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Latest Thoughts on Training

Let’s talk training again.  I recently had the opportunity to attend two classes.  One was self-paced using pre-recorded content; the other was an online instructor led class.  Before I get into what I think about them, I want to define a few items:

Tutorial:  good for single item topics and are generally short.  Tutorials should teach how to do a task, not provide comprehensive knowledge.

Instructor led, classroom environment:  This is the traditional training setup.  With this style of training, you drive to some facility to sit in a classroom with a bunch of people you may, or may not know, and tell war stories to each other all week.  .  All the while you hope the training facility has some good restaurants around it for lunch.  Instruction gets in the way of all the kibitzing, but you find that you actually learned a lot when the class is finished.

There are two variants of the Instructor Led, classroom environment type that are becoming very popular with the training providers.  They are:

a.      Instructor Led, classroom environment, equipment somewhere else and

b.     Instructor led, online environment, equipment somewhere else.

Self-paced:  This is where you download videos, watch slideware, and more often than not, find yourself bored almost to the point of falling asleep.  This type of instruction can be so boring that a class that normally takes 40 hours might take two months to complete.

Now you may not agree 100% with my definitions and that’s fine.  But for the sake of this post, just pretend to agree with me.

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A little over a year ago, I wrote about a Cisco UCS class that I took.  It was of the Instructor Led, classroom environment, equipment somewhere else variety.  One of my chief complaints about it was the lab environment and all the problems we had accessing it.  Well, my recent experience with an Instructor led, online environment, equipment somewhere else type class shows me that the access issues are still prevalent.

Not a day went by where we didn’t have problems with either the presentation tool or accessing the lab servers.  I can understand why training providers like the equipment somewhere else concept.  It means fewer dollars spent buying equipment.  It also means that you can get better utilization of the equipment that is purchased.  However, this introduces a dependency on remote access systems, your network, and the availability of folks in some equipment room/data center to troubleshoot when problems arise.  In my case, the requirement was for a perfect network.  Any slight hiccup and you got kicked out of the presentation software.  If you were unlucky enough to have this occur twice in one day, you were SOL.  The only fix was for the instructor to kick everyone out and reset the class.

I will say this though: my training partner learned a lot about communication tricks during our labs.  Towards the end of the second day of class, I got kicked out of the presentation software (which also acted as a softphone) and could not communicate with my lab partner.  Rather than having the instructor reset everyone, I just used various little tricks to send him messages.  Tricks such as changing the Message of the Day in vCenter, opening notepad on our vCenter server to write him messages, and using the old “Net send” command from a command prompt.  It worked, but was not very efficient.

Even if there were no technical difficulties, I can definitely say that I am not a fan of the Instructor led, online environment, equipment somewhere else delivery method.  More specifically, I am not a fan of the online environment component. I thrive on all the interaction that takes place in the classroom.  I typically learn more from the other students than I do from the instructor and official content. (As people are apt to say, nothing beats real world experience.)  With an online class, it is very hard to interact with the other students.  I can’t really describe it, but it’s hard to carry on conversations.  There are no facial cues; it’s hard to get people’s attention, etc.

I also missed out on the troubleshooting opportunities.  In a classroom environment, when someone has a problem, everyone will huddle around their screens and work together to solve the problem.  Not easy to do in an online class.

Unfortunately, I foresee even more training occurring online.  Why?  $$$.  It’s cheaper to have an employee sit at home or his/her office space than it is to send them to a physical classroom.  This becomes more evident if the class is held out of state.  I only hope that training providers get more resilient software and other infrastructure.  Otherwise we’ll have ended up going backwards.

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As for my second class, it was a self-paced network training program.  All I can say about this class was that it was extremely boring.  It was so boring that it took me almost two months to finish a 40hr class. The class was basically slideware that read itself to me.   One peculiar oddity to note: If I accidentally clicked “Next” before the audio completed, it would pick up physically where it left off from the previous slide on the new slide.  Huh?  Yes, if the audio was in the middle of a slide and I clicked “Next”, it would then proceed to read to me from the middle of the new slide.  It acted as if it was a screen scraper of some sort.  You won’t believe how happy I was when I found I could turn off the audio.

