Think big, start together, learn forever

Martijn van Dongen & Radoslaw Wiankowski
Jun 18, 2021 · 5 min read
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Think big, start small, learn fast goes the common quip. We’ve seen how when a company is eager to migrate to the cloud, IT professionals and/or their CIOs have big-thinking goals. Yet, we’ve also seen how despite all the money and time invested in training, people rarely learn, let alone retain, the skills and knowledge they need for the real tasks at hand. This often leads to delays in company operations, drained budgets, staff who are bored, jaded, or ready to seek reemployment. And last but not least, it results in a cloud adoption that fails to generate value.

Because our goal is to enable our customers to add value to their business while bringing them to the cloud, we take a different approach. We believe that transitioning organizations require special skills and competencies. These are needed, first, to jump-start value generation and, second, to equip staff with the skills and competencies so they themselves can maintain control rather than eternally depend on us. So, while plenty of IT companies focus solely on moving workloads, we recognize that success in the cloud is determined by commitment on the ground—that is, by the people within an organization. As such, one of the most meaningful, lasting ways we assist our customers is through training their cloud specialists and, in that training, infusing our own work ethic and unflagging pursuit of business value. These priorities are what propel the transformation of their companies—we just so happen to do a cloud migration while we’re at it.

In short, we enable cloud specialists to think big, start together, and learn forever. That holds for whether they’re under our supervision or back on the job. To achieve this objective, we abide by seven principles.

1) Boost the company’s health rather than trigger its immune system.

IT transformations are complex and can feel estranging, especially when some external consultant waltzes in, points out all that’s wrong, and starts assigning tasks. In this scenario, a company’s organizational antibodies will usually kick in. Any breeding enterprise culture will be squelched. And the prospect of a healthy cloud landscape with good hygiene won’t have much of a chance to live, let alone thrive.

To prevent this attack from within, we work with, not against or external to, a company’s system. We educate IT professionals through co-creation. While working on a problem, we take the time to transfer as much of our own knowledge as possible so they can apply it to future solutions. In turn, we encourage our customers’ teams to share experiences—their pain points included—and expertise among themselves. Along the way, we uncover the innovators and the natural leaders, nurturing their curiosity and courage to allow them to most contribute to the success of the cloud transformation.

2) Accelerate learning through doing; AKA hit the slopes stat!

The vivid comparison between a tech trainer and a ski instructor that Jonathan Smart makes in his business agility book Sooner, Safer, Happier is also apt to extend to cloud education. If aspiring skiers were forced to only learn about the sport while seated in a conference room, they’d complete their course with a thorough understanding of its theory, but no experience. And once on an actual mountain, provided they could even find their balance, they’d likely crash into each other or slalom to their own peril. In short, it’d be a disaster.

So in the same way that aspiring skiers are advised to take lessons on a snow-covered slope with a pro instructor, we teach IT professionals to do while they learn and learn while they do. We give them not just any work to practice on, but have them bring up their actual projects on the desktop, whether it’s building a networking landing zone or migrating a workload. This combination of real-life work and just-in-time learning accelerates the field experience people need to put theory into practice.

3) Teach skills that pay the bills—and come with bottomless refills.

Teach trainees to deploy a MySQL database to the cloud and you give them skills for a day; teach trainees to deploy any database to the cloud, and you upskill them forever. That’s our spin on the give-a-man-a-fish proverb. In other words, whatever their task, IT professionals need to learn the how rather than the what of problem-solving. We deconstruct the skill and, in so doing, teach how to self-correct, as business coach Josh Kaufman puts it. That means we won’t teach each feature of every vendor’s every service. It also means our labs are intentionally not described in detail. We expect participants to search for answers along the way and troubleshoot problems themselves. We can’t anticipate all struggles a cloud specialist will face, but we can anticipate the skills needed to overcome them.

