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This post is contributed by Steve Smith, SharePoint MVP, owner of Combined Knowledge and Co-Founder of the UK SharePoint User Group.

This article deals with the subject of ‘Aligning skills with real world business benefits’ and why continued investment in technology skillsets is even more important today than it ever was. We will be looking at the importance of practical training alongside real world skills and aligning it all with qualifications and how a company as well an individual or team would benefit in both the short and long term after being through this process.

After many years in the education space especially around Microsoft products there is no doubt that the products themselves have evolved into much more complex platforms. The knowledge and skills that we developed in the nineties and early 2000 certainly provided a solid foundation for the core skills needed in today’s world. It is also more important than ever to have our end users trained and supported on these products, historically IT would deploy the product such as email and our users would get little if no formal training on how to use the products themselves. As the product range has evolved so has the benefit to the users and the business, but only if they all know how to get the most from it.

But what if you are fairly new to this brave new world of Microsoft technologies what skills am I talking about and why are they still so important?

Let’s take SharePoint as the perfect example for this article, it is a product that can provide so much to the business but if done badly does nothing more than make a bad situation worse. But SharePoint is not a standalone product if deploying on premises it requires many core skills that enables the product to function properly and to make the most of all the available feature sets. The product needs to authenticate and process data from other systems and therefore in order to really design / build / manage and troubleshooting SharePoint deployments, a good systems engineer or SharePoint server Administrator would ideally need the following basic skills before even starting to deploy the product in a live environment:

    • Knowledge of Active Directory
    • Knowledge of Windows Server 2008 R2 or Server 2012
    • Knowledge of SQL Server and database management
    • Knowledge of Internet information Server (IIS)
    • Knowledge of network configuration and management (TCP/IP, DNS)
    • Knowledge of Authentication methods (Claims, Windows, SAML Tokens, Forms)
    • Knowledge of security methods (Kerberos, SSL, IPSec)

If you also take a look at the output from the Microsoft Skills dashboard tool below (which is based on research conducted with www.theitjobboard.co.uk), you can clearly see that SharePoint roles are steadily in demand in today’s industry. The data helps visualize the skills shortage companies face for SharePoint experts through the data compiled from IT job listings - with most of the demand for Developers, but also high demand in IT Consultancy and Architect roles. 

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The above graph shows a 12 month period where the Y axis = No. of jobs available and the  X axis = Technology/Role.

If you are a company looking to use the cloud to host your SharePoint, Email and CRM data however you may not need all of the above core infrastructure skills as Microsoft is taking the burden of that away from you. But how do we migrate all our data to the cloud / what if we need to maintain a hybrid model for the foreseeable future and I still need to ensure my users are properly trained to use the new environment they are being asked to work in.

Microsoft has started to try and address this cross skills requirement with some new qualifications such as the MCSE and MSCD for SharePoint as well as supporting cloud and Office 365 qualifications. These qualification are aimed at getting people to learn both the core SharePoint skills and the core Windows Server skills ticking some of the boxes in the list earlier. http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en-us/mcse-sharepoint-certification.aspx

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These skills however are not achieved overnight and it may take you 6 months to a year to gain all the knowledge necessary to pass these exams in the real world and that's a very important aspect of skills benefiting the business. A qualification gained by pure academic methods does not help the business without real world experience to back it up. Very few companies will hire a person that has a qualification from a boot camp but no real world experience to back it up.

Personally I consider these classes to be the first step in education there are many advanced and specialist training companies like my own that go on to write and create additional value add content that builds on the core content in the Microsoft courses and then provide much deeper level exercises and content based on real world scenario’s. The same can be said for the end user element, by ensuring you are training and supporting your users and building an educational roadmap that ensures when your launch goes live everyone is ready for your move to the newer products which will build productivity gains and adoption benefits much quicker.

Over the last year I was involved with a global company Johnston Matthey in helping them design and deliver a global training and adoption program for their users leading up to the launch and beyond of their new SharePoint system. They discovered a lot in this process and you can find a case study video of this project and lessons learned from its initial phases here.

The right way to progress for many people is to concentrate on one area like Windows Server management or SharePoint Server and then develop your skills as you work more with the products. Take a good training course and learn to use those skills in the real world. You will notice that the MCSE certification is also a 3 year rotation which means if you want to progress to the next version of the products you will need to spend time learning and working with the new products when they become available. This skills upgrade is an obvious advantage to the business as it now helps you to have discussions with the team on the benefits to upgrading but also the technical requirements to do so.

Keeping your skills up to date is a very important part of an IT Professional, in an ever changing economy and technology those people that have maintained their skills are a much more valuable asset to the company. On the same token it is therefore important for the business to continue in the skills development of their IT team and understand that just because they sat on a SharePoint course in 2009 a lot of things have changed in the technology and a SharePoint Administrator or Power User from the 2007 or 2010 product would not be able to correctly deploy and manage a SharePoint 2013 environment without skilling up.

The methods of skilling up are many but the most effective way of knowledge transfer for technical content in my opinion still remains face to face training be it public classes or custom workshops for your team. We have however noticed for more end User focused roles that our online environment is proving much more popular as companies shift learning to a more flexible method for those users to suit both company productivity and the ability to take the training from home or within an office training room but without needing to travel. We have certainly seen a large increase over the years in people attending our online and on demand classes for normal users but the Power Users are still preferring to attend an in person class.

