Gaining skills faster

There is a great way of getting advanced certification training in the city of choice: using video collaboration technology to broadcast a live classroom to remote students.

In the channel, vendors invest in partners, and partners invest in vendors, while customers invest in both. Maintaining customer trust means ensuring partners have the right technical skills and depth of experience with vendor solutions, among other things.

Quality technical training is expensive, but presents a margin opportunity to training providers, says Matthew Barker, country manager for Sub-Saharan Africa at Aruba Networks.

“We need the channel. We’ve made the decision at Aruba to be completely indirect, to the point that we won’t even do professional services,” he says. He is building the company’s local channel after stints at CA and, most recently, NetApp.

“We’ve even outsourced our training to partners to make sure they can make profit off us from a training perspective. Margins are under pressure for everybody.

“Products don’t deliver the type of revenue they used to 20 to 30 years ago when there wasn’t so much competition. Now resellers invest heavily in technical skills. But if you as a vendor compete against partners for professional services, you take even more away from them.

“In my view, it’s better to look at the channel and say, ‘If I can get partners to invest, they can make the money back while I get the benefit of not carrying the extra staff’.”

While technical training and certification is important, Barker regards that as the start of the skills journey.

“After that [certification], it is up to the partner to gain true training, as in real-world experience.”

It’s easier to guide partners to that training when building a new channel, admits Barker.

“I have a small channel, I know who my and key channel partners are, and know the individuals in the organisation. I’ve encouraged our pre-sales, technical team and architect to have personal relationships with the partners and guide them.

“As an organisation, we have a technical guy dedicated to channel development. He knows everyone who’s certified, everyone in training, and everyone who needs to certify. He works with their management teams and the individuals.”

For very advanced break-fix training, Barker arranges real-world exams for vendors.

“We get on the road, where we have physical exam certifications. I fly out a top engineer from Europe, and he manually tests the guy on our equipment. That costs a substantial amount.”

Global interaction

For real-world practical training and exams, the trainer will always have to be there in person. However, there are relatively few excellent trainers for advanced technology globally, and an increasing number of new and changed products. Add the perennial bug-bear of only a few people in a region needing advanced training at one time in one place, and such classes tend to get postponed or cancelled more often than not.

Cisco certified training partner NIL Learning Services approaches this challenge with several video-linked classrooms in MEA time zones.

Two classrooms in Europe, two in Turkey, one in Johannesburg and another soon-to-belaunched in Lagos, Nigeria, means NIL can run an international class with only one or two people in each region, rather than postponing it, says Karen Sharpe, local learning services manager at NIL.

Remote students see two large screens at the front of their classroom. One shows the instructor and a full view of the whiteboard, the other a slideshow. Meanwhile, the instructor sees the virtual student on a screen and can respond to his questions as if the student is in the room. The trainer can see the remote student’s desktop screen and provide full support for lab exercises.

The NIL virtual classrooms were set up using Cisco Tandberg technology, says Sharpe.

Linking up training delegates to their international peers with virtual classes has a number of advantages, but a leading local training provider has opted for a more in-country footprint instead.

At their two remote classrooms in Cape Town and Durban, a student should get exactly the same experience as in the Johannesburg video broadcast classroom where the instructor can walk around and help you, says Pieter Nel, customer relationship executive at Bytes People Solutions.

“There are only two things you can’t do to the instructor at Cape Town and Durban. You can’t shake his hand in the morning, and you can’t join him for lunch,” says Nel.

At the Durban and Cape Town remote branches, two big screens take up the front of the classrooms. On one screen appears the trainer, or it can be split to show the trainer and a branch’s delegates. On the other screen appears the trainer’s smart whiteboard, showing what he is demonstrating. Each delegate has their own computer to carry out training exercises.

When a delegate in Cape Town or Durban asks a question, the Johannesburg instructor can let the others see that person. The instructor can see the Durban and Cape Town delegates and what they’re busy with on their individual computer screens, and can ‘take over’ a delegate’s computer, move the mouse and show him what needs to be done.

Polycom video collaboration equipment is used at all the classrooms.

“What we’re not planning at this point is for delegates to get trained from their homes, the only reason being that you need guaranteed bandwidth to do that,” says Nel.

The biggest operating cost for the classrooms is the bandwidth, he says, but they’d rather pay for something reliable.

Delegates can complete both training and certification exam-writing in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, for any test offered by global exam providers Prometric and Pearson Vue.

“Certification is vital for us,” says Nel.

Instructor-led training is key in gaining technology certifications as quickly as possible. Although the cost of bandwidth and stability of connections in South Africa is still a painful operating consideration for training providers, instructor-led training can now be scheduled with a far better chance of it happening when it should.

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