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Mon 16 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

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Head of the class

In the second part of a two-part series, NME talks to vendors about the skills training they offer in the Middle East, and the challenges they face when it comes to delivering quality training

In the second part of a two-part series, NME talks to vendors about the skills training they offer in the Middle East, and the adoption they are together with the challenges they face when it comes to delivering quality training.

Training is no longer an optional extra at the end of an IT managers budget, but instead a critical part of ensuring the future success of an enterprise. With new products, solutions and challenges coming to the fore almost daily a new breed of training vendors’ have emerged ready to meet the needs of the users head on.

One field that is seeing real traction in the Middle East is IT security, a number of vendors now offer a range of training products centred on equipping IT professionals with the tools to combat a range of internal and external attacks.

“We specialise in security and router based training, its imperative that people need to learn how to protect against malicious attacks. Hence we recommend our customers to get their staff trained adequately to ensure high availability of their networks,” says Ajay Singh Chauhan, CEO of Comguard and Spectrum.

We have a virtual training academy which we will be investing more time and effort into. The regional sprawl sometimes means that travelling can be difficult and prohibitive. The virtual academy allows us to put an online lecturer in place.

Samer Omar, general manager of security and training solution provider I(TS)2 is another training vendor who has seen the demand for security training grow throughout the Middle East.

“Our regional focus is squarely on IT security. We developed this track because one of the big challenges we have heard from users over the past seven years is that they did not have a path to achieve their information security needs or career goals,” explains Omar.

A number of training courses are a direct result of having to equip customers with the skills that specific products require.

“We are both the regional Red Hat distributor as well as education centre. To put it into the context and from a user point of view it’s the equivalent of being trained by Red Hat, we use Red Hat course materials and Red Hat certified trainers,” says David Allinson, general manager MEA for Opennet.

Fast Lane computer consultancy offers support training for a number of major product suites. “Our training is concentrated on serving the networking industry and so we offer certifications for Cisco, IronPort and NetApps, these range from entry level to expert level,” comments Josef Miskulnig, managing director of Fast Lane.

Courses for horses

Although IT courses around the world tend to be fairly generic, many regional users have emphasised the need for skills training that takes into account the unique environment and circumstances that they operate under in the Middle East.

“We do offer customised training courses in addition to our regular courses as we have found that there are elements that are more important here, because there are less mature skills in the region,” says Jeff Ogden, senior director, Symantec Consulting Services.

Omar and I(TS)2 found the same lack of maturity when it came to offering its highest level information security training. “When we first began we discovered that the fundamental courses were missing here and even a little advanced for the maturity of the ME market. So we developed our own courses in which we offered a more suitable range of introductory courses to help educate them and set the stage for the more advanced courses.”

Catering for Arabic speakers in the region is another area in which training academies have had to take particular care. “We do not change the material as such but we have a trainer who speaks Arabic and can tailor the programme verbally,” says Judhi Prasetyo, regional channel manager, Fortinet.“We try and provide multi-lingual trainers on our courses so that there are means to explain the literature. In terms of other changes we will tailor the training lengths to meet the business needs instead of keeping critical staff tied up for extended periods of time,” affirms Ahmed Baig, security consulting manager at eHosting DataFort. Forthcoming attractions

Just as the regional IT markets and technology solutions evolve, so do the training needs change – so what new skills will be required to manage IT in the coming year, and how will the providers deliver them?

“We have a virtual training academy which we will be investing more time and effort into. The regional sprawl sometimes means that travelling can be difficult and prohibitive. The virtual academy allows us to put an online lecturer in place and then enable individuals to come in and take that course. We have seen that the idea has been growing in popularity recently,” enthuses Symantec’s Ogden.

Essentially you need to relate everything derived from education and training back to the business in terms of what the business is trying to achieve. Clearly if you a have a well trained operator in the IT department then you will drive better customer satisfaction from the users, drive higher availability and operate more efficiently.

The current economic situation has presented many IT professionals with a set of fresh obstacles which trainers are looking to assist with.

EHDF’s Baig says “We will be focusing more on the arena of IT services management because at this time of crisis everyone wants to do the best with the least. Improving efficiency and cost savings is something that is on everyone’s mind right now.”

“We will be training people cross functionally and in this way reduce the amount of staff required and save costs. In addition, by training staff cross-functionally you actually build improved business continuity,” he explains.

“Technology develops rapidly and so we will add a number of new courses as well as updating the new technology versions of existing courses. All modalities are included in this process,” notes Ghassan El Haj, business development manager for Learning Services at Sun MENA. Making the right choice

With so many training academies and courses available to users it can prove puzzling to sort the also-rans from the real deal.

