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Microsoft taps Southside as site for TechSpark growth initiative / March 26, 2018
Halifax County resident Jeremy Satterfield is in select company as one of only six managers nationwide of Microsoft’s new TechSpark initiative.

Southern Virginia is Microsoft’s newest TechSpark community, following in the footsteps of Fargo, N.D. and northeast Wisconsin, where the civic program debuted in October 2016. The local program was announced last week along with three other TechSpark communities: El Paso, Texas, Cheyenne, Wy., and the North Central Basin of Washington State.

So what is TechSpark? And what is Satterfield hoping to accomplish with the initiative in Southside?

The idea, according to Microsoft president Brad Smith, is to reach out to local partners to help accelerate economic growth in five areas where the technology giant can offer assistance: broadband connectivity, digital skills development, career pathways, nonprofit support and digital transformation.

For Satterfield, who joins Microsoft after previously working for Mid-Atlantic Broadband Corporation, his first job is simple: listening.

“We’re not coming in beating our chest, saying we’re Microsoft and this is what we’re going to get done,” he said. “We’re listening to the groups that have been here a long time.”

As a tech industry leader, however, Microsoft believes it can assist local communities with the transformation to a digital age, the idea that Smith expressed when he came up with the program. Although Microsoft operates its data cloud computing center in Boydton, the selection of southern Virginia as a TechSpark community is about more than the technology firm’s local footprint, Satterfield said, adding that not all TechSpark areas play host to Microsoft operations.

“They wanted to select six opportunistic localities that they thought were unique enough to establish the initiative for maximum results across the board,” he said.

Microsoft’s Boydton data center does loom large in how TechSpark’s regional scope will be defined. Satterfield said he chose to initially focus the program on Mecklenburg County and the four Virginia counties that share a border: Halifax, Charlotte, Lunenburg and Brunswick. He hopes it will spread later throughout Southside.

Previously with Mid-Atlantic Broadband, Satterfield worked with Microsoft on the Homework Gap Initiative, which uses the TV white space spectrum to provide internet connectivity in out-of-the-way areas. The service is free for educational uses but limited as a full-fledged service, and Satterfield said that expanding the reach of robust broadband service will be one of the priorities of TechSpark.

Microsoft has also made its presence felt in the education realm with its TEALS initiative to bring computer coding to the Mecklenburg school division. TEALS, which stands for Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, is a company initiative that places high-tech professionals as mentors/part-time teachers in high schools. Their mission is to prepare students with computer programming skills — through a strong foundation in advanced placement (AP) computer science in high school — that could lead to tech sector employment later in life.

While the TEALS program is being implemented first at Bluestone High School, Satterfield is hoping to work with other school divisions including Halifax on spreading the initiative. He said he is holding conversations with Debra Woltz with Halifax County Public Schools about teaching computer coding not only in high school, but in the earlier grades.

“They are evaluating the program,” he said.

“If a child chooses to go into [the computing] field, the opportunities are endless,” Satterfield added. What’s more, he said, workers with coding skills are in demand everywhere, not just in Silicon Valley and other tech-centric areas. “The number of jobs just in the Commonwealth of Virginia that go unfilled every year are enormous,” he said.

Satterfield’s connections to education go back to the start of his professional career and his first job out of college, as a marketing education teacher at Bluestone High School. (Bluestone got the TEALS program months before Satterfield joined Microsoft, in October.) He has also worked for Halifax Regional Hospital and Mid-Atlantic Broadband, giving him a broad resume to draw from in his new role with Microsoft.

A commitment to education runs in the family: his wife, Kristy, is a third grade teacher at Scottsburg Elementary, and the couple’s three children attend elementary school, middle school and high school in the county. Outside of work, the 38-year-old father of three enjoys coaching baseball and softball.

In each TechSpark region, Satterfield said, Microsoft has chosen managers who “were born and raised in their communities. All of us have a vested interest in seeing that it succeeds.

“We’re a resilient group, there’s no doubt about that,” he continued, speaking of Halifax and surrounding counties in southern Virginia. “We’ve been working hard to form a new path, and I think Microsoft wants to be a part of that.”

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