Training, as in many parts of British industry, has been a thorny problem in the computing industry for some time. For instance, there was a time when being a Novell Certified Network Engineer (CNE) was not a prerequisite for getting a good network administrator's job because the qualification could be obtained from class-based courses that bore little resemblance to what happens in the real world.
Indeed, in the days of NetWare 2.x, if you'd installed more than a couple of reasonable-sized network servers, client workstations and been able to configure print servers then you probably knew more about the workings of Novell's august network operating system than the CNEs who were around at the time. However, things change and today's networks, whether run under Novell's latest incarnation - IntranetWare - or the upcoming NT 4 Server are complex beasts and require knowledge well beyond what was passable even two or three years ago.
Server vendors have gone a long way towards making LAN administrators' lives easier with slicker install routines and bundled self-loading goodies, but this is only half the story. Once you start configuring server and applications software, set up TCP/IP, add Email and Internet services, it soon becomes apparent that yesterday's knowledge doesn't cut the mustard in today's fast-moving and demanding distributed computing environments.
The difficulty with keeping up to date is made worse by the pace of change.
Many industry leaders view change as occurring so quickly they're coining new terms. For example, Oracle's CEO Larry Ellison uses the term "dog years" to describe the pace of change. That is, for every year that passes, we are seeing the equivalent of seven years worth of change. So, will training help LAN staff keep pace? The short answer is yes - provided you can either get your employer to shell out the not inconsiderable sums involved or have sufficient personal lucre to go on at least some of the myriad courses available today. But it doesn't stop with going on a five-day crammer.
Once you're on the CNE or MCSE (Microsoft Certified Software Engineer) path, it's hard to get off because the systems vendors make it impossible for you to retain your qualification without continuing your professional education. The reason is simple: both Novell and Microsoft time-expire their qualifying modules as changes are made to their operating systems.
This requires a not inconsiderable financial and intellectual commitment on the part of prospective candidates.
The training commitment depends on what you want to achieve and both Microsoft and Novell offer a comprehensive range of options. For the network professional, Microsoft requires you to complete a four-step examination which includes six exams. At step one, you cover one of the major desktop Windows operating systems and at step two, you cover peer-to-peer networking.
Existing CNEs are exempt from step two. The real work comes at step three, where you must pass two papers covering NT 3.51 client and server implementation and support. Finally, at step four, you must pass two from six electives covering everything from SQL Server to TCP/IP and MS Exchange. Alternatively, you can take the NT 4.0 track, which deals with that OS at steps one and three. In order to achieve the qualification, you need to take courses from one of Microsoft's 30 Microsoft Authorised Education Centre's (ATECs).
The cost will vary from place to place, but you can reckon on shelling out around u4,750 over a 12-month period.
Qualifying as a Novell CNE requires a similar commitment, but, as you would expect of a networking vendor, is of a higher order. You can either go down the NetWare 3.x or 4.x routes, but in each case you need to accumulate 19 credit points over eight stages, with networking technologies and service/support as core modules. You don't get a great deal of choice in the course content because Novell requires that you have an in-depth understanding of installation, configuration, design and implementation. At the final stage, you can chose to pursue a networking management or connectivity elective.
Network managers are often faced with the problem of being part of an organisation, yet separate from the line of business and people they're seeking to support. Part of the difficulty lies in getting adequate training that relates their technical skills back to the real world. Sheffield Hallam University's School of Computing offers an MSc that specifically capitalises on CNE's work-based learning experience. Most of the participants are sponsored and part of the course requires completion of a job-related project. As post graduate school director, Sean Cavan, says: "We and Novell saw a gap for a comprehensive masters program that enhances networking skills, yet reflects modern business needs. Employers get the best of both worlds because the projects require investigation and consultancy at the workplace. Candidates find their profile as networking professionals is considerably enhanced. With professionals coming from many backgrounds, we actively encourage a collaborative approach because there may be many competing solutions available to a specific network problem."
In order to establish whether all the hard work reaps rewards in terms of enhanced employment prospects, or whether it's all a waste of time, PC Week spoke to a number of agencies and the basic message was the same.
Increasingly, contract agencies and potential employers looking for senior personnel are recognising the value of having well qualified staff. A quick look at any of the recruitment ads will soon convince you that the better job prospects are for those who have been through the training mill.
