Instructor-Led Training

by Marty Ferguson

I was recently talking with a close friend who works as a systems software developer for a small startup technology company. The architects are planning a transition to Linux servers as their platform, but the company does not want to provide Linux training for their staff. When I asked why, he replied, “It's too expensive.” Even though the OS license is free, the documentation is free, and the source code is free, this company was overlooking an important factor: the costs of inadequate training can far exceed the costs of educating staff.

Networked systems in the workplace continue to grow and expand. As an example, the current growth rate of the Internet is a factor of two every eight months. Linux is considered by many to be the most powerful and versatile network operating system to arrive on the scene in recent years. Due to its power and flexibility, its rate of deployment is also growing rapidly. More and more organizations are turning to Linux as a low-cost, reliable and increasingly supported network-computing platform for a variety of business and Internet applications.

As businesses strive to keep up with this fast-paced network development, their employees need to experience a parallel growth in skills for optimum job performance. Unfortunately, it's common for organizations to bring in training providers only after the need becomes evident—almost as an afterthought. This makeshift method of training prevents adequate planning for anticipated time and financial investments. And “reactive” vs. “proactive” training programs are a sure-fire way to knock off any company's competitive edge.

A Linux training solution that is designed to grow along with an organization brings benefits that can permeate operations across the board. Sufficient education ensures that senior administrators are not overwhelmed with on-the-job training, encourages employees to stay on for the long term, reduces the likelihood of emergencies and strengthens employees' ability to deal with a crisis.

Reviewing the Basics of Linux Training

Employees who can benefit from Linux training range from NT administrators with little or no Linux command-line experience to experienced UNIX systems administrators with a broad background in heterogeneous environments.

When introducing or expanding the use of Linux into an organization, the phases of deployment must be dovetailed with a training plan. Clearly, the first training phase should be aimed at decision makers and system administrators. Key administrators and IT managers often attend training sessions together, working and learning as a team. The next phase involves a pilot program, with Linux installed in isolated situations. As the Linux system is implemented throughout the organization, the scope of training broadens to include system developers, content and media professionals and other users. Finally, ongoing training is used to refresh knowledge and ramp up employees new to their organization.

Every Linux distribution is based on the GNU (open-source software that functions as UNIX but is not UNIX) tools and shells, and the installed systems are frequently referred to as GNU/Linux platforms. Since the power and flexibility afforded by Linux begins at the command line, the first level of training should begin with the Bourne Again Shell (bash) along with GNU utilities. The second level of training should address installation of a GNU/Linux distribution, including the best techniques for planning and executing the installation. The third training level should instruct students in the configuration and maintenance of freely distributed software services and daemons running under Linux, along with security and lock-down practices.

Preparing for the Training Process

During the training cycle, system administrators will be unavailable for their regular duties. Larger organizations often arrange for on-site delivery of the courses. On-site training, where education providers bring the “classroom” directly to a company location, can reduce expenses such as travel costs and also reduce employees' training time obligations.

Providing sufficient operations support for available staff is critical to a successful training plan. Whether courses are held on or off site, students must be relieved of work responsibilities (or on-call status). If a student remains in the classroom while attempting to provide ad-hoc hotline support for an operational crisis, it's a lose/lose situation. The student is unable to focus sufficiently on both the training and the crisis support—the value of training is lost, and the quality of support is marginal. Students must mentally and physically detach to immerse themselves in classroom experience to maximize the return on the educational investment.

Reaping the Benefits of Linux Training

The payback for instituting a well-planned instructor-led Linux training program is both progressive and far-reaching. The following are areas where an organization can expect to find substantial benefits as a direct result of successful Linux training.

Acquiring Linux Fluency

The GNU/Linux culture is inherited from the various flavors of UNIX. The evolution of Linux that occurred during the 1990s mirrors that of UNIX during the 1970s and 80s. Due to the nature of the GNU General Public License, the open-software culture and peer-review process have created an evolution that provides universal accessibility to computer professionals and power users alike.

The legacy culture of Linux makes an understanding of the roots of UNIX and the nature of free software critical. Gaining Linux fluency allows new users and administrators to strengthen their abilities to communicate with seasoned veterans of the Linux environment. Learning about basic Linux resources, the structure of a typical distribution, the wealth of contributed documentation available and the philosophies of the system's design all work to jump-start Linux fluency.

Easing the Way for Linux Administrators

In larger organizations, senior administrators often provide on-the-job training for their staff. But the senior administrators' most critical role lies in planning for growth and evolution of the network of systems for which they're responsible.

When Linux instruction is provided in a classroom setting, students can dedicate time to intensive, hands-on training that achieves a well-rounded knowledge base faster and more effectively. Additional one-on-one training and mentoring—aimed specifically at the needs of the organization's workplace—is a better investment of senior administrators' time.