Plus, since time is always of the essence and the cloud changes so fast, we don’t deploy workloads to the cloud using a graphical user interface (GUI), as do many other IT companies offering training. Although comfortable and usually conducive to learning, the GUI is time-consuming and useless beyond a course. Instead, we urge automation, automation, automation. We teach trainees how to use test-driven development (TDD), command-line interfaces, APIs, and infrastructure as code (IaC). After all, once someone learns to deploy a database using IaC, deploying a storage solution feels reassuringly familiar.

4) Welcome emotions.

Sighing, grunting, cursing: those are the sounds of learning. New and complex things aren’t always a pleasure to get the hang of; sometimes people must first feel pain. We ensure they stay in that sweet spot of being challenged yet sufficiently engaged to stay onboard with the program.

Emotions are welcomed. They nourish a learning ethic that shows course participants what they’re capable of, how to stay committed, and to be confident enough to ask for assistance. Back on the job, this learning ethic translates into a work ethic. By the same token, as trainers, we bring our emotional intelligence to each session, whether it’s a formal workshop or some last-minute troubleshooting over the phone. We look after each participant, seeing them as distinct individuals with distinct personalities and ways of ingesting and digesting the new information. For some, learning cloud concepts comes easy so they need more challenges to stay motivated. Others, however, need more time or further explanation. We try to be mindful of those personal intricacies.

5) Remember that teamwork makes the cloud work.

For all our emphasis on individuals, we simultaneously recognize the importance of the teams those individuals belong to. In the cloud, IT professionals need to collaborate on projects from start to finish. The longer the work-in-progress time, the longer the delay in generating value for the end customer. Only within a kanban-like workflow can companies fully benefit from the cloud’s instant delivery of services, pay-per-use billing model, and virtually unlimited capacity. So when we train our customers, we’re not only sharpening their cloud skills, but are also reconditioning their work ethic. The inevitable outcome is increased agility, getting closer to realizing DevOps, and greater clarity about their value creation stream.

We therefore ensure each course we teach includes a multidisciplinary group of students. For exercises in pairs, we team up different backgrounds, say, a network specialist and a software developer, because that kind of synergy is what on-the-job cloud work requires from an organization. That process where an engineer picks up a ticket from a queue, builds a feature with a java result, and then sends it in for the colleague down the line to build on is outmoded. Instead, we cultivate a community that uses direct communication and quick feedback to achieve extremely high quality and extremely short time to value.

6) Count flight hours not class hours.

Certificates reflect the internalization of theoretical knowledge and can be a springboard for further proficiency, but lived experience is what generates value. How much time is devoted to a class, which topics are on the syllabus, and other academic metrics mean little if IT professionals don’t have the ability to execute. For this reason, we measure learning progress through actual implementation of cloud technology, not exams. It doesn’t matter if we spend 100 or 150 hours on training and have taught all topics in equal depth. What matters is that participants experience success in their work and generate value for the company. Thus, we count flight hours, not what would be the equivalent of airport hours.

Yet, we always start off on the journey together. To continue with the flying metaphor: we both begin in the cockpit, though we first take the captain’s seat and the trainee serves as co-pilot. That way the responsibility of keeping the plane in the air is not on their shoulders; we bear all the risk. Then at some point, the trainee gets enough experience to swap places. Once we see that they’re at ease in the captain’s seat, their colleague takes over as co-pilot and we return to our post in the control tower, just a call away.

7) Train trainees to become trainers… even if it makes us redundant.

The optimum way to learn is to teach others. If those pyramid of retention models are accurate, people retain 90% of what they learn when they teach someone else and/or immediately use what they’ve learned. That’s compared to the 5% retention rate from listening to a lecture, 10% from reading, and 50% from participation in a group discussion. Ultimately, we train trainees to become trainers themselves.

Rather than ushering more trainees into classrooms, the goal is to facilitate peer-to-peer learning within our customers’ teams. We enable frontrunners to educate colleagues in their own time. We want their knowledge and knowhow to have a ripple effect within the organization even if that leads to our training services eventually becoming redundant. To elaborate on our digital-era fish proverb: teach orchestrators to deploy a MySQL database to the cloud and you give them skills for a day; teach orchestrators to deploy any database to the cloud, and you upskill them to upskill their colleagues forever.