A new privately-owned academy, right in the middle of downtown San Antonio, opened its doors to the public Tuesday. Some higher education and City leaders are calling Rackspace's Open Cloud Academy a big step forward for the local technology and education economies – as well another feather in the city's progressive downtown development cap.
"San Antonio is emerging as an important technological hub," said Mayor Julián Castro at the opening ceremony yesterday. "But this is not just about San Antonio."
It’s no secret that the Internet and information technology (IT) are transforming every industry and daily lives of almost all individuals in developed countries. Whether you’re a taxi driver, mechanic, lawyer, dishwasher, business owner or bike waiter – chances are, you're tied to a website. Chances are, you've downloaded apps to your smartphone that thousands of IT professionals had a hand in creating.
The modern world depends on technology, but ultimately, it's increasingly dependent on the people behind cloud-computing, the open-source framework behind modern software development. Globally, about seven million cloud-related jobs will be created by 2015, but an estimated 1.7 million jobs in this field went unfilled in 2012, according to an International Data Corporation report.
Rackspace, a national leader in cloud computing technology, hopes to help fill that gap by offering a series of affordable training and certification programs through the Open Cloud Academy. The program officially started accepting students Tuesday, marked by a grand opening ceremony at the newly-completed facilities on the sixth floor of the Weston Centre.
(Note: The Rivard Report staff also offices in the Weston Centre.)
Rackspace co-founder and chairman Graham Weston, also the downtown office building's namesake and owner, explained that the technology, code languages and framework for the open cloud are developing and changing faster than colleges and universities can teach them.
"Rackspace hires (graduates) with computer science degrees, but few of them have training in cloud technology," Weston said to the audience at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "This (academy) is where the deep learning is going to happen."
The Academy mirrors parts of an existing training program, Rackspace University (Rack U), offered exclusively to Rackspace employees (aka "Rackers"). Rack U has two arms of programming to develop business and technical skills, the latter of which has essentially been expanded and modified to become the Open Cloud Academy. These courses for non-Rackers aim to develop a larger workforce not only for Rackspace, but for the IT industry as a whole, Weston said.
"As an organization, we find ourselves in a position with two options: Buy talent or build talent," Rackspace Learning and Development Director Duane La Bom said before the ceremony. "(Talent) is very expensive to buy, cheaper to build ... it's worth the investment to build those (employee) pipelines. And locals (new hires) are much more likely to stay with Rackspace long-term."
La Bom estimates that about one-third of the Academy's graduates will be hired by Rackspace, one-third will be hired into the national or global workforce (or take their new skills back to their existing work) and one-third will become Rackspace customers by starting small businesses or tech startups and purchasing hosting services.
The Academy is open to anyone, but there are specific groups of the local population that Rackspace thinks will be especially interested, including military or ex-military personnel, college graduates struggling to find work and high school students who might not be ready for a four-year degree.
"There are a lot of people transitioning into civilian careers, we want them to consider IT as an option,” La Bom said. "Although we're not a (replacement) for college, but ... the technology that we teach is technology that most colleges will not be teaching for many years," and the Academy can act as a leg-up for students and entrepreneurs of all ages – before, during or after any four-year degree or career.
Breakdown: How the Open Cloud Academy Works
Under the Academy's umbrella, Rackspace is building several different programs (learning tracks) that develop skills in cloud-based coding, operating systems, programing and special fields of expertise. Each track is expected to cost between $3,500 and $4,000 – a fraction of the price for similar training programs offered locally and nationally, said La Bom.
The first such learning track, now open to enrollment, is Linux Systems Administration. Over the next two years the Academy will release several more tracks for Network Security, Cyber Security, Software Development, Windows System Administration and DevOps (development and operations). Students can take them in any order, but academy advisors are on-hand to make sure students enroll in tracks that will best serve their needs.
Students begin each program in Phase I, which uses a "self-paced, blended learning" system, said La Bom. Curriculum instruction is led through hands-on workshops in classrooms as well as online tutorials for the student to access before work, after class, between meetings or all day long – if they please. How long the Phase I curriculum takes to complete depends on the schedule and dedication of the student. Full-time students could feasibly complete all course work in only 10 weeks.
“We set it up in a way so that it’s really self-paced and anyone that has the aptitude can do it,” La Bom said.
Almost 100 students enrolled in the Academy's pilot program for the Linux academy last month and many are nearing completion of Phase I. The curriculums vary greatly from sub-academy to another, but basically it ensures that the student has the foundational skills and certifications to move onto the next phase.
The Academy moves 20 students at a time to the next phase to ensure small class sizes. Next month, for instance, only 20 pilot program students will move on to Phase II training, but another Phase II class cohort will begin every month or so.
Carie Villano and Morgan Davis are both pilot students in the program. Villano has a background in education and business management. Davis worked in public relations.
"I didn't feel like the smartest or the dumbest person in the room," Davis said. "I don't think anyone really did."
Davis and Villano were both looking for a way to expand their skill sets to become more valuable employees in the future and agree that the academy provides a nurturing environment for students with all levels of IT experience.
Out of about 100 pilot students, Villano is one of about a couple dozen female students, that closely represents 2009 national estimates that only about 25% of IT jobs in the U.S. are held by women.
"The (IT industry) can be intimidating for women," Villano said, and that is true for the educational side of it, too. "A lot of times women don't feel comfortable."
The academy, she said, is a much more "laid back and friendly" environment. Villano herself wants to eventually move on to teach information technology. "I've always had a love for technology, I even found floppy disks fascinating," she added.
Micheal Bostic, a 12-year U.S. Army veteran who also holds a degree in elementary school education, hopes to be in the first 20 selected for Phase II.
"Right now it's competitive," Bostic said, because it's the first class. "But the goal is to just have people ready to move on. It's been a supportive, helpful envirnoment."
He hopes to find employment with Rackspace after he's completed the Linux coursework and ultimately "would love to start teaching here (at the Open Cloud Academy) ... I know they'll need teachers," he said.
About one-third of teachers at the academy are Rackers, many are contracted instructors and industry veterans.
"All are highly qualified," Weston said. "(IT professionals) that do IT training are truly teachers at heart ... they could be making double (if not much more) the pay if they didn't teach."
These educators coming straight out of the industry are essential if the IT workforce is going to keep up with technologies of the future.
“The distance between what the average person does and the technology (they) use is closing,” Weston said.
At the core of open-could computing is access to information. Weston uses Encylopedia Britannia and Wikipedia to explain: encyclopedias, sources of information, are owned by someone and are essentially "locked" – what's on the page is on the page forever. Wikipedia, however, unlocks this information. It has its flaws and glitches, but the amount of information available and widespread access "harnesses the power of the brain trust of the world," Weston said. "That's what the open cloud does."