Self-training 101: How to find the time and the motivation and what is available for the IT Professional.
Everybody has their own learning style, most fit into the three primary styles of Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic (tactile or learning by doing). These simply describe the way in which learning is most effective for you. To be able to train yourself in leading edge technology matters, a blend of all three is probably required.
I have been taking part in distance learning since 1992 when I started my Open University Degree course. There hasn’t been a time since then when I have been ‘resting’ from study. That does take a lot of self- discipline, motivation and no small measure of selfishness.
The title of this post implies that you can follow my approach and all will be well, that is not necessarily the case. Everyone is different, everyone has a different work routine, home life and family or hobby commitments. What I can do is explain how I approach my own self training and the path to certification which was the secondary purpose of all those years of study.
It would be great if using a particular product for years or being experienced in a role was a guarantee of knowing it to a deep level and to be able to prove to your employer and prospective employers that you were proficient in your trade. This is not the case. I am sure we all know many IT ‘Professionals’ who are not really worth that title and do not really know their stuff. For that reason certification is a really great idea.
So why do I self-study and what do I do to achieve the aims I set myself. More importantly what motivates me to keep going?
Going back to the Learning styles, I use a blend of all three, with regular access to the Microsoft Virtual Academy (MVA) a superb resource of FREE professional training. This includes a number of Jump Start courses which are traditionally held as live events by Microsoft Evangelists and members of the product teams, recorded and hosted for online streaming or downloads. The slide decks and associated supporting material are also available. This really is a rich repository of high quality training in all areas of Microsoft technology. As part of most courses in the MVA, there are short multiple choice quizzes to answer to ensure that learning has taken place.
So my No 1 tip is get on the MVA and start learning. There is currently a neat promotional game attached to the MVA, if you register here you can become an MVA superhero, by taking courses in six defined service or product tracks, you can enter for major or minor prizes and learn at the same time, enter here. For those with a competitive bent, each course earns points and there are league tables on a national and global scale.
My area of specialism is Microsoft Infrastructure technologies so the TechNet Library is vital to my study. Recently Microsoft released the whole Server 2012 and Server 2012 R2 library as a single PDF file. Be warned it is a 126 MB big and contains nearly 9000 pages of technical information, but it is not as bad as it sounds since the first 370 pages are the contents table! I also rely on proper paper books when travelling, I never have got used to using a gadget for reading books, but I suppose I will eventually. I use a lot of Microsoft Press titles, they are available in print or as eBooks. Microsoft also offer a large range of FREE eBooks in current and emerging technologies. These are listed here and here. Finally on the TechNet front, there is an endless list of useful Blogs.
One of the reasons I have been studying quite so much over recent years is that I am a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) and to be able to teach the Official Curriculum (MOC) and Official Academic Curriculum (MOAC) course for a product, Microsoft insist that you are certified in that product, which makes sense. One of the major benefits of being an MCT is that you gain access to all the courseware and Virtual Machine lab environments as well. This means that I am able to get hands on experience with all the products I am learning. Of course this requires some fairly powerful hardware, especially if you are studying Private Cloud and other Virtualisation courses. If you don’t have access to these courses and have not got a home lab environment but you would like hands on experience, then TechNet also provide online labs and demos for FREE. Check them out here.
I thoroughly recommend two additional Microsoft Learning Experience (LeX) resources.
The first is the Learning web site here which lists all official courses and certification exams as well as what is required for each one.
The other is the Born To Learn website here, this is another rich resource of learning and certification material with online forums and direct access to Microsoft’s learning Experience staff.
The vast quantity of all this invaluable material should tell you one thing. No way can you read or consume it all. The best way of focussing your energy and attention is to create a useful study plan that takes into account your work life, family life as well as your general aims in terms of study or certification.
So how do you find time and more importantly how do you remain motivated to keep learning, keep on taking exams and courses? Your answer will be different to mine. It could be a new certification will lead to a new job or promotion in your current role, all good motivational stuff. The answer lies in WHY you want to study. When I was at school I had to study and hated it, I therefore did not do as well as I should or could have. When I decided I needed to and wanted to study later in life I found it all too easy to remain motivated, it was my choice, my idea and my time I was giving up to do it.
So what does my typical working / study week look like.
I am a Technical Evangelist working for Microsoft UK so I don’t have a typical week, which is a great aspect of the job. This does however mean that if I want to start a course of study I have to squeeze it in wherever I am. I also have to squeeze it in at strange times of the day. Until recently I was a regular early morning runner and was training for marathons, this meant a good couple of hours out and about. Now I am not doing that, I spend that time on study. I also spend time when my wife is out at Choir practice or other social events. In short I squeeze it in where I can. Invariably this is early morning or late night sessions in hotel rooms, on trains or at home.
Luckily my current role involves a great deal of hands on prep so I can develop the detailed knowledge every day. What I do need to improve at is management of that time. I tend to get side-tracked into the next bit of awesome technology. I was writing an IPAM blog post the other week and ended up playing with System Center VMM virtual networks and looking at Software defined networking. Off topic!
I probably haven’t helped much with motivation, which is entirely down to you the learner, little or no motivation will result in little or no effective study. But hopefully the tips below will help with making time and finding the right resources for self-study as an IT professional.
There are of course many Learning providers that offer both online and in class instructor led courses, if that is your preferred method of learning. There are also many approved online prep tests. But be sure they are approved and not just copies of answers. You can find the approved sites listed on the Microsoft Learning site, such as here for the MCSE Server Infrastructure.
If you take a look at the output from the Microsoft Skills dashboard tool which is based on research conducted with www.theitjobboard.co.uk, you can see that there has been a considerable spike in demand for Jobs and roles where Windows Server 2012 certification would assist.
The above graph shows a 12 month period where the Y axis = No. of jobs and the X axis = Technology-Role.
The data above shows that we have seen most of this spike for IT Professional roles, however demand for IT consultants with Windows Server 2012 skills have been steady.
The data certainly backs up my argument that getting trained is an essential part of normal IT pro life. (The data is skewed in my area of expertise (Windows Server), but as you can see the jobs and skills are out there to be learned and earned.
My final piece of advice is, if you want to stay in the IT industry, NEVER STOP LEARNING, if you do, it will leave you behind quicker than you can say OS/2 or IPv6.
Happy studying. And remember PowerShell is the Future!