However, the overall picture is complex and inconsistent. At the moment the market for computer professionals of every description is buoyant, with a particular shortage of NT skills. This is reflected in the higher salaries being offered, compared with similar grades of NetWare engineers.
Zenco Ford, manager of PC network support at recruitment professionals Progressive, says: "Appropriate qualifications can add u3,000 to u5,000 into the bargain, but employers are looking for people with strong commercial experience. At the moment there's a strong demand for good NT professionals who have project and rollout experience." In other words, while being an MCSE might carry weight on a CV, hands-on experience counts for more.
But Lena Mehta of Logic Recruitment says: "At the higher, permanent end of the market, more clients are asking for qualifications and, depending on the grade, some clients insist."
Even assuming you have relevant experience and some courses under your belt, continuing your education might prove difficult. If the straw poll among the recruitment agencies is representative of what is happening, it seems many prospective employers are reluctant to pay for training.
The reasons are varied. First, some are nervous that the cream of their staff will get a qualification and then disappear to a better paid job.
That may be true in some instances, but isn't universally so and is probably short sighted. In this context it is important for employees to recognise that if their employer is prepared to make a substantial investment in staff training, it is indicative of an organisation that wants to see its people do well. On the other hand, employers need to recognise that well-trained IS staff provide a better quality of service than untrained staff and so the IS person's job becomes of greater value to the company as a whole.
The skills shortage is adding to the problem because, in a market where practical skills are at a premium, there is only a limited supply of jobs requiring qualifications and job candidates sometimes miss the point.
According to Liz Hague of the IT Recruitment Network: "Some applicants get hung up on qualifications - especially Novell CNEs. They don't understand that classroom theory only counts so far and just isn't worth as much as practical, commercial experience." There should be nothing surprising in this.
Choose any other profession and you'll find that qualifications sit alongside practical experience. After all, you would be pretty uneasy about entrusting your appendectomy to a class-only trained doctor. Some argue that qualifications merely demonstrate the ability to pass exams. That may be a cynical view in a world where network management is complex, requiring the ability to make balanced choices. But experience, backed by up-to-date knowledge, has got to put the professional in a better informed position.
Ian Such, technical services manager at high street motor parts retailer Halfords, says: "We're supporting around 300 stations on a Novell 3.x LAN and, much as we might like to have CNEs, we need experienced personnel.
Quite frankly, CNEs cost a lot more than a purely experienced person and we cannot justify the expense."
Bearing in mind the changes that are coming in networking, especially the greater ease with which operating systems can be installed and supported and the emphasis on Internet skills, it is no surprise that both Microsoft and Novell have introduced specialist courses that address this need.
Rich Nortz, Novell's senior VP of technical services, comments: "We believe the network engineer of tomorrow will be much more proactive on all major products. He or she will need to demonstrate strong design skills, especially in intranets."
This suggests the traditional support role will be deskilled over time, but Nortz disagrees: "Like the other major network operating systems suppliers, we are always trying to find ways to make support easier for all concerned.
So while some networking skills may diminish in importance, there's no doubt we'll need more diverse skillsets which means the professionals of tomorrow will be more highly trained, but act as specialists."
Qualifications are only part of the story. Experience certainly counts, but you can't do yourself any harm by investing the time and energy in getting some letters after your name. Perhaps the situation is best summed up by Halford's Such: "Experienced CNEs are like gold dust and the world's their oyster. They command high salaries and a company car as an absolute minimum."
Certified engineers: how they got there
Certified engineers - Novell CNE
Name: Robin Dickon
Qualification: Novell CNE (June 1995)
Position: Network analyst
Experience: Eight years, first writing LAN standards for CEGB, now with Madge
It took me about a year to complete my training with Azlan. I wanted to be sure I'd get through so put a lot of effort into both studying and applying what I was learning to everyday use. The problem is that you have to do certain modules and they're not always relevant to the job in hand. Novell's examinations are no walkover because the testing method is adaptive and random. So, when you go for the exam, you need to be sure you've covered every subject thoroughly. It's a scary process and as you're sitting there, it spits out more questions at you in areas where you might be weak.
The unit on networking technologies is great because it covers everything you're likely to require as a foundation for network support and design.
However, I got the feeling Novell is using the CNE exam as an advertising ploy as much as anything else because it's almost as though they don't acknowledge the existence of other networks.
