From Boredom to Boot Camp: How Matthew Debnar Advanced His Career During the Pandemic


Around the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, Matthew Debnar was finishing up his job in retail e-commerce and doing some freelance consulting. In 2019, he completed a role replatforming a company to the self-sufficient Shopify, and his 2020 consulting contract ended when the pandemic shut down the company stores. But when the final invoices rolled in amid the quiet of quarantine, he realized that he was lacking any sort of challenge. He wanted to take advantage of his newfound free time. 

Matthew’s career journey began with a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Anthropology from the University of Michigan, which landed him in Chicago post-grad and New York soon after. Since 2000, his two-decade career has taken him everywhere from tech start-ups, to J.Crew, to The Jones Group. But during the lull of 2020, he was ready for more. 

“During the pandemic, I was like, ‘All right, I’m 20 years in. I realize at this point in my career, it will take longer to find the right role. So let me refresh my skills,’” he said. 

Practicing what he preached 

Matthew had been advocating for the use of data analytics in many of his previous positions. He was always promoting using platforms and tools like NoSQL databases, data lakes, and AI to help companies leverage customer data and increase their sales. But he didn’t have any hands-on experience processing data directly, and wanted to start practicing what he preached. When he found the Columbia Engineering Data Analytics Boot Camp, the curriculum seemed to cover everything he wanted to learn. 

“It ended up being a really, really good fit,” he said. “The price was right, the curriculum was right. It was six months, about 35 people in the boot camp, and they were all really smart and really diverse, leading to some amazing projects with them.”

Executing ambitious projects with exciting results

One such project was his team’s final project, which compared NBA and WNBA audience numbers pre- and post-COVID-19. They used a free API that provided access to usable sports data, and wrote API loops to access additional data sets. Other notable projects Matthew worked on included an evaluation of happiness across the world and an analysis of 100 years of U.S. baby names. 

The boot camp covered a wealth of systems and programs at an ambitious pace and, while it wasn’t always easy, Matthew felt he was constantly learning something new with the help of both his instructor and his fellow learners.

“We were hitting new things every week,” he said. “In general, things that jumped out at me were the GitHub integration, Python, the Jupyter Notebook stuff — it was all really cool. There was a wide array of tools to work with, which made some of the installs tricky, but the boot camp walked me through how to do it. And, I was always collaborating virtually with my fellow learners to overcome these challenges.” 

And not only did they collaborate together, but Matthew actually formed friendships with his peers (despite the physical distance between them). After completing the program, they met up in Central Park to hang out, and they still text each other to check in on life after the boot camp. 

Exploring life after boot camp 

For Matthew, life after the boot camp includes an exciting new position: e-commerce technical delivery lead at a global retailer. 

To secure his new role, Matthew leveraged the boot camp’s career services. Specifically, career services helped him clean up his LinkedIn profile, which proved effective in networking and securing interviews. What’s more, Matthew felt that the boot camp experience was a helpful talking point throughout the interview process. 

“I could talk about doing this hands-on work with the stuff that I’d been advocating for years; how I was learning it all from the bottom up,” he said. “I think it was also super helpful just to show that I was actively trying to advance my career.”

In his new role, Matthew doesn’t necessarily use all the platforms and programs he learned at the boot camp. However, his confidence in his ability to learn new tools and take on challenges has improved quite a bit, which serves him every day in his fast-paced role.

“It definitely made me more confident and more current,” he said. “I’m not talking about [outdated programs] anymore. I know all the latest tricks of the trade first-hand.”

Looking to the future

Right now, Matthew is happy in his current role and is excited to further explore the world of global ecommerce — both figuratively and literally. Working for an international company, Matthew plans to expand his horizons by learning and working outside the U.S. 

Down the road, Matthew hasn’t ruled out the idea of founding his own start-up — potentially even with the help of other learners from the boot camp .

“There were a couple of really good startup ideas that came out of the boot camp that I thought really had viability,” he said. “Down the road, when it’s potentially time to move on in my career, I’d love to use my contacts and my technical knowledge to potentially cultivate a start-up.”

Looking to jumpstart your career in tech? Explore the Columbia Engineering Boot Camps today. 


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