Guest blogger Simon Davis, IT Manager Advisory Council, discusses the challenges involved in keeping up with new products, technologies and partner requirements

Guest blogger Simon Davis, IT Manager Advisory Council, discusses the challenges involved in keeping up with new products, technologies and partner requirements

Deborah Grauer (Microsoft)

This is the third in a series of blog posts authored by members of the IT Manager Advisory Council. We've asked them to share their insights and opinions on topics they are passionate about related to hiring & managing employees, and maintaining skills on their teams.  If you agree or disagree and have a different perspective - chime in and contribute your views.  

Keeping up with the times


Goalposts, they never move, right?  Well, if you’re a professional athlete they don’t, you go out on the pitch and there they are at either end, waiting for you to score. In the IT industry however, as most of you are aware, they move all the time and that, my friends, is where the problems start.
 

My name is Simon Davis, I work for a smallish company called Remsdaq in the UK and I think it’s fair to say that as a manager of a small team of developers, one of the biggest challenges that I face is keeping on schedule when requirements are changing and money is tight. So when NumberOfHoursWork > NumberOfHoursToDeadline, we have to battle through with what we have, hoping that the team will pull through to meet the deadlines, whilst still keeping everyone happy and not damaging or destroying relationships!
 

We manage -- just -- but remember those goal posts? More and more I’m finding that we, as a team, are falling behind with our knowledge of the "new stuff," products and technologies that we could be using, products and technologies that we should be using -- from WPF through to the Entity Framework with a liberal scattering of SQL Server in between. I have developers who have dabbled, but not much more, and certainly not enough to consider for mainstream development.
 

We have further pressure this year caused by the changing requirements of the MS Partner Network. Remsdaq is currently a Gold partner holding both ISV and Custom Software competencies. Now, in order to retain this level of "recognition," we need to master the advanced versions of the new competencies. Easy you may say, not so easy I say, due primarily to the additional certified developer requirements.
 

What this means to me is that by May 2011, I need to have 2 more  of my development team MCPD certified, that’s 3 exams/certifications that need to be passed per developer all whilst maintaining a tight development schedule.
 

So how do I go about addressing these problems? This is a discussion that I have had on a number of occasions with my line manager.  We have considered introducing "personal development days," time set aside in the development schedule to allow a developer to learn about the new technologies and prepare for certification exams.  Whilst a great idea on paper, this was vetoed by a higher level, primarily because of costs. Two days a month doesn’t sound like much until you start to add up the cost over a year (2*12*8=192 days in a 12-month period) that’s virtually the same as taking a developer out of the team for the year.
 

We have previously had success with the carrot approach. Taking advantage of the exam facilities at TechEd NA allowed us to dangle "A week in Orlando, Florida at a Microsoft Conference" to a couple of developers with the proviso that they must prepare for the exams in their own time prior to the event. This worked; it got us the certified developers that we needed for our Gold Partner status, but I wouldn’t recommend it as the pressures it put on the developers concerned were too great.
 

Hmmm, where next?
 

In terms of training, I'll flag it as a critical requirement after our next release. We will identify a Microsoft Learning Partner that can come up with a custom course covering the materials that we require and deliver it at our offices. This has worked well before and although disruptive in terms of losing the entire team for a week, it provides excellent value for the money and a big hit of knowledge impartation.  (Here's the link to find a certified learning partner, if you want it)
 

Certification? I really don’t know. By hook or by crook we need those certified developers. So, we may end up with the boot camp approach where we select the “most likely to succeed” developers and send them to one of these courses where they learn for a number of days and take the exam.  This seems like a good option for us because it's intense, then it's done.
 

I’m sure that there are many of you out there in a similar position with one or more training, knowledge, or certification requirements for your team and I would love to hear how you have tackled these issues.

·         How have you been successful in keeping your team’s knowledge up to date?

·         What are you thinking about trying next?  

·         How have you coped with time lost to training?

·         Any creative ideas about how to balance training needs with the extra workload for your staff?

Thanks for reading

/SiD

 

Comments
  • Pete Jones
    |

    I guess it all depends on how much you want the Gold competencies, how much you like your employees, and how much you are willing to spend.

    One place I used to contract at would make a point of writing in to every employee's contract that they had to achieve their MCSE within the first six months of joining. But they provided no guidance, no incentives, no help. And so after six months of trying to work 40 hour weeks, study at night and weekends, the employee would be burned out. They often had just 4 of the exams needed out of 7, but done in such an order that they didn't have the MCSA either. Several quit because they were that exhausted.

    Some people enjoy getting certified because they like learning, they like playing with the new technologies and they understand that certification is good for their career. Others just want to do the job they have now, and go home. Most will lie in the middle of these two extremes.

