Microsoft president Brad Smith is scheduled to visit El Paso next week to give a talk on artificial intelligence. But his visit may signal a larger commitment to the Sun City by the tech giant.
El Paso is one of six communities Microsoft is considering for a new program called TechSpark, which would bring Microsoft’s attention and investment to the region. It’s aimed at fostering economic opportunity and job creation through partnerships in rural areas and smaller cities.
“It’s a huge opportunity for students,” said Ann Quiroz Gates, the chair of the computer science department at UTEP. “Microsoft has always reached out to us and delivered a number of programs.”
Gates said the Microsoft president may meet with city leadership, including members of the Borderplex Alliance, about the TechSpark program while he is in town.
A spokesperson for the Borderplex Alliance said they could not confirm or deny discussions with Microsoft.
This week, UTEP plans to announce that Smith is its next Centennial Lecture series speaker. According to a UTEP spokesperson, his lecture is scheduled for March 19 at the Undergraduate Learning Center. He will talk about the impact of artificial intelligence and what it means for the future of jobs.
Smith’s visit coincides with an effort to bring the new TechSpark program to El Paso, Gates said. Microsoft announced in October it is looking at communities in Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, but has not said where in Texas it will bring the TechSpark program.
On Friday, a Microsoft spokeswoman said the company was not ready to make any announcements and is focused on Smith’s visit to El Paso.
Smith announced the TechSpark program last October in a blog post on LinkedIn.
He said the program was created at the beginning of 2017 and involves the company partnering with community leaders to learn about regional challenges. He said the program will use technology to contribute to local economic growth.
“The rapid transformation of our economy is driven in part by the pervasive use of new technology that is creating both challenges and opportunities for communities across the country,” Smith wrote. “The world’s digital transformation also highlights the vital importance of fast and reliable broadband to support education, health care, agriculture and commerce.”
TechSpark will focus on five programs “that will help accelerate economic growth through regional internet connectivity, digital skills development, career skills development, nonprofit support and digital business transformation.”
That includes investing in companies to help them use the newest technologies to “reinvent and reimagine how they design and build products, conduct business, and reach and serve new customers.”
The program will also provide grants and other resources to nonprofits, and Microsoft will partner with schools to strengthen their computer science education.
The company is also working through its Rural Airband Initiative to help eliminate the rural broadband gap. A Federal Reserve report ranks El Paso 13th worst in the country when it comes to internet connectivity.
Microsoft is hiring employees who will work in the six local communities to deliver the TechSpark programs. One of them has been in discussions with Gates about the program.
That representative may be Jonathan Childress who recently became a community engagement manager for Microsoft, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The profile shows Childress, who is the founder of Proper Printshop Productions in Central El Paso, started working for Microsoft this year. The TechSpark program is detailed in his job description.
Childress could not be reached for this article.
Gates told El Paso Inc. that UTEP’s computer science department is ready to participate in large programs like TechSpark. In the meantime, Microsoft is bringing its new Technology, Education and Literacy in Schools Program to El Paso, according to Gates.
TEALS was recently created by Microsoft to support and further educate high school computer science teachers.
Gates said she hopes El Paso’s budding tech industry will continue to grow so fewer UTEP graduates have to leave El Paso to find jobs.
“If we can bring more high-tech industry here,” she said, “it would be fantastic.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Aaron Montes at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105. and (915) 777-4154. Twitter: @aaronmontes91.