A Perfect Match: Heartland Business Systems and Michigan Tech CNSA Students and Alumni

Michigan Tech CNSA alumni who work at HBS: Nick Recla, Dave Cummings, Michael Hewitt, Joe Horne
Michigan Tech CNSA alumni who work at HBS: Carla Niemi, Paul Gilreath, Matt Link, Cody Holoday

Founded in the 1990s, Heartland Business Systems (HBS) has grown from a single office in northeast Wisconsin to 15 locations in the Midwest and across the U.S. The company employs more than 700 people and provides services to over 3,000 customers.

HBS serves commercial, public sector, and small- to medium-sized businesses. The company’s team of experts provides complete, end-to-end technology solutions in industries ranging from healthcare and manufacturing to retail, government, education, and commercial enterprises.

HBS has participated in more than a dozen talent recruitment events at Michigan Tech, becoming a Corporate Partner with the MTU Career Services department in 2020. Since 2019, the company has welcomed 12 interns from Michigan Tech, hiring three of the interns full-time. In addition, the company has hired five new MTU graduates since 2019. All of them are Bachelor of Science in Computer Network and System Administration (CNSA) graduates.

The Michigan Tech Computer Network and System Administration (CNSA) bachelor’s degree program is part of the Department of Applied Computing (AC) in the College of Computing. MTU Associate Teaching Professor Todd Arney says that because AC programs and courses focus on real-world practical applications of technology, CNSA students and graduates are a good fit for jobs at Heartland.

“This includes everything from making systems automated, redundant, monitored, maintained, accessible, and secure to creating backups and, most importantly, ‘documentation, documentation, documentation,’” explains Arney. “We also teach the “real-world” aspects of work-life balance, communication with clients or end-users, and problem-solving.”

“Everything they learn in class can be utilized in HBS,” adds Tim Van Wagner, AC assistant teaching professor. “CNSA and Cybersecurity students fill role at HBS that directly applies to the education they receive.”

“The classes and labs in the Michigan Tech CNSA major train and prepare students with the skills needed to be a consulting engineer at HBS,” confirms Paul Fandrey, HBS Director of Engineering.

“MTU students are a good fit within our company,” he adds. “The students obtain good system and networking skills and the IT projects and support opportunities MTU offers, such as help desk and lab projects, help to strengthen students’ problem-solving skills.”

CNSA graduates are not just good with technology. In addition to “book smarts,” CNSA students have a lot of “business smarts” and “real-world smarts.”

“CNSA students do a lot of small group work, writing reports and memos and giving presentations geared for different audiences—including non-technical audiences,” says Arney. “They can talk about highly complicated computer technologies, networks, and systems to non-technology audiences that often include upper management and end-users or clients.”

“Heartland is a full-support IT services company serving customers from the very small to the very large,” says Paul Gilreath ’09, a technical architect for data center engineering at HBS. Gilreath was hired by HBS full-time just two weeks after his graduation from Michigan Tech. When he started Heartland, Gilreath says the company was a lot smaller.

“We’ve grown significantly in the 15 years that I’ve been here,” he explains. “I started out as a tier one engineer and now I’m a tier four engineer, running projects and helping newer employees, whom I task to do most of the leg work while I work on the architecture specifications.”

“A typical corporate IT professional might do a big systems refresh once every three to five years, but because we’re doing that frequently in many different sites, I constantly get to play with new stuff and learn new things,” says Gilreath. “Heartland encourages its staff members to learn as much as they want to learn. it’s a pretty good-sized fire hose here. If you want to continue learning your entire career, you absolutely can at Heartland.”

Read more about Paul Gilreth.

HBS urges their employees to pursue training and certifications and to build and expand their skills “This can lead to upward movement to senior and management level positions, higher billing rates, and higher engineering salaries,” says Fandrey. “It also helps provide higher level skills for more complex customer IT environments.”

Cody Holoday ’22 interned as an engineering associate at Heartland during the summers of 2021 and 2022. In January 2023, he began a full-time position as a consulting engineer. “The internships at Heartland are considered an extended interview,” he says “The company also wants to see how you function on a team and how you interact with customers.”

“We expose Interns to the same projects, tasks, and customer situations that our full-time engineers see on a daily basis,” says Fandrey. “This allows us to accurately evaluate each Intern in the exact work environment. The interns can also see exactly what it is like to work at HBS.”

“At Heartland, we’re making sure everything’s up to date and safe for our clients so they have as few disruptions as possible. Things like ransom attacks, viruses, and malware can be very detrimental to the businesses Heartland serves and disruptions can affect just one computer or the entire system,” says Holoday. “Working at Heartland is a new challenge every day. There are so many technologies out there.”

Read more about Cody Holoday.

In summer 2023, Will Hobkirk ’23 completed his second internship at Heartland Business Systems. This fall he’s an engineering associate and campus ambassador based in the company’s northeast Wisconsin office.

“I did a good job for them in my first internship, so they invited me back,” he says. “I actually got my full-time job offer at the exit interview following my second internship. Companies like to hire Tech grads and Heartland is a great example.”

“It’s a fantastic company,” adds Hobkirk. “It’s really important that all businesses have a secure, professional computer network infrastructure. For companies that may not have the resources to hire their own networking people, Heartland is a great choice.”

Read more about Will Hobkirk.

HBS is involved with the AC department and the CNSA program in many ways, including their representation on the Industrial Advisory Board’s (IAB) subcommittees for CNSA and Health Informatics and the Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense (CAE–CD). The company also provides guest speakers for AC classes and it has donated equipment to AC department learning labs.

This academic year, Heartland is supporting a CNSA Senior Design group that has been given a statement of work for a challenging HBS activity: onboarding a new client that is using existing technology solutions. The students will build a plan that accommodates the new client’s existing solutions while also building out new infrastructure. HBS acts as a hypothetical client to provide students with as realistic of a scenario as possible.

To help the students accomplish the senior design project, Heartland has loaned to the CNSA program some brand new industry-standard NextGen firewalls (2 x PA-220) and Cisco switches, routers and APs.