Career advice to keep your virtualization skills fresh

Staying up to date on the latest technologies and features can be difficult. Our Advisory Board offers advice on programs and resources to help you keep learning.

Staying current with technology and new software is more important than ever nowadays. New products or updates bring features and sometimes a whole new user experience. That’s part of the reason why VMware decided last year to implement a two-year expiration date on its VMware Certified Professional certification. Regardless of whether you agree with the company’s decision to require recertification, it’s clear that if IT pros want to keep their certifications, they’ll need to stay up to date. So, this month, we’re asking out Advisory Board members about how they keep up with new technologies and keep their skills fresh.

Brian Kirsch, Milwaukee Area Technical College

“I am now in IT and am done going to school or learning.” This is a statement that few IT professionals have ever said, and my guess is the ones that have said it are no longer in IT.  With any career, additional training is required as tools and technology changes.  Unfortunately for information technology professionals, this rate of change is not measured in years or even months, but weeks.  New hardware, software or architecture is coming at IT professionals at a rate comparable to a fire hose of information.  The business world is not slowing down and IT needs to be a business enabler rather than a roadblock. IT professionals need to be riding that edge of the wave of what is going on in this sea of change or they will be washed out and unable to catch up.

Being an expert and certified in a technology is often a gateway to new opportunities and a higher salary.  Getting certified is hard enough, and when you add in the difficulty of getting and staying certified with multiple vendors and technologies, it can become overwhelming.  The IT professional can no longer rely on learning on the job, as they are often too busy keeping the lights on.  Unfortunately, there is a problem in the system: The employer wants a trained and certified professional, and the IT pro wants the training and certification but both are constrained by the time and cost needed for this training. 

Many IT professionals look for alternative methods to help keep their skills up.  Computer-based training is one method to get that classroom experience on your own time.  Vendors, such as PluralSight and CBT Nuggets, offer rich content on a variety of current solutions and topics without that multi-thousand dollar per course price tag. These vendors offer on-demand content on a variety of devices with reasonable subscription costs.  However, one area where they are lacking is hands-on labs where the administrator can get true product experience.  Now, several vendors are stepping up to the plate to address this.  Both VMware and Microsoft now have labs on demand where IT professionals can work with certain products in a structured environment.  This gives the IT professional first-hand experience in environments that they may have seen on video demonstrations. These labs are scripted so the user is required to follow certain steps to complete the lab.  This is both a positive and negative; The user gets the experience but they are unable to experiment with the technology.

That is where the home lab environment is important.  With hardware coming down in cost, IT personal can have several test platforms at home to experiment with the latest software offerings.  You can even go a step further and use desktop virtualization products such as VMware Workstation or Fusion to emulate several servers all on the same desktop.  One of the biggest restrictions to the home lab is the trial software that you are restricted too.  Many years ago, Microsoft TechNet and VMware VMTN offered the latest software without trial limitations for a small subscription fee.  Unfortunately, both programs were cancelled, leaving a big void until the VMware User Group (VMUG) started asking about bringing VMTN back.  The voices were heard, and in January 2015, VMUG introduced a new EVALExperience with yearlong software keys for the home lab user. Let’s just hope Microsoft was also paying attention.  Between online training, hands-on labs and home labs the biggest problem now facing the IT professional is time to fit it all in.

Larry Smith Jr., AVG Technologies

I have been involved in IT for 22 years. When I first started, I believed in going to college and getting a degree. Eventually, I realized that I was not benefiting from college and decided to drop out. Is this something that I would recommend for anyone else? Of course not, but at the same time, realize that what we do in IT does not always require a college degree (except maybe for your first few jobs). It also depends on what your drive is for a career in IT. What does apply is the fact that you remain relevant in the industry. So how do you do that? You have to continuously learn and keep learning new technologies and step outside your comfort zone to gain additional knowledge in areas that you are not as proficient in.

I personally do not read books, attend courses or take many certification tests. This is just a personal preference; as I feel that having a certification does not necessarily mean that you are an expert (go ahead and laugh now). But, what does help reaching your goal is hands-on learning and  through pushing yourself into areas that you have very little knowledge in. This is how I continue to learn after 22 years.  It is passion for technology that will give you the drive to stay relevant in an ever-changing career path in IT. Once you lose that passion, you will become irrelevant. Sure, attending courses and obtaining certifications is a huge accomplishment (and should be), but it should not be the main focus and the only way to learn. I gain much more satisfaction tackling a new technology or product and learn as much as I can in a week. Then, I move onto something new based on thoughts or ideas generated from the previous week of learning. This is how I still learn today. Having a decent home lab is also important for this type of learning and allows you to learn something from the ground up in a completely isolated environment without impacting anything else. 

Another way to keep your skills sharp is to be engaged in the community. This could be local meet-ups, conferences or even social media. This is something that I just began doing two years ago and I find it to be very rewarding. Being involved in the community not only keeps you up on what others are learning, but also allows you to step even further outside your comfort zone by engaging with others that have much more knowledge than you do. You may also find areas in which you may have more knowledge than someone else and they want to learn from you as well. Both scenarios for me are extremely rewarding. So no matter which path you take, the key to being successful is to remain relative to the times and have fun.

Rob McShinsky, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

If you are working in technology, you cannot be afraid of change! Your job right now will be completely different in 10 years. You may still work for the same company, but the technology will change dramatically. You will be left behind and possibly out of a job is you do not keep you skills fresh. Here is how I try to stay current.

Home lab:  I have spent countless hours building, rebuilding, upgrading, and testing new technologies and software in my home lab.  Without this flexible playground, based on virtualized servers, I would be lost.   If you don’t have one, get one.

Conferences:  You were probably told this as you were growing up, but it isn’t always what you know, it is who you know.  From my experience, you do not build technical skills at conferences that you can take back and directly apply.  For me, conferences are my opportunity to network with others.  You and your peers may move between companies and will be great resources for new career opportunities.

Classroom training:  After you have picked the right provider and level of training, then it is better to do offsite training, in my opinion.  I have tried many times to do training online from the office.  It never works.   There will always be some distraction.  If you can, go someplace so you can concentrate.

Certifications:  Being in a technology field, you will probably change jobs more than once.  Investing some time to obtain certifications should be a priority.  They are a differentiator to other candidates with similar experience.  If you can afford it, boot camps are also a way to focus on these certifications.  They will not teach all the details you need for the technology, but they do help you laser focus on the tests.  It’s still up to you to know how to do your job.

Quick list of resources:

Dave Sobel, LogicNow

For those who stay in a technical role, keeping your skills fresh is vitally important.   Both formal and informal training, be it online or classroom for formal training, or reading individually combined with research and the typical “testing” process will fine-tune skills. For those who move onto business, from a management perspective, team lead perspective, or other related less hands-on role, certifications become less important.  My own role, for example, involves technical decisions, but has become significantly less hands-on as I continue to progress in my career.  This leads to less and less certification or curriculum-style investment, and more towards mentoring, reading and research.   I have always highly valued home-lab style learning, as I believe it leads to a unique, highly-capable set of skills that result in very deep dedication to technical craft.

This was last published in January 2015

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If you're going the certification path, re-certifying should be expected, especially in the cloud world. If you go down the experience path, never stay put.
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