Silicon Prairie

LCCC computer students working with wires in computersA partnership between LCCC and Microsoft will help bolster a 21st-century workforce—and perhaps Wyoming's economy. 

Arid, wide-open Laramie County bears little resemblance to California's lush, green Silicon Valley.

Just the same, southeast Wyoming now has its own role in high technology thanks to Microsoft's data center located in a business park west of Cheyenne.

And now Microsoft has partnered with Laramie County Community College in an effort to up-skill Wyoming's workforce to keep up with the tech giant through a program called Microsoft TechSpark, which introduces digital initiatives in smaller communities to diversify both the local economy and workforce.

That could put LCCC on the map, drawing thousands of degree-seekers and career-changers to the campus—virtually or physically.

"LCCC—a destination? Absolutely," said computer information systems instructor Roger Findley. "Even internationally through online courses, our IT programs are all offered completely online as an alternative, and offered on the ground at the Cheyenne campus as well."

"This breathes new life into our programs."

In 2012, Microsoft announced it would establish a data center in Cheyenne at the North Range Business Park, creating scores of jobs in a high-tech industry.

Local officials and residents insisted those jobs should go to local workers, but few at that time had the skills such jobs entailed. Who would run the servers? Who would handle the technical aspects of keeping a center up and running 24 hours a day? Who would write the code to keep the center processing data? Who would perform maintenance on these facilities?

More than a half-decade later, it turns out other communities faced the same thing—diversifying their economies in the face of changing economic circumstances.

Two other TechSpark locations, Appleton, Wisconsin, lost a lot of its meatpacking industry, as did Fargo, North Dakota. Changes in the energy and agriculture sectors made it mandatory for Wyoming to change its workforce to a technologically driven one.

Microsoft president Brad Smith mentioned those three areas when he announced the TechSpark initiative in October 2017, with Boydton, Virginia; Quincy, Washington; and El Paso, Texas serving as the other initial destinations. A month later, Wyoming entrepreneur Dennis Ellis came on board to spearhead efforts in the Cowboy State as TechSpark manager for Wyoming. And in March, Microsoft announced its partnership with LCCC, meaning the college will have a significant role in TechSpark's five-pronged initiatives.

Ellis said those initiatives come down to a basic mission for Microsoft in each of the communities.

"The main thing we're trying to do is partner with the communities we're in, learn about their challenges, and solve them through technology," he said. "It's a lofty goal but [Governor Matt] Mead has said we have to have technology as the fourth leg of the Wyoming economy—along with energy, agriculture and tourism—so we can create good jobs for the future."

Ellis has firsthand experience, as he spent years with oil company Anadarko in their external affairs department. Now he'll help smooth the transition from an energy-driven to tech-driven economy—with LCCC playing a critical role.

He said that as meetings went on to establish TechSpark's mission within the aforementioned communities, LCCC emerged as a logical partner for the Wyoming mission.

"When a community college is highly functioning, a company will seek out employees from the community," he said. "LCCC has been that to a T."
Sure, LCCC's partnership with Microsoft will help the college develop programs to feed this tech giant's local workforce. More and more, however, we know it's critical for prospective students to have a leg up in technology before even choosing any course of post-secondary study.

Adam Keizer heads up LCCC's GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) program, which helps local youngsters graduate from high school, investigate possible careers, and get ready to attend college.

He said the name recognition of Microsoft goes a long way toward getting prospective tech workers interested. More than that, though, Keizer said Microsoft's vision of a tech-driven future merges well with LCCC's duty to educate the future workforce. And that future involves more than coding, a recent point of emphasis at every level of education.

"Microsoft has a vision that technology will completely change the way we work in the future," Keizer said. "We need to create opportunities for everyone to transform their skills and best adapt to the new ways of work.

"Not everybody interested in technology will be a coder, but there is technology in everything we do. There are things happening in Wyoming that people might not realize are technology-based."

Ellis had an example of a semi-automated brick-laying machine used in the creation of the new Laramie High School (near LCCC's Albany County Campus). Someone has to know how to calibrate the machine to lay bricks at the right intervals, and someone will need to know how to maintain it. Those "someones" could come from a program born of this partnership, from a program off the beaten path of coding and programming.

Keizer also cited opportunities in calibrating GPS systems to work with contractors, a massive opportunity in a growing region such as the Mountain West.

"Our partners in the Wyoming Contractors Association are big on GPS in their machinery," he explained. "They can take people with no experience in surveying or anything and teach them to work on GPS so the surveyor can do their job. GPS technicians make sure the plans are right and GPS is set right, and then people can go out and do their jobs. Basically, I introduce people to Roger so they can see the kind of education it takes to get those cool jobs."

For Keizer, working with youngsters just assessing careers involves making technology appealing in all of its forms.

"That's what we're trying to do—make the tech industry cool so it's not just programming and coding," Keizer said. "All these things are happening that you don't know about. Junior high students wouldn't know about the HVAC system around the data center that requires maintenance. There are a lot of things happening like that.

"Obviously, having an organization like Microsoft backing programs for young people is exciting for the college and the kids. It's something they recognize, something that's cool. On our side, it's been absolutely fantastic."

And what's a high-tech program without educators and facilities to match?

That's where LCCC comes in.

Between the tech-savvy student body, faculty and staff committed to transforming lives, facilities ripe for exploration, and a focus on career opportunities, a community college partners naturally with a company like Microsoft. Findley said that once Microsoft announced the data center, he assessed the curriculum to see what programs would meet those needs.

"I began looking at our courses to see which would line up with the needs of a Microsoft technician. Now we've updated our curriculum to fill those needs," he said. "We have a data technologist certification coming this fall. In just one semester, you could be certified as a data tech."

In fact, LCCC has updated its curriculum with two new programs coming online in 2018—one for a data center technician and another focused on cybersecurity, as well as programs for new Microsoft employees focused on server administration.

The bottom line, Findley said, is job placement. Already LCCC's computer-related programs have placed students in corporations around the area, and Findley wants to see LCCC graduates in the tech industry throughout the region.

"Job placement—to me, that's it. That's what this program is all about," he said. "We are also currently establishing internships and apprenticeships within the local information technology community. Students can move from the classroom, to on-the-job training, to full-time positions. They will be well-positioned in the IT business."

"In fact, many companies in our community employ LCCC students and graduates in their IT departments. We even hope to cross the border into Colorado and establish relationships with firms on the Front Range. I've got big dreams."

As does Ellis.

He agrees that job placement is key, but also that Cheyenne—along with the other five TechSpark cities—successfully transform their economies to keep up with the modern world and maybe keep their young and educated populace closer to home.

"I think folks are very excited," Ellis said. "I hosted a roundtable on what the workplace of the future might look like, and a half-dozen LCCC reps were there. We're all focused on the exact same space. What are skills workers will need for the new jobs coming, and how can we recruit companies to diversify the economy?

"In this newer area of how to garner a certificate and skills, not necessarily a degree, students want to stay here if jobs exist, and hopefully TechSpark is part of that solution."