At that point, I turned into a speed reader and went at a more comfortable pace.  I think I finished about 30hrs of instruction (according to student guide) in about 10 hours.  It’s amazing how much that audio slows you down without adding value.  I think I learned more with the audio off than I did with it turned on.

Remember what I said up above about interacting with fellow students?  Well, forget about it with the self-paced model.   What really killed it for me was the inability to ask questions and get answers in a timely manner.  Yes, there was an “ask a question” link, but I had to wait up to 24hrs for a response.  What should I have done while waiting for a response?  Continue? Wait?  Talk about a momentum killer.

I also have to add that I thought the content was fairly light.  It seemed to have a fair amount of business driver/marketing type slides as opposed to technical information.  It was also fond of rehashing them.  While there is value in having this info, I would have preferred more technical related content.

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I know times are tough and everyone is looking for ways to save money.  But maybe we need to rethink how training is provided.  If the goal is to prepare the employee, then maybe saving a few bucks isn’t so cost effective.  While I personally feel that most training is overpriced (come on, $500+ per day for many classes), I don’t think saving a grand is worth it in the long run.  I wonder how much more effective I would be at my job if I got more out of the training classes?  Would it be worth that extra grand in two months?  How about three months?   Could the payback be even a month?  Think about it.

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Categories: Philosophy Tags: ,

Update on Cisco UCS Training

June 14, 2010 1 comment

Oops..meant to push this out last week.  Sorry for being late.

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I spent some time this morning talking with a representative from the training company about the UCS class that I took.   All-in-all, it was a positive discussion.  He explained to me the way vendor training works in terms of developing content, including what flexibility and restrictions are imposed upon the training providers.    Here’s what I came away with:

First off, the provider owned up to having wasted time in the labs via having us install operating systems.  They are going to look into the possibility of having the various operating systems pre-installed so that the labs go quicker/smoother.  It’s a 1.0 class so some kinks still have to be worked out.  Fair enough.

We also talked a fair bit about the connectivity problems.  I do agree with the provider that some of the issues may have been due to the wireless network of the hosting facility.  However, the instructor did tell us that the remote VPN had to be rebooted at least once for some of the problems to go away.     I am not sure how that would be the problem of the hosting facility’s network.  Either way, that is why I don’t like remote classes.   They add complexity to an already complex environment.

I should point out that the reason the class is delivered remotely is due to equipment costs.  I can understand that since a UCS setup can cost quite a bit.  The cost savings strength of  UCS occurs with growth (around 4 chassis), not initial acquisition.

I would like to clarify one item around connectivity.  Once the VPN issues were squared away, the lab equipment and labs worked.  Again, it was the VPN and related network items, that got in the way….on a daily basis…not the lab equipment and its setup.

My biggest gripe was with content.  The provider explained to me that Cisco provides the basic content package and that the training providers are given their flexibility in the labs.   I don’t know if this is 100% true or if I am caught in the middle of a he-said/she-said type debate.  Either way, I tend to believe the training provider on this.  I’ve taken many Microsoft classes over the years and they all are pretty much the same.  The only way that could be is if there was an overlord of some sort dictating content.    The flexibility in content comes from the discussion that should ensue after a topic is covered.  There wasn’t a whole lot of this going on and that was probably due to the newness of the product and the lack of product experience on part of the instructor.   It will probably be another year before instructors have enough hands-on experience with UCS in order to facilitate those extra discussions.  As for me, when something is new it is difficult to know which questions to ask so the war-stories that the instructor and fellow classmates bring are instrumental in my learning experience.

Content currency was another topic we discussed.  The provider mentioned that it is difficult to get content updated in a timely manner due to the requirement of receiving vendor approval.     Ouch.   Cisco UCS is a product that changes quarterly.  These new features have to make it into the curriculum somehow.

My last major point, briefly written about, was the lack of content regarding troubleshooting.  Regardless of who is responsible for developing the class, topics on troubleshooting are a requirement.  No ifs, ands, or buts.