    Whilst some people will be happy to study on their own time, most will feel they have better things to do after a day at work. Indeed, the popular view of MS certification (at least in the UK) is that most will only do it between jobs/contracts, or if they are looking for a promotion or new job. Otherwise, the employer has to provide time and resources during the working day.

    One suggestion is to allow users access to a sandbox environment where they can experiment with the product with no risk. The ability to use any free time at work for hands-on learning makes a big difference. Allow people to remote in from home so they can experiment with that idea they had whilst doing the washing-up.

    Other than that, providing the training and incentives during work time is really the only option. Don't forget the certification packs for Partners. Reducing or eliminating the expense for the worker is another way to help them feel less of the stress mandatory certification can bring.

  • Anonymous
    |

    Thanks for the feedback Peter, it's interesting to hear from others in a similar position.  I think that i am quite fortunate in having a team that predominantly enjoy playing with the new technologies and can see the benefits certification can bring and would certainly be picking up the bill for the exams and associated preparation materials.  I'm interested to hear more on the "popular UK view on certification".

    Regards,

    /SiD

  • Anonymous
    |

    Hmm, let me be devil's advocate here, but the certification should prove someone's competence of the technology and thus, ideally ;-), someone should be able to schedule an exam and pass it "just like that" because they already know the stuff. In other words, your problem is not a lack of certifications but lack of skills/training (something that you hint at the beginning of your post). Therefore, if you look at the problem as the need for continuous improvement, and thus look and prepare for it longer term, you would not have that rush to certify.

    Furthermore, while I understand the incentive that the Microsoft Partner program represent, that should not be the primary reason to certify. The technology field is fascinating because one continuously has to learn (as an independent MCT, I often say that my success depends on knowing stuff six months before my customers...). Certification is therefore just a measurement (if only to oneself) that we are up to speed and a great benchmarking of ourselves.

    Finally, you are looking at this as if it was solely your responsibility to get your developers certified. It seems to me that they are as much if not more responsible. But are they incented toward it (besides a trip to a Tech-Ed)? Will being certified mean anything to their lives? Your company is certain to benefit greatly from the new competency: Will they have an (important) share of that benefit? Is that something that is clearly understood by your staff? That those that stay current on new technologies and their certifications will be on the fast track for advancement, be guaranteed the most interesting projects and raises?

    It is Microsoft Certification's little dark secret that those that are the most current on certifications and skills are often independents or in small partnerships where they share a large portion of the revenue from their contracts. Try to set up an environment where your staff consider themselves as partners and directly responsible for their careers and success.

    Best regards.

  • Pete Jones
    |

    Re: popular UK view.

    Background: Contracting for 3 years, IT for 12.

    When I was a permanent employee, I had a single MCP, 70-270. It took me another year before I did any more. Why? I was working. I didn't need any credentials since I wasn't looking for a job.

    And so it goes for most people in the UK. Certification is seen as something necessary to get a new job, whether with the same company or a different one. I have spoken to hundreds of people about this in recent years (one aspect of my work involves the hiring processes for permanent IT staff) and this is the prevailing mentality. The only time most people seek certification of their skills is when they are in the job market. Still I am no different in this, but instead of a gap of 3-5 years between certification binges, it is now every three to six months. Short contracts provide me with both the gaps to study, and the need to show I have the latest skills.

    I'm in the Partner program, and pursue Competencies along with my associate. But even when we have constructed the certification batches (680+640+642+643+646+647 for him, 638+662+663 for me), they only get worked on when we are not engaged in a contract. A friend of mine was employed for 11 years, working with new tech as it came along. He is very experienced with it all, but certified on none. Why? "I was working, I just didn't have the time or the energy to get certified."

    Now he is unemployed he has the time, and is working on certification. And this is the common way in the UK. When I question gaps on the CV, I frequently hear "that's when I did my MCSE/CCNA." If I ask "you have a lot of experience here, did you ever think about getting any certifications?" the response is invariably "I did, but didn't have the time/money/energy to do it."

    So with the suggestion of Marc to provide some incentive to get certified, I would say you also need to provide some respite from work so they can study.

    To Marc, I would say that study is needed to fill in gaps in knowledge, and to correct any bad habits or mistakes learned whilst "in the field". Very few people have the luxury of being able to use anything in a pristine, by-the-book environment.

  • Anonymous
    |

    Marc, i agree with you that the certification should prove someones competence of the technology, the problem is that at the moment, certainly from the developer exams point of view, they don't. To be brutally honest, they are proving that a candidate has good skills of recall, not real world experience and knowledge of how to apply their skills.

    The broad coverage of the skills in the developer exams mean that the likelihood of someone having exposure to all the elements in the normal run of their job is unlikely especially when you move to larger teams where you have developers "specializing" in areas such as UI, data layers, web services, deployment etc. Does this make them less valuable to me? not really, does it affect the quality of the product that we produce, not really, but what it does make them is less certifiable.  