Learning That You Don't Know What You Don't Know

For both users and administrators, the scope of the tools and facilities available under GNU/Linux systems is enormous. When approached with “how do I...” questions, veteran administrators often respond with “Well, that depends.” With a GNU/Linux-based training solution, a wide arsenal of methods can be taught to solve potential or actual problems in many different ways.

A holistic classroom approach, which includes lectures, labs and a hands-on interactive learning environment, allows students to be rapidly exposed to methods, tools and techniques they otherwise may not discover for months. It is not uncommon to hear a student exclaim, “I never really understood how that worked!” or “What I just learned in that last session alone made it worth being here this week!”

The instructor-led setting allows students to pose questions and explore many aspects of conventional approaches to Linux-based solutions. Students interact with one another and discover how others have addressed similar configuration and maintenance issues in the past. This “shared” learning environment enables students to benefit from the experiences and discoveries of fellow learners and instructors.

Linux training programs should provide each student with access to a Linux system during hands-on labs. The labs speed the process from learning the basics to putting the knowledge to work, and support different learning styles among the students.

Managing Employee Retention and Growth

To avoid being overwhelmed by the rapid growth in today's networking systems, Linux users and administrators need to receive training that enables them to stay ahead of the curve. The combination of accelerated technologies and inadequate training is a setup for failure; staff members become frustrated and often begin to look at new opportunities for professional growth.

Furthermore, training is often perceived by employees to be a reward or a job perk. By providing a proactive training and development program, employers demonstrate that they value their employees and both parties feel there is something at stake in the continued employee-employer relationship.

Regarding training, there is a paradox that some organizations are afraid of: if they offer top-notch training, employees may eventually take their enhanced skills elsewhere. In fact, employees are far more likely to remain in an environment where they can grow their skills and develop their careers. Since employee recruitment has become so competitive, many employers seek opportunities to train and promote from within. Employees have ample prospects for advancement, while employers fill staffing needs without paying relocation fees, signing bonuses and other recruitment expenses.

Achieving Diversity through Cross-Training

Providing cross-training for employees who maintain a specific job focus reduces operation risks by enabling staff members to deploy contingency plans smoothly and rapidly. For example, an administrator who maintains an NT or Novell server can be cross-trained in Linux. When the inevitable human resources crunch occurs, the workload can be easily redistributed. If a staff member is out for a work emergency or due to a personal crisis, another can step in and help fill the role. Diagnosing a problem over a long-distance connection to someone who doesn't know the first thing about the bash interactive shell can be a frustrating experience at best and can lead to potentially greater catastrophes than the initial problem.

Distributing knowledge and skills to employees through cross-training also provides staff with a better understanding of multiple problem and solution domains available in their networked computing environment. By providing cross training of Linux skills to staff members who are responsible for other systems (such as NT or Novell), the collective of knowledge can assure the very best overall practices are employed. By the same token, appropriate NT systems training for staff members who are primarily focused on Linux will lend them understanding of how best to leverage the strengths and weaknesses of each operating system environment.

Increasing System Security and Reducing Risks

In today's high-speed networked computing environment, both inadvertent damage and malicious attacks can cripple a system in the blink of an eye. Damage recovery is a painfully slow and meticulous process. Data is almost never completely restored, and the time devoted to system recovery has net-zero productivity.

With proper training and planning, however, preventive measures can be taken to avoid risks and speed recovery in event of a breach. Knowledge of how best to protect the system through management of permissions and system services allows the administrator to maintain tight system control, while determining allowable access. Initial planning for system installation will accommodate the most-favored backup strategies within the organization.

Considering the Costs of Inadequate Training

The costs associated with Linux-based training are easily determined. It's far more difficult to ascertain the tangible and intangible costs of not investing in training. The backlash of not instituting an educational program can include reduced staff productivity and the loss of potential employee innovation and creativity. And the company's customers are another critical factor; clients depend on a networking organization for high-end technical knowledge and service. It just takes one slip to lose credibility, and perhaps business as well.

Finally, lack of adequate training could pave the way to security risks. Linux has become a big player on-line, and its growing popularity has led to an ever-expanding threat of potential damage from hackers. With sufficient knowledge of the Linux operating system, employees know which features or unused services to disable to ensure site protection.

The costs of inadequate training can be either obvious or subtle, but they trickle down through most phases of operations. Solid training allows a diverse staff to play from the same sheet of music, and the advantages are equal for both direct employees and paid consultants. In the final analysis, providing an ongoing education program for employees is the most important networking an organization can do.

Marty Ferguson is a Linux instructor with Global Knowledge Network, a worldwide IT training provider headquartered in Burlington, Mass. He has consulted with numerous Fortune 500 companies regarding Linux training and is a co-founder of APEX Integration Systems, a North Carolina-based company that builds turn-key Linux systems to meet specific customer applications. He can be reached at marty.ferguson@pobox.com.
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