I am fortunate because Madge, my employer, was prepared to invest in my training. It has given me access to a wider range of resources, I do a better job and would not be afraid to go onto any NetWare site to provide support services. Longer term, I'd like to specialise in designing systems but more as a technical person rather than being sales-oriented.
Sitting your exams?: questions you may be asked
Typical questions on the Microsoft Certified Engineers programme, supplied by The Mandlebrot Set.
1. Which of the following is true of optimistic locking?
a. Optimistic locking ensures that no one else can read an item of data which a user selects for update
b. Optimistic locking is one method used to optimise concurrency in a database
c. Optimistic locking is ideal for situations in which it is important to know that a large batch of updates to the database processed as one big transaction will all commit successfully
d. Optimistic locking can mean that a user is prevented from committing an update because the data has been updated by another user
e. Optimistic locking is the method of locking most likely to cause deadlocks
2. Which of the following statements is true of a Foreign Key?
a. The Foreign Key is often the Primary Key on another, related table
b. All values in a Foreign Key column are unique
c. Foreign Keys should never be used in indexes
d. A Foreign Key can only ever consist of a single column
e. Foreign Keys are often used to join to other related tables
3. Which of the following is true of Java?
a. Java's flexibility means that programmers are able to use pointers in a way which C++ did not allow
b. Java can only be used for Internet applications
c. Java does not allow multiple inheritance
d. Java restricts access to the operating system
e. Java does not allow multithreading
4. Which of the following is true of exceptions in Java?
a. Exception handlers can be nested
b. try, throw and trap are keywords used in exception-handling in Java
c. The 'finally' clause is always run after the corresponding try - after exceptions, return, break and continue
d. Applets containing exception-handling will never crash the browser containing them
5. Which of the following are protocols used on the Internet?
a. http and ftp
b. gopher and NNTP
c. http and www
d. ftp and webnet
6. What does http://www.w3.org/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html tell you?
a. The URL of a Hypertext Markup Language page
b. The directory in which a file is stored at the site 'http://www.w3.org'
c. The Uniform Reference Locator of a html page
d. The protocol used to access the web server called www.w3.org is http
e. The Hypertext TCP/IP protocol is being used at the web server upon which TheProject.html is stored
Novell engineer: what you need to become one The training programme to become a certified Novell Engineer.
The CNE programme is designed for technical support staff who install and maintain networks. QA Training recommends candidates possess a working knowledge of basic information technology concepts such as microprocessor platform environments, MS-DOS and Windows. Field experience is also highly desirable.
Candidates choose to specialise in NetWare 3 or NetWare 4 and must then earn and maintain 19 credits in their first area of CNE certification.
Each operating system path comprises several exams, assessing the candidate on technical threads such as administration, installation and configuration, upgrade and integration. CNEs must demonstrate knowledge of NetWare 4 concepts and familiarity with NetWare Directory Services (NDS).
QA holds regular examination days for CNEs. The examinations are closed book and take between one and one and a half hours to complete. There are 60 to 65 questions. These are computer-based, multiple choice questions taken under the supervision of an accredited administrator.
Certified engineers - a Microsoft trainer's experience
Name: Thomas Lee
Current job: MS trainer and consultant - PS Partnership
Qualifications: MCSE plus MCT
Experience: IT industry 26 years, background in mainframes, working with PCs since 1981, complete convert to NT in the 1990s.
Microsoft takes the view that a paper qualification of itself is insufficient and that without practical hands on experience, candidates will struggle - I agree. The purpose of the exams is to weed out the no-hopers, so they're not that easy. When beta testing the TCP/IP exam, it took me four hours 10 minutes to complete. It is the toughest of the lot. Passing the MCSE set is not a done deal because the exams are failable. On some papers, all the answers are correct, but you have to make a value judgement as to which is the best solution. The biggest challenge is keeping up-to-date and that usually requires sitting two extra exams each year, but it's worth it as employers are starting to ask for the certificate. A word of warning - check out the training organisation carefully. Some don't offer a great service and I get a couple of calls a week asking me to check course content. Microsoft needs to do more to convince the industry it's serious about auditing quality. Sure, it controls the ATECs absolutely, but that's no guarantee. MS wants to sell training so it's not going to restrict things too much. When we're doing it, we assume good networking skills, but it isn't always essential - some come with very little experience beyond the desktop but make out quite well.
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