“I would advise anyone interested in selecting a training academy to look at a few key elements. Firstly see if the courses have a reputation for quality and relevance, then take a look at the curriculum to make sure its modular and aligned with industry needs and finally try and get an idea regarding the background of the trainers,” recommends Omar of I(TS)2.

EHDF’S Baig splits the selection process into two aspects. “As an end-user there are two reasons you are looking to be trained. One is because you have the need within the organisation and the other is for personal development. If it’s an organisational need then the user should look at what is required and then identify what the skills are that need to be developed and then look for training,” says Baig.

“I think the thing is, where does the training centre stand with the vendor? Does the vendor stand behind that training centre and then look at the vendors programme and how vigorously the program is policed? Maybe also look at the number of people that have been trained and what sort of references they can offer,” remarks Allison.

Horror stories abound regarding enterprises who have used a specific training academy or provider only to find expectations unmet. On the flip side however training vendors find that there are specific challenges when it comes to offering quality training in the Middle East.“Our biggest challenge is the pricing, and getting end-users to understand the difference between accredited and authorised training in comparison to the cheap, unauthorised grey market training out there,” says Fast Lane’s Miskulnig.

Omar too finds financial constraints to be a headache in the training arena. “The financial implications are very difficult to justify as a vendor. The cost is very expensive and the only way you can achieve the financial returns you need to is to average 12-15 students in these courses.”

“An even more pressing challenge to continuing to deliver quality training will emerge if more companies do not start to align their IT security training habits with what their needs are so that vendors can continue to provide innovative and interesting courses,” he continues.

Skills training means employees are trained and experienced to fully utilise the investment made in IT infrastructure. Cost savings are an added advantage, as down-time and overall total cost of ownership is reduced. In addition a trained workforce is more confident and motivated to do the job right.

Chauhan of Comguard and Spectrum says, “We face challenges in retaining high quality trainers and sustaining the standards that we have set for ourselves. We have to budget several factors like upgrading our infrastructure, like lab facilities, and ever increasing rents. Foremost our strategy is to find ways to remain competitive in the market place without losing out on quality.” What’s in it for you?

Given all the obstacles that users might face when it comes to procuring quality skills training adoption rates are on the rise across the regions with the advantages out weighing the negatives.

“Essentially you need to relate everything derived from education and training back to the business in terms of what the business is trying to achieve. Clearly if you a have a well trained operator in the IT department then you will drive better customer satisfaction from the users, drive higher availability and subsequantly operate more efficiently,” asserts Symantec’s Ogden.

“Skills training means employees are trained and experienced to fully utilise the investment made in IT infrastructure. Cost savings is an added advantage, as down-time and overall total cost of ownership is reduced. In addition you will find that a trained workforce is more confident and motivated to do the job right,” explains Miskulnig.

As skills have become more important and the advantages of having a well-educated and equipped workforce becomes more apparent the adoption of training as an imperative part of the organisation has seen a noticable increase in traction.

“I started in the region as a trainer 11 years ago and in this time I have seen adoption taking off in this period. Many organisations now set aside a mandatory amount of training days per employee over the course of a year which must be fulfilled,” says Baig.

Omar has seen a definite increase in the call for training in the region. “We have seen adoption of skills training on the increase across the region as IT professionals and enterprises both see the value it can add. There is a renewed level of interest on the part of the employees who want to enhance their careers and achieve job security while for the organisation there is a direct correlation between the skills and capabilities of information security training and the reduction of risk,” he says.

“It is definitely growing and we have seen five quarters of growth around our education services. We have even been in the position of having to take classrooms from other organisations to meet the demand,” Ogden says.

Allinson has also seen the progression in thinking. “I think it’s embraced. Often times in the early stages of any technology people will try and get by and push back on the vendor when they can’t do things but we are talking about a technology people are running their businesses on. What users have realised is that the consequences of not having trained staff to look after the applications is to much to contemplate,” says Allinson.

Training is simply a non-negotiable in an IT environment which is constantly evolving and posing fresh challenges for enterprises each day. Equipping staff with the right skills sets and tools is a critical issue for enterprises. They should commit to working in tandem with the regions top training providers to prepare for a future that promises to offer great rewards to those who are most skilled and best prepared.

What to look for when choosing

1. References:Speak to other users who have worked with the provider and make sure feedback is positive and genuine.

2. Relevance:Does the course offered meet the business needs or is it simply a certification that looks good hanging on a wall?

3. Trainers:It is critical to assess the background of the trainers and see if they have any experience in the field they are teaching.

4. Vendor relationship:Does the academy have accreditation from the vendor of the product that they are offering training in?

5. Assessment:The user needs to determine just what the business needs are before selecting the appropriate training programme.

6. Personal growth:The training should assist the employee in enhancing his business value as well as personal qualifications.

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