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How to keep your IT training knowledge fresh.

Most IT people realize that a professional education doesn’t end with a toss of the mortarboard or a few certifications that look pretty on the data center’s wall. Constant changes–in every area from security to network administration to Web-enabled applications–are what draw many individuals to IT, but the pace of technology is also a challenge, as IT types work to complete their to-do lists and stay current at the same time.

Fortunately, keeping knowledge fresh doesn’t have to involve wading through numerous new certifications, or trying to tackle a stack of books higher than a server rack. Here are some tips for staying sharp without getting bogged down:

* Enlist your employer in the effort. According to a recent survey done by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), the majority of IT workers are getting little guidance or support from their employers when it comes to career training and education. As a result, at least 60 percent of IT professionals are looking for new jobs at employers that understand the need for constant training.

Enlisting the help of the company can allow an IT worker to buck the trend. Explaining, in non-technical talk, why online courses and certification refresh classes are important will go a long way toward creating an education plan.

“Employers may be doing themselves a great disservice by not taking a more aggressive role in setting priorities when it comes to the continuing education of their IT workers,” says Neill Hopkins, vice president of skills development at CompTIA.

If the higher-ups seem to balk at shelling out for training, Hopkins suggests a simple reminder that the cost of recruiting, hiring, and training new tech workers is significantly higher than investing in ongoing training for those already on the payroll.

* Take the exam before taking the course. Although technology moves with alacrity, there are some areas where it’s at a fairly standard pace. A prime example is the MCSE certification, which has reached a saturation point, according to many trainers. Basically, most of those who need it already have it. The same goes for some types of Cisco certifications, according to that company.

Rather than take an extensive course that goes over material that’s already been mastered, experts advise taking a look at the final test to see where knowledge gaps exist. Often, the test are available for free, or sample tests are available in study guides.

“These exam blueprints might not be the exact ones used for the courses, but they reflect what’s currently needed,” says Cindy Hoffman, certifications track manager at Cisco.

If a certification was achieved more than a year ago, most of the knowledge should still be fresh and relevant, but an IT professional can get a sense of any new testing requirements, and material that might have been missed. Then, education would be much more focused, since it would only involve those small pockets of information.

* Go surfing and networking. Not all education has to be a formal affair, complete with tests and problem-solving. IT employees can employ the same tactic for training as they do when faced with an unfamiliar tech problem: chat with the community.

Bulletin boards, listservs, blogs, and conferences are all ideal places to pick up new ideas, says Hoffman.

“There are so many sites that are geared just toward keeping skills up to date, that it’s hard to choose where to go,” she says. “It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

Companies like Microsoft encourage their managers and development executives to keep blogs. With an area like security, this can be especially helpful for keeping on top of skills, and knowing what’s going on in the industry. Also, staying plugged in through discussion boards will give surfers a better idea of any certification changes, and whether they need to sign up for a full-fledged course.

“The trend is definitely toward less formal knowledge,” says Hoffman. “We encourage people to take advantage of as many tools for training as they can, formal or informal.”

* Expand your learning materials. There are tried-and-true methods for learning new information, like books and classes, but thanks to technology, it’s now possible to freshen up knowledge from just about anywhere. Online courses are beneficial, but the newest trend is video on demand, according to Christine Yoshida, manager of the learning and development group at Cisco.

Companies that offer certifications, like Cisco, have been experimenting with ways to help busy IT managers stay on top of their skills. Many have been implementing a combination of Web discussion board with a live feed of an educator. These “classes” can either be viewed in real-time, and for free, or be accessed in the Cisco archives.

Having a breadth of materials keeps education from getting boring, says Yoshida.

“When you can post questions to a portal, and interact with experts without leaving your desk, it creates a dynamic learning environment,” she notes.

