Foothill College Bets on Cloud Computing Courses to Help Students Get Ahead

4 min
A student works on her laptop on the Foothill College campus. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

Cloud computing is one of the most in-demand hard skills employers in the Bay Area looked for in 2019, according to LinkedIn. Businesses as diverse as Gap, Sirius XM, Pinterest and many startups are moving their products to the cloud because it’s cheaper and easier than maintaining servers. The cloud has become a multi-billion dollar industry quickly, and there still aren’t enough people with cloud computing skills to fill all the jobs available.

“Companies are hungry enough for that skillset that they're willing to get pretty creative to get talented people,” said Ethan Van der Heide, a technical recruiter for Workbridge Associates in San Francisco.

Van der Heide described DevOps — a common title for these positions — as a mixture of coding, operations and people skills. Before the cloud started to dominate the industry, most companies had software developers who wrote the code and operational people who made sure it ran. Cloud computing collapses the distance between those roles, requiring knowledge of both sides.

“The skill sets are constantly changing,” Van der Heide said. “The tools are constantly changing. What's relevant is constantly changing. So the best indicator is somebody who is constantly learning to keep up with it.”

As a recruiter, he’s looking for people who like to learn new things and who seek out learning opportunities. There’s a whole group of them just down Interstate 280 at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills.

“I was looking for quite some time and hoping to see something,” said Meilani Widodo, a student in Foothill’s first introduction to cloud computing class. It’s part of a four-course sequence that will result in an Amazon Web Services (AWS) certification.

Widodo has worked in the tech industry for many years as a Unix systems administrator, but is looking for a new and better opportunity. She regularly takes classes at local community colleges to keep her skills sharp and was excited to see Foothill offering a class based on the AWS platform.

“I do see a lot of jobs posted by Amazon and I do see some opportunities,” Widodo said.

She has enjoyed the Foothill class because it’s hands-on and problem-based. Students are working together in groups to build a voice- assistant, like Alexa or Siri, using AWS. For many of them, the cloud is new, even though most are technology industry professionals. Many see how the industry is changing and know they need to keep up.

“It’s not really about switching jobs, but adapting to the new reality,” said Hip Long, a 28-year-old software developer and Foothill student. Long saw a demo video posted on AWS showing a software developer giving Alexa specific instructions to create a program, which the machine then created. In his experience, building a program takes months of communication with the finance and operations teams — he was inspired.

“I can see the changes of the traditional way of writing software to the new way,” Long said. “It makes something impossible in the past become reality.”

He doesn’t want to get left behind.

These professionals are glad Foothill is offering cloud computing. At $31 per credit it’s an affordable way to upskill. But the genesis of the class did not come from students. It came from industry.

“Amazon Web Services, their Educate Team, came knocking on our door and they said, ‘We need people with this skill and we don't have them. What can we do about it?’” said Teresa Ong, associate vice president for Workforce and CTE programs at Foothill.

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Foothill faculty worked with AWS to determine the competencies students will need to work in the cloud computing field, regardless of whether they are working on AWS systems or some of the other big competitors like Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud. It’s based on a similar partnership AWS launched with a group of schools in Southern California two years ago.

Ramon Nei took the cloud computing program at East Los Angeles College, which is one of the 19 Los Angeles colleges in the partnership. He told EdSource he credits the program with helping him get an internship with a software company.

“It’s helping me to solve problems using software,” Nei told EdSource. “It’s working with new technology and not like any regular classes you take in school but something new and connected to Amazon.”

At Foothill, Ong said these types of industry partnerships are common at community colleges. Her job is to communicate with regional industries about their needs and make sure students are getting the right skills to get good jobs.

Ong tells industry partners, “I need to get students jobs. You want a talent pipeline? We need to work together on that.”

A student government booth sits in front of the library on Foothill College's campus.
A student government booth sits in front of the library on Foothill College's campus. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

Foothill has worked with Cisco for over 30 years, and they also have partnerships with Facebook and VMware. They’ve worked with trade unions for decades to train and apprentice new workers, and they’re trying to do the same thing in growing fields like tech and health care.

“We can turn around curriculum a lot faster than a four-year school can,” Ong said. “We are focused on always updating our curriculum, and creating new ones, so this is not a new factor in our faculty’s jobs. It really is something that they want to do, and are required to do as part of their teaching here.”

While Foothill and Cañada College in Redwood City are the first Bay Area community colleges to offer in-person classes, AWS is working with a broader consortium of Bay Area schools to offer cloud computing in all corners of the Bay Area. The consortium offers AWS scale — each training has faculty from various colleges, and they can work together to market the classes to the community. It also includes high schools with early college programs and allows all partners to share what works and what doesn’t.

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Foothill currently has an on-campus class and an online one, but the professor, Anand Venkataraman, welcomes everyone to the in-person meetings. A student also records every session and puts it online for students in either section to use. Still, of the 40 students who enrolled for the online class, almost half dropped out. That’s not unusual for online courses, Ong said, but she’s working with Venkataraman to tweak the pacing and materials in the online course so it works better.

They got a grant from the Online Education Initiative to hire an instructional designer to help them make tweaks. They already know the graphics need updating, the pacing in some of the videos needs work and they may need to change the order of some of the modules.

“Because this is the first run, I think we're really getting a lot of information about where things ought to be, and where things ought not to be,” Ong said.

AWS sees community colleges as a good bet to build more diverse pipelines. In a statement, a company spokesperson wrote:

“We will continue to increase the number of community colleges we collaborate with to create pathways from K12 into higher education and into the workforce. Collaborations with community colleges also help us to ensure we are expanding access into diverse communities — communities of color, low‐income communities, and rural — where awareness of and preparation for jobs and lifelong careers that previously might not have been attainable.”

AWS Educate also has materials online to teach about cloud computing, but that method doesn’t work for everyone. While the approximately 50 students at Foothill who’ve taken the introduction to cloud computing course won’t do much to stem the growing demand for cloud computing talent in the short term, Foothill says interest in next semester’s class is already up.

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