So to summarize.  I’ll stick with my original premise that the class was a good overview, but not an in-depth technical class.  Given time, it will probably evolve into one though.   I’ll also stick to my premise that remote classes can be problematic.  I do want to give kudos to the training provider for contacting me and getting some direct feedback and taking action.  A quality organization thrives on customer feedback.

One final note:  I made a comment about the class being substandard.  In my opinion, the class was not up to my expectations and both the vendor and the provider own this one.    If Cisco is going to dictate content, then they better be responsive in keeping it current and in-depth.  The training provider is the one with the reputation on the line when people aren’t happy so it is in their best interest to keep the vendor on their toes.   When either one misses a beat, then everyone (vendor, provider, and customer) loses.

Customers should speak up more so that vendors and training providers can be more responsive in adjusting curriculum as products update/change.  If a class is not to your expectations, let the provider know.  Don’t just blithely fill out those feedback forms.  Be honest on them.  By doing so, everyone wins.

Categories: cisco, UCS Tags: , ,

The High and Lows of Cisco UCS Training

I recently took an official class on Cisco UCS and have a few observations I would like to share with you.

The high point:

First, the people – The class was mostly made up of  gov’t types like me, but there were some private sector folks too.  Swapped some good war stories, got some good tech info, and so on.

Second…second….second.., well there is no second (the section heading says “high point”, not “high points”)  I hate to say it, but this class was not good at all.   I would say a waste of time and money.   Here’s my reasons why:

We had already done so much research, seen a number of videos, read the manuals, etc that most of the content was not new and/or in depth enough.  I’d really like to say that it was because we did so much up front, but given that the class is supposed to be from 9am-5pm and the instructor says that he likes to start late and end real early tells you that there is spare time.

While on the topic of time wasting, one the things that made this class such a waste of time was the manner in which it was delivered.  Rather than have equipment on-site, the provider had us VPN into their remote facility to access the UCS systems.  Therein lies a problem: The VPN itself had a number of problems.  We easily spent at least one hour a day troubleshooting connectivity problems.  The problems varied from issues with the Active X control to the VPN appliance itself.  It really became annoying when the problems occurred in the middle of a lab.  If you were one of the unlucky ones, it meant starting the lab over from the beginning.

Also, the labs literally had us installing operating systems just so we could verify things such as booting from local disk and booting from SAN.  We easily burned over an hour doing this.  Maybe next time the disks can be pre-configured with bootable O/Ses so we don’t have to wast time installing them.

Another knock on the labs was that many of them seemed more intent on proving that a feature works than actually showing us how to use the features.  There were too many “Monkey Scripts” and not enough “figure it out yourself” type labs.  Come to think of it, they were all monkey scripts.  BTW, “monkey scripts ” is the term I use to describe step-by-step instructions that leave no room for thought because you follow the instructions to a T with no deviation.  So simple, even a monkey could succeed.

Let’s get back to content.  Can you believe this course had no chapters and labs on troubleshooting?  I have never taken a class that didn’t have at least some troubleshooting content.

Another knock on the content is that it wasn’t up-to-date.  If this were a Microsoft class I wouldn’t be so critical, but in this class where every firmware update brings new features, changes screen layouts, and such updated content is key.  We are going to be implementing a number of the Palo adapters, but they only got an honorable mention in the materials.  No labs on them whatsoever.  Granted, they have only been out three months or so, but again, this is one of those products that changes with every firmware revision.  Course content is going to have to stay current.

While I am it, here’s another knock on content – the entire last day of class was spent on the Nexus 1000v.  This means the lab had us installing and configuring ESX and the 1000v just so that we could see that it worked.  I fail to see the specific tie-in to UCS since the 1000v is pretty much universal to any server hardware.  Maybe the tie-in is the usage of VLANs…  So was this last bit just to make the class go a fifth day?  The instructor didn’t know why it was in there either.

The only redeeming value for the class is that it was a good overview.  If you have not had any exposure to UCS, then this class would be decent.  Maybe I am fussy, but I just expected more.

I talked to my Cisco rep this morning and she was appalled at what I told her.  Rightfully so.  Cisco is putting a lot of money and effort into this rollout.  I am pretty sure that when they signed up their training partners, substandard was not part of the deal.  We’ll see what happens.

Categories: cisco, UCS Tags: , ,