Is Training The Enemy of Progress?

Peyton Maynard-Koran was the keynote speaker at InteropITX this year. If you want to catch the video, check this out:

Readers of my blog my remember that Peyton and I don’t see eye-to-eye on a few things. Last year I even wrote up some thoughts about vendors and VARs that were a direct counterpoint to many of the things that have been said. It has even gone further with a post from Greg Ferro (@EtherealMind) about the intelligence level of the average enterprise IT customer. I want to take a few moments and explore one piece of this puzzle that keeps being brought up: You.

Protein Robots

You are a critical piece of the IT puzzle. Why? You’re a thinking person. You can intuit facts and extrapolate cause from nothing. You are NI – natural intelligence. There’s an entire industry of programmers chasing what you have. They are trying to build it into everything that blinks or runs code. The first time that any company has a real breakthrough in true artificial intelligence (AI) beyond complicated regression models will be a watershed day for us all.

However, you are also the problem. You have requirements. You need a salary. You need vacation time. You need benefits and work/life balance to keep your loved ones happy. You sometimes don’t pick up the phone at 3am when the data center blinks out of existence. It’s a challenge to get you what you need while still extracting the value that is needed from you.

Another awesome friend Andrew von Nagy (@RevolutionWiFi) coined the term “protein robots”. That’s basically what we are. Meatbags. Walking brains that solve problems that cause BGP to fall over when presented with the wrong routing info or cause wireless signals to dissipate into thing air. We’re a necessary part of the IT equation.

Sure, people are trying to replace us with automation and orchestration. It’s the most common complaint about SDN that I’ve heard to date: automation is going to steal my job. I’ve railed against that for years in my talks. Automation isn’t going to steal your job, but it will get you a better one. It will get you a place in the organization to direct and delegate and not debug and destroy. In the end, automation isn’t coming for your job as long as you’re trying to get a better one.

All Aboard The Train!

The unseen force that’s opposing upward mobility is training. In order to get a better job, you need to be properly trained to do it. Maybe it’s a lot of experience from running a network for years. Perhaps it’s a training class you get to go to or a presentation online you can watch. No matter what you need to have new skills to handle new job responsibilities. Even if you’re breaking new ground in something like AI development you’re still acquiring new skills along the way. Hopefully, if you’re in a new field, you’re writing them all down for people to follow in your footsteps one day.

However, training is in opposition to what your employer wants for you. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? Yet, we still hear the quote attributed to W. Edwards Deming – “What happens if we train our people and they leave? What happens if we don’t and they stay?” Remember, as we said above you are a protein robot that needs things like time off and benefits. All of those things are seen as an investment in you.

Training is another investment that companies like to tout. When I worked at a VAR, we considered ourselves some of the most highly trained people around. The owner told me when I started that he was “going to put half a million dollars into training me.” When I asked him about that number after five years he told me it felt like he put a kid through college. And that was before my CCIE. The more trained people you have, the easier your job becomes.

But an investment in training can also backfire. Professionals can take that training and put it to use elsewhere. They can go to a different job and take more money. They can refuse to do a job until they are properly trained. The investments that people make in training are often unrealized relative to the amount of money that it costs to make it happen.

It doesn’t help that training prices have skyrocketed. It used to be that I just needed to go down to the local bookstore and find a copy of a CCNA study guide to get certified. I knew I’d reached a new point in my career when I couldn’t buy my books at the bookstore. Instead, I had to seek out the knowledge that I needed elsewhere. And yes, sometimes that knowledge came in the form of bootcamps that cost thousands of dollars. Lucky for me that my employer at the time looked at that investment and said that it was something they would pick up. But I know plenty of folks that can’t get that kind of consideration. Especially when the training budget for the whole department won’t cover one VMware ICM class.

Employers don’t want employees to be too trained. Because you have legs. Because you can get fed up. Because you can leave. The nice thing about making investments in hardware and software is that it’s stuck at a location. A switch is an asset. A license for a feature can’t be transferred. Objects are tied to the company. And their investments can be realized and recovered. Through deprecation or listing as an asset with competitive advantage companies can recover the value they put into a physical thing.

Professionals, on the other hand, aren’t as easy to deal with. Sure, you can list a CCIE as an important part of your business. But what happens if they leave? What happens when they decide they need a raise? Or, worse yet, when they need to spend six months studying for a recertification? The time taken to learn things is often not factored into the equation when we discuss how much training costs. Some of my old coworkers outright refused to get certified if they had to study on their own time. They didn’t want their free non-work time taken up by reading over MCSE books or CCNA guides. Likewise, the company didn’t want to waste billable hours from someone not providing value. It was a huge catch-22.

Running In Place

Your value is in your skillset at the company you work for. They derive that value from you. So, they want you to stay where you are. They want you trained just enough to do your job. They don’t want you to have your own skillset that could be valuable before they get their value from you. And they definitely don’t want you to take your skillset to a competitor. How can you fix that?

  1. Don’t rely on your company to pay for your training. There are a lot of great resources out there that you can use to learn without needed to drop big bucks for a bootcamp. Use bootcamps to solidify your learning after the fact. Honestly, if you’re in a bootcamp to learn something you’re in the wrong class. Read blogs. Buy books from Amazon. Get your skills the old fashioned way.
  2. Be ready to invest time. Your company doesn’t want you using their billable time for learning. So that means you are going to make an investment instead. The best part is that even an hour of studying instead of binge watching another episode of House is time well-spent on getting another important skill. And if it happened on your own time, you’re not going to have to pay that back.
  3. Be ready to be uncomfortable. It’s going to happen. You’re going to feel lost when you learn something new. You’re going to make mistakes while you’re practicing it. And, honestly, you’re going to feel uncomfortable going to your boss to ask for more money once you’re really good at what you’re doing. If you’re totally comfortable when learning something new, you’re doing it wrong.

Tom’s Take

Companies want protein robots. They want workers that give 125% at all times and can offer a wide variety of skills. They want compliant workers that never want to go anywhere else. Don’t be that robot. Push back. Learn what you can on your time. Be an asset but not an immobile one. You need to know more to escape the SDN Langoliers that are trying to eat your job. That means you need to be on the move to get where you need to be. And if you sit still you risk becoming a permanent asset. Just like the hardware you work on.