soup to nuts, all by himself with no “presidential intervention.” He felt it would be a good opportunity to fully experience what a NOVA student experiences. He could almost see Templin shaking his head on the other end of the phone, but the president agreed.

Rowley set about enrolling just like a regular guy. He ordered his transcripts from Adrian College and University of Delaware and Virginia Tech. He pulled out his proof of residency.  He combed the course schedule, paying particular attention to enrollment deadlines and add/drop policies. And he located and met with his faculty advisor, Adjunct Professor Tierney Pitzer.

For her part, Pitzer thought this was a great idea.

“I was excited to be faculty advisor for Todd Rowley. I have found it helpful to hear his feedback about the curriculum and the advising process,” Pitzer said. “It also has been great to have some insight into what local businesses and employers are looking for in an information technology curriculum.”

On his first day of class, Rowley was running late coming from work. He walked through the door of his classroom wearing a suit and tie. The chattering students sat up a little straighter and quieted down. They expected him to pull out his class list and take roll; but instead he took off his suit jacket, loosened his tie and sat down amongst them. He could almost feel the silent questions, “Is this a trick? Who is this guy?”

A few minutes later, the real professor walked through the door. He set his things on the desk and pulled out his class roster. He scanned the class, stopped briefly at Rowley, then continued on and took roll.

So far Rowley has taken about five IT classes at NOVA. He doesn’t walk into class and advertise that he is a Senior VP at Cardinal Bank. He doesn’t tell people he is Vice Chairman of the NOVA College Board. He just takes a very quiet, laid-back approach to his studies.

“Usually, they find out soon enough,” he said. “Word gets around. I know students have a lot on their plates, but I work hard, too. I tell students in my classes, ‘I respect that you take four or five classes. I take just one a semester, but I have a full-time job. I work long hours. I have client meetings until late into the evening, and then I come home and study.’ It’s challenging, but I have kept a 4.0 GPA.”

“If nothing else, I’m burning new neurons,” he said. “But the key point, the centric piece for me, was answering the question, ‘Can individuals without a higher math degree or an IT background really learn to code?’ The answer is yes. The only way I could figure it out was to throw myself in. And yes, you can: Java, HTML, cascading style sheets. I can do them all. Do I want to make a career of it? No. but at least it doesn’t scare me anymore.”

Rowley continues, “Also, I’ve learned first-hand what a quality education NOVA offers.” His younger son was taking a Java course at UVA at the same time. “We compared notes and we were learning the same topics in the same sequence. I told my classmates, ‘You’re taking a similar class, getting the same skills, for a lot less money. But you need to do the same hard work to earn the grade you want.’”

Dr. James Boggs, Rowley’s Intro to Telecommunications professor is thrilled to have a contemporary in his class.

“The most powerful and exciting thing about teaching at NOVA is that I have students with a wide variety of backgrounds, ages and goals. These students’ characteristics combine with ever-changing communications technology to give me a welcome challenge each semester,” Boggs said.

Word is getting around outside NOVA as well. People respect Rowley’s attempt at learning something new; not just skating through to retirement, but learning a new and marketable skill.

Jim Corcoran, president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce says that NOVA and the Northern Virginia Workforce Development Board have worked hard to create opportunities for individuals to train for new careers, pointing out that no one can be assured that their chosen career path will always be there.

“Todd Rowley has demonstrated leadership in putting himself in the position of those he serves as a NOVA Board member and as a board member of the Northern Virginia Workforce Development Board,” Corcoran said. “He has transcended the theoretical to the practical and proved life-long learning is possible.”

David Hunn, executive director of the Workforce Development Board, said, “Todd Rowley’s efforts to build a new technical skillset highlight the challenges experienced by thousands of Northern Virginia jobseekers looking for an opportunity to reenter the local workforce after a job loss or dislocation. Todd and his classmates exemplify the adage, ‘The more you learn, the more you earn,’ and they are developing new IT skills for occupations that did not even exist seven or eight years ago.” Hunn goes on to say that Rowley’s experience highlights personal perseverance and tenacity in any academic pursuit, regardless of age or experience.

For the thousands of professionals facing unemployment or underemployment in a very tumultuous economy, let the story of Todd Rowley be a heartening tale. Pull into NOVA’s Website and peruse the course schedule. Find something that will challenge you, and sign up. In the words of Todd Rowley—at least you’ll be burning new neurons. At best, you’ll be further securing your future should the unexpected happen.

Northern Virginia Community College is the largest institution of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls more than 75,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield and Woodbridge, and through the Extended Learning Institute. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, call 703-323-3000 or visit the College's Web site, www.nvcc.edu.

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