Jack Polnar

Lecturer Brings Real-World Data Analysis Expertise to Students in Classroom

Jack Polnar
Lecturer, Computer Science; Data Management Specialist, Newton Public Schools
MS, BS, Boston University (MET’03, MET’08)

What is your area of expertise?
My primary background is in relational database management, business intelligence, data analysis and systems analysis. I have worked in the industry for over 20 years with various database systems, including SQL Server, MySQL, and various BI and integration platforms utilizing standards such as XML. Day to day, I am focused on project management and team leadership within data management, where I have utilized the software development lifecycle and project management techniques taught in our courses. On the technical side, both professionally and academically I have focused on SQL performance tuning and query construction, specifically within various ways of constructing subqueries.

How does the subject you work in apply in practice? What is its application?
Working in government and education within data management, I have experienced firsthand the fast-paced adjustments during COVID. What used to take months had to be accomplished in days, and it really pushed our understanding of how to work collaboratively with teams remotely, and how to use SQL to quickly put together applications and reports and adjust constantly to various new business models. Everything was reexamined, from the fundamentals of SQL (i.e. subqueries, aggregates, and stored procedures) to extensive integration work to get various interconnecting systems up and running quickly. For the users, this had to be transparent and instant.

A recent project which has been one of my favorites has involved data warehousing and BI tools. We pulled together data from various sources and created dashboards using Google Data Studio. Some of that work included creating a finalized result for our application for operational use. Much of this work requires an initial data prep, as well as understanding what the end user wants and needs. What has made the difference is really listening to the end users and imagining how they will utilize the solution in day-to-day work. Only a few of us can marvel at the technical magic that takes place under the hood to make it all work—while to the end users, it’s seamless.

What courses do you teach in the program? Can you highlight a particular project within these courses that most interests your students?
My most recent courses are Information Systems Analysis and Design (MET CS 682) and Advanced Database Management (MET CS 779).

In Advanced Database Management, students define their own term project within the advanced database realm. It has been amazing to see some of the projects focused on big data (Spark, MongoDB, Neo4J) and data warehousing (Extract Transform Load (ETL) via Python or SQL, dimensional design), among many other topics.

In Information Systems Analysis and Design, our term-long assignment focus has been on performing systems analysis and design for various COVID-related applications.

Jack Polnar joined by MET students, Emma Jopson and Zachary Bernstein on the Boston Harbor.

What “real-life” exercises do you bring to classes?
I like to prepare students for industry-grade problems so that they have the ability to understand the problem, and to master the tools needed to create a solution. In Advanced Database Management, database programming assignments have been put together based on real-world complexity. Many of the Advanced Database Management projects have been used for work-related projects as well. What I find is the highest value in formal education here at BU is that students learn how to adopt new techniques and tools quickly, because the industry is always changing. This is a key factor in helping them stand out from their peers in the workplace—knowing how to learn quickly. This is not an industry where you can learn something and then stay with it; rather, you must constantly refine and sometimes even re-invent yourself to stay relevant. The fun part—having a new puzzle to solve every day—is something we imprint in our courses here at BU.

Recently I have learned how to sail in Boston Harbor, and this gives me another perspective on how challenging it is for our students to learn something completely different. The experience has reminded me—and I in turn share this insight with students: bring your passion and energy and don’t get intimidated by a tough problem. As long as you are learning and enjoying the journey, you are in the right place.

As a part-time faculty member, you straddle the professional and the academic worlds. What do you consider the unique value that MET’s part-time faculty members bring to the classroom?
We work daily with customers and end users. It’s important not only to be able to solve a problem technically, but to understand what the problem really is. We are not just programmers and developers, we must feel for the end user, and understand how our solution will impact their life. It’s similar to working with students. They are not just names in a gradebook or a list of participants in a Zoom window; they are real people. I like to learn about each one of my students if they take me up on an offer to connect virtually or in person. I am especially impressed with non-native English speakers here at BU who not only have to learn the technical side, but also have the challenge of learning it in a different language. My favorite part here at BU is learning with the students.

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