Silicon Valley school readies emigres for workplace in Russian

Many Russian Jewish immigrants have found an employment niche in the computer industry, as software quality assurance testers. And for some, Mikhail Portnov's Russian-language computer school provided passageway.

The Portnov Computer School in Mountain View teaches students how to get the "bugs" out of new computer products. Founded by Portnov and his wife Svetlana in 1994, the school has grown steadily since its start in a small room at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, which also donated computers and software.

To publicize the class, Portnov placed an article in the local Russian-language newspaper and sent announcements to students taking English-language classes. The Jewish Vocational Service also spread the word.

From its first group of 18 students, who soon told their friends and relatives about the class, the school to date counts more than 200 graduates. Ninety percent are Jewish, though classes are open to immigrants of various backgrounds.

Currently, 70 students are enrolled.

Students range in age from 20 to 60 years old and come from the Bay Area, Sacramento, Monterey and as far away as Los Angeles, New York and Denver. Although highly capable, many of the immigrants have had trouble finding jobs here due to their lack of proficiency in English.

"Our purpose is to put people to work and see that they are happy," says Portnov, 41, of Los Altos. After leaving Moscow in 1990, he struggled to get a job in the Bay Area. But as a telecommunications engineer, Portnov soon found that his technical skills were obsolete.

However, five years ago a friend introduced him to software testing, and he promptly found a job.

"People in testing are much more tolerant," he says, of immigrants' limited English skills.

Most classes are held in the evening, so students can attend school and keep their day jobs. The school provides internships and continues to seek more opportunities for its students to serve in various companies.

Irina Feygin of San Francisco heard about the school from friends who successfully got jobs after attending classes. She finished the course and went to work for Xerox.

"I think people who have time to study to get a good job will be successful attending the classes. You must spend a lot of time with the computer as I did, not only evenings but also weekends," she says. "I'm glad that the American Jewish community is helping the Jewish Russian community in the Bay Area get jobs."

Portnov and his wife also own the Los Altos Software Testing House Inc., which offers quality assurance services to companies that need additional testing on their products. The Mountain View computer school also instructs students in job-searching and interviewing techniques.

"We teach people how to work" in the United States, says Portnov. "Because of the difference in cultures our students need to learn job-related skills."

Raphael Wynd of Palo Alto's MySoftware Company has provided student internships for the past five months. Wynd says, "The students have been outstanding and an excellent asset to the testing department of our company."

The school is California-certified, and the course runs 20 weeks. New classes start every three weeks. Tuition is $2,000 with another $2,000 to be paid after the first year of employment. More than 20 percent of students receive assistance from the Hebrew Free Loan Association. The JVS provides grants of up to $1,000 to immigrants who are in their first year in this country. Many other Jewish groups, including synagogue auxiliaries, have also helped the students.

For information on the school, located at 1580 West El Camino Real, call (415) 237-059l.