Microsoft has been quietly expanding its presence in Southside Virginia since opening its cloud computing datacenter in Boydton a decade ago. Aside from numerous site expansions — Microsoft’s regional campus has now grown to 1.1 million square feet — the tech giant has stepped up its philanthropy in Southside, such as by contributing $200,000 to the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center IT Academy and donating 10 Surface Pro 3 tablet computers to the Mentor Role Model program.

But Microsoft has taken some lessons from the local community, too.

“It can be said that the model for the DCA (Data Center Academy) program began with the partnership between SVHEC and Microsoft and we now are scaling this program to our global portfolio of datacenter communities,” explained Anthony Putorek, Senior Lead Workforce Development Program Manager at Microsoft.

The Datacenter Academy program is a Microsoft-specific training program modeled after the IT Academy in South Boston. Microsoft has taken advantage of the most successful parts of the IT Academy and used it to design a training program that the company has implemented worldwide.

“As a result of this partnership, Microsoft has incorporated these features into ... the Microsoft Datacenter Academy (DCA),” Putorek said.

Because datacenters require large amounts of land and access to electricity and water, all at low cost, Microsoft builds these massive facilities in rural areas. At the same time, however, rural communities pose a unique challenge to Microsoft’s recruitment staff by making it harder to recruit skilled labor. The IT Academy provides a model of how to train those workers locally.

“They liked the way we modeled the system to the extent that they created something called the datacenter academy program,” said Kelly Shotwell, program coordinator and trainer at the IT Academy.

Microsoft has set up DCA programs in Des Moines, Iowa, Cheyenne, Wy., Quincy, Wash., Dublin, Ireland and Amsterdam as well as two locations in South Africa. Following the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center’s model of local partnership, they have reached out to Des Moines Area Community College, Laramie County Community College, Wyoming, Big Bend Community College, and Collinstown Park Community College, Dublin, among others.

In each of these cases, the local partner has trained the workforce to fill the needs of the larger company, which has responded by further investing in the community.

“The lessons learned from developing and piloting this program at SVHEC [have] allowed Microsoft to hyper scale this program globally with little variation in implementation,” noted Putorek.

The DCA program also includes “Externships,” which are three-month internships at the local data center.

The relationship between Microsoft and the IT Academy has been mutually beneficial. As the program has trained server technicians who occasionally go to fill Microsoft’s ranks, the company has offered advice to refine the program and donated old server banks to better represent the tasks the students need to learn to complete their training.

Putorek said that, while providing a hands-on experience is what sets the IT Academy training apart from other programs, what sealed the deal for Microsoft was the soft skills and work-experience simulation that came along with the course.

“Equally important are the many added features of the program such as, soft skill training, utilizing a ticketing system for troubleshooting projects, simulating the physical security of a production datacenter,” he said.

Putorek said that because IT is such a fast-growing sector, more and more businesses large and small in rural SoVA are utilizing IT as a part of their core day-to-day operations. Thus there is a need for highly skilled IT professionals with industry-recognized certifications and hands-on experience to support the IT infrastructure.

“The ITA and DCA help to fill that need.”

As it scales up to the global level, the training program here in Halifax County is also reaping the rewards of its own success. Microsoft has offered grants to students who are traditionally underrepresented in the IT field and has been contributing its own staff to help supplement the teaching. Microsoft employees who volunteer in the classroom and lab can earn company donations to the organization of their choice equal to the hours they volunteered.

“Recently, a group of technicians volunteered time to help retrofit the datacenter lab at SVHEC using their technical skills enhance the functionality of the lab model. The dollars from the matching hours will go to the Southern Virginia Higher Education Foundation,” said Putorek.

While Microsoft has been instrumental in helping to develop the IT Academy, students have gone on to pursue careers in a variety of careers, not just as server technicians. They are free to work for any employer, not simply Microsoft. Some have even returned back to work for the IT Academy, which got a recent $500,000 grant from the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission to expand.

From The News and Record