When Amazon Web Services (AWS) began building data centers in Northeast Oregon, the company saw an opportunity to offer the local community training to develop the skills they would need to pursue new careers in the industry — and Blue Mountain Community College was on hand to help.
In 2015, AWS teamed up with Peter Hernberg — who has taught math and computer science at the college in the city of Pendleton for eight years — to create the Data Center Technician Training Program. The one-year program is open to anyone, regardless of their background or skills, and prepares them for employment in data centers and the broader IT sector. In addition, AWS makes a total of $100,000 available in scholarships annually — vastly reducing the cost of participation for students.
“There are a tremendous number of opportunities in the industry right now. I wish more people knew how much of a viable career path this is, with so much potential to grow and develop — no matter what your education or experience,” said Hernberg.
The initiative has assisted more than 100 individuals from the region to secure jobs in cloud computing. We spoke to three graduates whose lives have been changed by the Data Center Technician Training Program and who are now developing tech careers at AWS.
Mandy Tobin, Quality Assurance Engineer, Amazon Data Center Operations, Oregon
Although Mandy Tobin loved technology from a young age, she never felt included in the field until she enrolled in the Data Center Technician Training Program at Blue Mountain Community College.
“The biggest thing about the program for me was that my gender did not matter,” she said. “For the first time in my life, it felt OK to like this stuff. That I could be a female and want to go into some kind of science, technology, engineering, and math field, and not be looked down on.”
Tobin, who now works as a quality assurance engineer for AWS, particularly enjoyed the practical aspects of the program.
“We set up a repair shop at the college where we offered to take broken computers and fix them,” she said. “I was able to use the knowledge I developed to set up a virtual ticketing system, so we could receive requests from people inside and outside of school — from our teachers, fellow students, friends, and family. Our whole class got to figure out what was wrong with people’s machines, repair them, and give them back to the owners. I absolutely loved being able to learn at the same time as helping our community.”
The program transformed Tobin’s career prospects in addition to her self-image and confidence.
“I was very quiet and shy in the beginning. I could never speak in public,” she said. “By the end, I’d become so confident that I actually was one of the presenters at our graduation ceremony. The program is so welcoming. I just flourished.”
“I'm a big advocate of bringing more women into the industry,” she added. “There’s still some stigma that it’s more of a man's game, and that’s simply not true.”
Jonathan Macias, IT Support Engineer, Data Center Operations Lead, Formerly of Oregon
Before Jonathan Macias enrolled in the Data Center Technicians Training Program, he was studying for a general studies associate’s degree, and feeling — by his own admission — “very indifferent” about what he wanted to do with his life.
Macias’ college advisor, Peter Hernberg, who was setting up the program with a team from AWS at the time, tried to persuade him to apply.
“Peter said to me, ‘We have this very new program. We’re kind of ironing out the kinks, and I was hoping you would join us.’ But I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to do it, so I refused,” said Macias.
When the program started again the following year, Hernberg again tried to persuade Macias to join. That year, it worked. “I decided to pause my studies and take the classes,” said Macias. “It was probably one of the best decisions I've ever made.”
Although Macias had a very basic background in computers, as they got into “the more nitty-gritty technical stuff,” he found himself learning a lot — and enjoying it. He was, however, concerned about his job prospects.
“I kept thinking, there are a lot of people in my class. The odds of me being chosen for an interview, or even getting a job at Amazon seemed very low. Then, as we went further into the program, I developed connections with my classmates and heard from guest speakers at AWS. I started to think, you know, maybe I do have a chance.”
Macias certainly did have a chance. Before graduating, he found a three-month contract role at AWS, which led to him securing a full-time position with the company.
“I like it a lot. Working with new hardware is always a treat, and I’m learning so much while helping other members of my team. There are so many opportunities to hone your skills,” he said. “I'm very surprised at how quickly things have moved. It never crossed my mind that I could get a promotion within two years. I feel like we’re showing people that you don’t need to be a computer wizard to do this stuff. Anyone can do it.”
Uppa Shakya, Data Center Technician, Amazon Data Center Operations, Oregon
Uppa Shakya was raising her two young daughters and working part-time as a certified nursing assistant in a hospital when she heard about the Data Center Technician Training Program.
Shakya, who moved to Oregon with her husband from Katmandu, Nepal, nearly 11 years ago, found the program’s part-time structure helpful, as it allowed her to keep her day job while studying.
“I have always wanted to work in technology, but I didn’t have a background in it,” she said. “The first month of the program was challenging because I didn't have the experience, but I never gave up. I just kept telling myself that I was going to finish it.”
Shakya’s determination paid off. After a few months, she found her feet, and — like the majority of students that complete the program — she had already secured a role in an AWS data center before graduating.
“The program taught us the basics about computers, servers, security, and networking,” she said. “I’ve been expanding that knowledge at work ever since. The field is changing so fast, you are constantly learning new things. It's not like other jobs where you might do the same tasks every day.”
For Shakya, the opportunities the program brings are endless.
“There’s so much scope to switch careers within AWS, so many opportunities to develop, and so many available learning resources. Someone is always there to help if you have questions or run into issues,” she said. “I tell my daughters a lot of stories from work, about my successes and my challenges. I want them to know that they can be strong and pursue their ambitions, no matter what.”
Shakya is now leading a team and mentoring new hires, but she isn’t going to stop there. “I would like to move further into the field of networking, and I might continue coursework in that area,” she said.
The Data Center Technician Training program at Blue Mountain Community College began again for the new academic year in September, welcoming a new group of students from the local area — all eager to learn, with support from Hernberg and AWS. Learn more about the Data Center Technician Training Program.