But we already have people in the company that manage these roles why should I need to learn it?

Is a statement I often hear in the classroom. The key point though is that everyone needs to skill up to the current technologies not just the SharePoint Administrator, the SQL DBA for example should learn about how SharePoint Databases are architected and they need to be managed and if the SharePoint Server Administrator understands how to work with SQL Server at least on a basic level then the two of these Administrators can talk about the design in a way that both understand. It is no use the SharePoint Administrator telling the SQL DBA that he needs the databases for SharePoint configuring differently to the other business databases but not being able to justify why. But if we don’t have these cross platform skills the real loser becomes the business. Over time an incorrect design not only becomes inefficient but also very costly financially, such as in a Disaster recovery scenario or a huge performance drop effecting productivity.

Here is a good example of a DBA starter course to introduce SQL server and I also created an advanced infrastructure class for SharePoint administrators to learn core infrastructure and Enterprise skills such as SQL, hybrid scenario’s and Capacity Planning.

There are also lots of community events usually free that has lots of information and learning potential such as the SharePoint user group that I help run and which is aimed at all levels of working with the product. And there are also conferences that you can attend such as the Evolutions Roadshowin June that have multiple tracks aimed at passing the latest information on the products to the attendees

Having the right skills ensures that not only does the product get deployed correctly in the first place but also in the long term as more features get deployed and integrated that they will also be deployed with minimal issues. Developing a skills program and mapping out learning objectives and time frames is a very important part of this process.

Skills development is also about preparing for the future and a good example of this is cloud technology. In a recent study it was estimated that by 2015 at current skill adoption rates there will be up to 7 million jobs waiting for people with the right skills.

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Source for data – The skills gap in cloud technology Microsoft

“But we will not install the product that is done by someone else..”

Is a common scenario; a business will bring a Microsoft partner to deploy the products for them. This does not mean that the business should not invest in skilling up its own engineers, how will they troubleshoot anything if they do not understand how it works? The financial cost of taking days to fix a problem instead of minutes could be tens of thousands. The obvious advantage of bringing in Microsoft partners is that they have already gone through the skilling up process and therefore you are able to get the solution you are looking for deployed earlier and whilst they are doing the main implementation you can be skilling up your own staff to take over the daily running when it is handed to you. 

Here is a quote from Charlie Lee (SharePoint Technical Architect) from Cap Gemini who explains how Engineers with the right skills can easily turn a potential issue in deployment into a straight forward work around which ultimately means the business benefits in deployment time and that is setup correctly in the first place. 

Whilst implementing a large SharePoint 2010 farm for a public sector organisation in the UK it became clear rather late in the day that there was a previously unidentified requirement for User Profiles and more importantly for User Profile Synchronisation. Luckily I had attended a training course on Advanced SharePoint 2010 Infrastructure from Combined Knowledge which had covered the intricacies and quirks of this particular area.  During implementation we came across several issues which I had been prepared for due to the detail covered in the training. What could have taken days to resolve without appropriate skills took merely a few minutes to identify and resolve the issues. 

The consultancy companies and Microsoft partners therefore also have the investment to make in skills development to benefit their business as well as their customers, they need to ensure that they are not only advising the clients correctly but they must also be learning the products a lot earlier to ensure that they are able to deploy products for early adopters or business that want to deploy an early trial. Here is a quote from Matt Groves Head of Information Worker Solutions at Trinity Expert Systems Ltd a Microsoft Gold Partner.

"As the head of practice in the professional services department of a premier Microsoft partner it is essential that we maintain the highest levels of capabilities with the latest technologies, and training from a provider like Combined Knowledge forms a key part of our skills and talent management strategy. Training and certification allows our technologists to worry less about the technology and focus more on delivering the customers’ business outcomes.

The launch of SharePoint 2013 generated a lot of interest in our client base and having the majority of the team trained during the beta timeframe put us in a position to be able to deliver implementations for clients according to their schedule, not one constrained by the skills of their implementation partner, facilitating a shorter ROI timeframe for all concerned and a higher quality of end product."

Summary

Investing in skills development across the whole team is more relevant today than it ever was especially with the products today being more complex and integrated than they were 10 years ago. The winners of skills development will always be the business through efficiency and productivity regardless of being on premises, Hybrid or through cloud services like Office365.

For more information on available Microsoft skills and qualifications go to the learning website
or feel free to contact me at steve@combined-knowledge.com or Twitter: @stevesmithck.

Bio

Steve Smith (MVP-SharePoint Server since 2006) is the owner of Combined Knowledge, a UK company that provides Microsoft SharePoint support, Education training and developing SharePoint adoption and usability tools. The last 13 years has seen a majority of Steve’s time focused on SharePoint and it’s associated platform technologies and writing / training the Combined Knowledge SharePoint IT Pro and Infrastructure courses in the UK, Europe and Asia Pacific. Steve is a Co-Founder of the UK SharePoint User Group www.suguk.org, Steve lives in South Leicestershire, England with his wife and 3 children.

 


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