Multiple types of materials are also important since most students have a blend of learning styles. IT types tend to be kinesthetic learners who love the hands-on approach, but for the best knowledge retention, lab work should be integrated with visual and auditory approaches, says David Minutella, vice president of educational services at The Training Camp, the boot camp training division of TechTrain.

“Doing just one type of approach, like online courses, might help to present the material, but you have a better chance of remembering it if you’ve learned it through a number of ways,” says Minutella.

For example, a quick refresher course on a CISSP certification could include perusal of printed material like books, some e-learning that can be done in the office, and finally a comprehensive review seminar from an organization like ISC2, the group that maintains and administers the certification.

* Consider customized training. Although most IT shops have heterogeneous environments, often they have a particularly dominant vendor, like HP, EMC, or Cisco. Standard coursework with several certifications does a good job of covering general knowledge for multiple-vendor set-ups, but once that education is in place, professionals may want to explore technology-specific classes.

“Certifications tend to be specialized by practice area, such as storage technology,” says Patrick Zelten, director of solutions engineering at IT consultancy Forsythe Technology. “But doing technology-specific certification effectively arms IT professionals to optimally support today’s complex IT environments.”

In addition to wrapping training around the main vendor being used, IT departments can also bring a trainer into the company rather than send employees out to classes. This helps to customize the material to an organization’s IT environment, reduce travel expenses, and reduce the risk of learning irrelevant material. Rather than slog through training that focuses on vendors they don’t use, or covering problems they don’t have, an IT group can ask direct questions about their own equipment and strategies.

This is particularly helpful for security training, Zelten notes. Rather than divulge security details and tactics to a class of strangers, a company can take comfort in the non-disclosure arrangement struck by corporate trainers, getting answers to their questions without fear.

With customized training, multiple materials, and informal training, IT professionals can keep their skills sharp without dulling their edge–and most importantly, for better or worse, that to-do list doesn’t have to suffer for it.

Elizabeth Millard ([email protected] mac.com) is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

10 certifications to watch for in 2007

According to Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based IT training specialist the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), these are the training certifications to keep an eye on over the coming 12 months:

CTT+: Certified trainer. Founded in IT but now applicable to all training professionals in all industries, CTT+ holders show excellence in preparation, presentation, communication, facilitation and evaluation in a classroom environment.

Network+: Network support and administration. Network+ certification demonstrates that a candidate can describe the features and functions of networking components, and possesses the knowledge and skills needed to install, configure and troubleshoot basic networking hardware, protocols and services.

CDIA+: Document imaging and management. CDIA+ validates your expertise in the technologies and best practices used to plan, design, and specify a document imaging, management system.

Server+: Server hardware technology. Server+ validates the knowledge of IT pros with 18-24 months of experience in Industry Standard Server Architecture (ISSA) technology. If you want to certify your technical knowledge in RAID, SCSI, multiple CPUs, and the like, consider this certification.

i-Net+: Internet and online technologies. I-Net validates the knowledge of professionals with at least six months experience in Internet, Intranet, Extranet and e-commerce technologies.

Security+: Computer and information security. Security+ is for professionals with two years on-the-job networking experience, with emphasis on security. The exam covers communication security, infrastructure security, cryptography, access control, authentication, and operational security.

Linux+: Linux operating systems. A vendor-neutral credential, Linux+ is aimed at workers with a minimum of six to twelve months of practical Linux experience. If you who want to certify your technical knowledge in installation, operation, and troubleshooting for Linux operating systems, consider Linux+.

Project+: Project management. A global credential for project managers, and those who manage projects as part of their job role. The exam incorporates universal project management principles, and includes conflict resolution, negotiation, communication, team building/leadership, and setting and managing expectations.

e-Biz+: e-commerce. A demonstration of baseline knowledge about e-business initiatives and topics. e-Biz+ tests basic concepts, key issues and critical technologies of e-business.

RFID+: Integration services of radio frequency identification (RFID) systems. A standard for measuring competency in the installation and maintenance of RFID.

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