Headshot of Ian McLein. Headshot of Ian McLein.
Entrepreneurship & Business 

Ian McLein’s wild ride

alumnus Computer Information Technology and a minor in Analytics continuing education personalized learning Technology
Headshot of Ian McLein.

NAU’s Personalized Learning program helped Disney executive Ian McLein take a foundational step in his career.

Ian McLein is at the top of his game. The NAU alumnus, a 2021 Computer Information Technology graduate, is a high-level executive for a Fortune 500 company that has captured the imaginations of career hopefuls around the world: The Walt Disney Company.

“My job, as the Global Technology Engineering, Architecture, and Strategy | Technology Leader for Disney, is probably the coolest job I’ve ever had,” McLein says. “I get to build technology networks for every segment within the company. That includes Marvel, Lucas, Pixar, Disney+, ESPN, ABC, Disney Stores, everybody. I build boring networks, too, like the network when you walk into an office and connect to Wi-Fi. But we also build all the complex attraction networks, like on the Millennium Falcon in Disneyland and Walt Disney World.”

McLein graduated from NAU in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Technology. He’ll be the first to tell you that his path to global success has been unconventional. He started in a South Bend, Indiana cornfield before the internet even existed.

“My first job was detasseling corn. Google it; it’s the worst job ever,” McLein says. With his saved wages, McLein bought his first computer, an Atari 800 (while you’re Googling corn detasseling, check that out too), and wrote his first program at age 12.

He took the next step in his journey by driving a forklift for the South Bend Tribune newspaper. At college in Indiana, he worked three jobs to make ends meet. “I would get up at the crack of dawn, drive a forklift. Then I would go to my video store job. Then I would go to classes. Then I would leave class, and I would go to work at Subway. My day started at about 5:30 in the morning and ended at about midnight.”

When a computer operator position opened up at the Tribune, McLein applied and got the job. Still in college, he started his tech career and taught himself several data languages. A few years later, he was the head of the department.

“I was still taking a class here, a class there. But then I started traveling internationally. It was really tough to do class from Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Canada,” he says. This, of course, was still in the days before the internet.

“So, I failed miserably at that point because I couldn’t keep up with school. It was always my intent to finish, but I was going to school for the job I already had. All my friends were still in school. They’re washing dishes. I don’t have a degree, but I’m making 80, 90 grand, which was a lot at the time.”

Now, it’s about continual education, perpetual education. If you’re perpetually learning, then that’s only going to work to your advantage. And I think NAU provides an opportunity for that and a good platform to be able to do it, particularly if you’re a working professional.

As his success grew, McLein intermittently tried to work on his degree, but it wasn’t until he found Northern Arizona University’s online Personalized Learning (PL) program that he was able to finally make it happen. At the time, he was living in Arizona, managing technology operations for healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente. NAU’s PL platform gave him the flexibility to take classes while working as a high-ranking professional.

The mouse called

“And then the mouse called,” he says, laughing. “The mouse” sent him to Shanghai to coordinate the launch of a new Disney theme park; school once again had to take a back seat. But as soon as he was able, McLein was back in the PL program, chipping away at his degree.

“I picked everything up where I left off,” he says. “That’s one of the beauties of the PL format at NAU. All the time, I could work, and I could study and learn at my own pace. There were some weekends I knocked out like six classes. I could do it because I already knew all the content.”

NAU’s all-online Personalized Learning program is subscription-based, meaning students pay a single fee for access to as many courses as they’re able to complete over a six-month period. The courses are self-directed. Students must pass specific competency tests but can take as much or as little time as they need to pass each test.

For a working professional, this format allows the student to accelerate through subjects they’re already familiar with. Personalized Learning helped McLein achieve the goal he’d set for himself so many years ago. Along the way, he discovered a passion for Chinese history and a distaste for reading Nietzsche. He also was able to hone his skills in some coding languages. And what he expected to be the end of his journey turned out to be a beginning instead.

“It started as checking a box and ended at something very different from that. Because if it was just checking the box, I’d have been done. And I’m not done. Now, it’s about continual education, perpetual education. If you’re perpetually learning, then that’s only going to work to your advantage. And I think NAU provides an opportunity for that and a good platform to be able to do it, particularly if you’re a working professional.”

He realized that the PL format could benefit his entire global team. When he discovered that his hometown university, Purdue, offered bachelor’s and certificate programs in themed entertainment, he immediately saw an opportunity. “So, I’ve actually contracted with them to create custom training for my team. They’re creating custom courses on the technical aspects of building attractions. And I used the NAU Personalized Learning format as an example. It’s the exact same model that I’m telling Purdue that I want them to mimic. Because it’s effective for learning.” The flexibility, he says, is a perfect fit for his busy team of engineers, who work around the clock to keep rides running and business thriving.

McLein himself has applied to the University of Central Florida for a master’s in themed entertainment. The master’s program, he says, is part technology, part arts and humanities. “It’s all about creating themed experiences. That can be anything, from the kiosk you use when you’re ordering food at a restaurant to an entire theme park.”

Of course, hands-on research at Disney World is also essential. “If you work for Disney, you can go every day if you want to,” McLein says. “I do go to the park pretty frequently.”

His favorite attraction? Piloting the Millennium Falcon through Smugglers Run.