    Putting aside the benefits of certification and who stands to gain the most (definitely the company IMHO), i think what is bugging me more is the stronger link that is being introduced between the partner network membership and certifications, but that is a discussion for another day/forum!!

    I will certainly be trying to encourage my team to prove to themselves that they are capable of using the tools of their trade and getting certified, whether they take up my challenge, we shall have to see.  .

    Thanks for the feedback, and watch this space.

  • Anonymous
    |

    Pete, that's great information, and i would agree with you that providing the time for the team to study is important, the challenge i face is striking a balance between giving them that time and maintaining product development.

  • Pete Jones
    |

    Re: the stronger link between Partner program and Certifications, you are right. But really that is something that was missing from the previous iteration of the program. IIRC, 70% in the program were Gold partners, which makes it much less of an "elite" status.

    Now it is much harder to get a Gold competency, so that part has been corrected. The link with the number of certified people is also about right, and probably the best way to achieve all this.

    What is missing are the Virtualised exam scenarios to replace the oh-so-very-braindumpable multiple choice exams. It might take more time to create each exam, and have a higher overall cost, but it would give proper meaning to the certification process again.

  • Andrew
    |

    Hi all,

    Great post.  I can see many of the arguments raised above and agree with most of them  I would like to raise the following observations:

    If a Gold partner cannot afford to train and certify its staff (and if staff are not personally motivated, or incentivised) then there must be something inherently "wrong" with the Gold partner, not the program.

    Gold partners by all accounts should be making a good ROI on their staff and because of the status of being a Gold partner otherwise why else be a Gold partner?  Surely the status and *free* licensing given to these partners is not the *only* reason to be a partner?

    A partner should readily be able to assess clearly the benefits of their status - such as license savings, referral business, repeat business etc.

    If being a gold partner is not working out for a company, then they can easily drop the gold badge (and get it back later if they miss the status...)

    If being a Gold partner works, then hop on the Microsoft merry-go-round and they will need to certify.  Certification for partners is not new, all partners always had to have *some* MCPs.  All that seems to have changed now is that the MCPs are linked to the competencies earned, and they made the qualifications time related.  

    In my opinion this is a great move forward, but one which will hurt many partners during the transition period.

    Going forward, recruitment of staff who actually have attained the qualifications already, or staff who are motivated to achieve them will be more apparent and this is good news IMHO.

    @Pete the virtualised exams were great, but earlier this year when they were available they were not fit for purpose.  Certainly not ready for a worldwide release.  I managed a test center who "processed" 15 of these exams over a 1 month period (Server 2008 AD TS)  and 8 of them bombed out leaving the test takers very upset.  Thankfully the exam got taken off the program indefinitely - at least until they are ready for public release.  

    Regards

    Andrew

  • Simon Davis
    |

    @Andrew  Some great feedback there. Personally, I think the real  question that Microsoft and their Partners need to ask themselves is whether the Gold Partner status shows that you are going to be getting a quality product or whether it shows that they are producing a high level of revenue for MS.  These do not necessarily equate to the same thing.

    In terms of future recruitment, i think you are right, I will certainly be looking harder at what certifications potential candidates are bringing to the table when it comes to new hire.

    I'd heard some bad things about the suitability of the virtualised exams in terms of stability, but nothing but praise for what they are trying to achieve.

  • Pete Jones
    |

    @Andrew:

    Absolutely. The concept of the virtualised exams is exactly what is needed. But it needs to be executed properly for this to happen. It would be good to see the aborted launch of 83-640 publicly dissected and learn what went wrong. Test Centre machines not powerful enough? Prometric infrastructure ill-equipped for the (assumed) increased load? Microsoft processing of exam results flawed?

    If it is possible to do things like this blogs.technet.com/.../hands-on-labs-at-teched-virtualization-at-work.aspx with kit you can fit in a minivan, what went so wrong with 83-640?

    I have scratched out some designs back-of-envelope style, and they seem simple enough to do. Handful of VM machines the candidate can access, full permissions a la Domain Admin. One VM "hidden" that has full access to all the others, and cannot be revoked by the candidate. This VM runs scripts that determine if the machines are in a "fixed" state. Web access on the IIS servers, mail access and routing on Exchange boxes, etc.

    The good thing would be that the candidate can see as much or as little of the scripted process as you want. The scripts can't be run until the test is marked as "Completed", and when run could display realtime comments such as "Testing Port 80 on IIS01, Sending Mail on EX01, Receiving Mail on EX02, Getting Service State of SQL Server Reporting Services". The benefit would be that (a) the tester would see the marking system was running and not crashed in the background (b) would be in a better position to know whether to dispute a result.