Pressure-cooker certification

When Stephen Tucker joined Toronto's Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in 1999 as manager of its systems and operations group, his department was in disarray. Tucker educated his staff in basic IT skills. He has since been promoted to IT director.

          When Stephen Tucker joined Toronto's Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in 1999 as manager of its systems and operations group, his department was in disarray.

          The IT support team was staffed mostly by volunteers. The 700-user network was down at least twice a day, and users calling IT were often met with voicemail.

          "No one had IT skills, the network had several flavours of NetWare and [Windows] NT, and traffic travelled all over the place. It was chaos," he says.

          Tucker educated his staff - which numbered 12 at the time - in basic IT skills. He has since been promoted to IT director, and oversees a network that is up 99.913% of the time. He manages a roster of 14 paid and certified IT professionals, and the group fields 50 help desk calls a day.

          Baycrest targeted CompTIA's A+ and Network+ certifications because many vendors support them. A+ is appropriate for techies with six months' experience and covers a range of hardware and software technologies, while Network+ is geared at professionals with between 18 and 24 months of experience.

          Tucker stocked up on New Riders Publishing training manuals, and set up a test lab using 10 old PCs. With help from a vendor, the employees/students studied during their lunch hours three times a week for three months. All the students prepared for A+ certification, and five also studied for Network+ at the same time. People took turns leading the class, while Tucker and the consultant directed the study.

          The training, including manuals and tests, averaged $US250 per person, plus the department spent about $US5000 on food for the study sessions. Most people failed the A+ exam on their first attempt, but they persevered and eventually passed.

          Tucker's employees have improved their problem-solving skills, and staff turnover has been reduced to less than 5%. Now anyone who joins the department must be certified, and Baycrest will reimburse employees who successfully complete an exam.

          DeWayne Cusick, director of professional services and support at Konica Business Technologies in Windsor, Connecticut, also supported his employees' efforts to obtain IT certification. Konica had to have 20 of its 92 staffers obtain Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification last fall. Many of the multifunctional printer manufacturer's customers use Microsoft, and the company needs to be able to support them.

          Although 10 of the engineers already had MCSE certification for Windows NT, at the time they thought they'd have to recertify for Windows 2000 by year-end to maintain active certification. Microsoft since dropped the requirement and now awards separate designations for MCSE Windows NT and Win 2000.

          Cusick worked with training provider New Horizons Computer Learning Centres to develop a boot camp that condensed 30 days of training into 10 days, with weekends and nights reserved for studying. The students were flown in from around the country to New Horizon's training facility in Windsor, and trained for 12 to 14 hours per day. Students had access to a test lab and also built a practice network at their hotel. When students took the MCSE exams at the end of training, 18 of them passed the first time.

          The boot camp was successful because of peer synergy, Cusick says. "Everyone helped each other. Those guys knew each other, and there was camaraderie to ensure that everyone passed," he says.

          At a cost of $US63,000 per 10 employees for manuals, training and exams, Cusick also is happy with the cost savings. Traditional training would have cost at least $9000 per student.

          "Individual classes also have soft costs associated with pulling employees out of productive work for seven-plus weeks, plus study and test time vs two weeks for a boot camp," he adds. "If I factor in our soft cost savings, this alone actually paid for air transportation and hotel costs to keep all Konica employees together in Windsor."

          Tom Huskisson, a manager of professional services at Konica, attended one of the boot camps. As a Master Certified Novell Engineer (CNE), he has taken many traditional classes and feared that boot camps would not be as thorough.

          "The boot camp far exceeded my expectations. I wasn't sure how much I would get out of it in the short time frame," he says. "But the instructor was good at eliminating the typical fluff and hit the key parts of the curriculum. I learned more than I expected."

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