Storage certification and training: Big gaping holes

Resellers and integrators have suffered through shoddy storage certification and training courses for far too long. It's time for vendors to overhaul their programs. In the meantime, there are ways to prove to customers that you know more than the vendor about installation and implementation of storage products.

George Crump, President and Founder, Storage Switzerland

There's a lot of time, money and attention spent on storage training and certification. For someone in the channel, it can be daunting to say the least. In my former days of heading up engineering for a storage integrator, I often pondered hiring someone full-time just to attend trainings so we could maintain the storage certifications. Truth be told, we sort of did that by sending our tech support department to the trainings, while keeping our lead installers out in the field where they could do the two things they did best: make customers very happy and keep our company profitable. Other than payroll, training was by far the most costly item on my P&L. I hated sending the engineers who worked for me to training; odds were very high that they weren't going to learn anything they hadn't already learned by shadowing our own engineers. And pulling them out of the field to pay for them to fly somewhere plus pay for training was a triple expense.

We actually had a person whose full-time job was to track certifications to make sure they were up to date. Why was maintaining authorizations so important? Because the customers demanded to know who was certified on what and would not let a noncertified engineer install their solution, right? Wrong. It was because we needed that level of certification to maintain our authorization so we could continue to buy the hardware and software from those storage manufacturers. That doesn't sound all that bad, does it? Maybe not, but when you consider the quality of typical supplier training, you would be hard pressed to justify its existence.

What is wrong with (most) supplier training aimed at resellers? The simple fact is that it's mostly regurgitation of the system administrator class. That's right, it teaches the guy who's supposed to implement the solution how to run the solution. While it's OK to include that in the training, it should come after the installation material. I have actually audited reseller training classes where the solution was installed and the training started with the application interface already up on the screen. During a break, I asked if they were going to cover product installation to the point of using the application, and the response was "no." This class was the (as in only) reseller training class, and with this product in particular installation wasn't a no-brainer.

For suppliers to really help the channel get their product installed and running, they need to change the way they train. First, an installation class should cover -- get this -- installation. And besides installation, it needs to cover all the prep work for the product -- for example, site preparation, server preparation and network requirements. And a supplier might need a separate training class for presales system engineers. So many projects seem to go bad at the point of installation, when in reality they go bad at the point of design.

Storage training should also spend a lot of time explaining what to do when something goes wrong. Something always does; the training needs to cover the steps to get the product running if they're not painfully obvious. And the "when things go wrong" section should cover more than just the product itself, but also what can go wrong in the environment that will make the product fail or how the product can make the environment look like it failed. Integrators need to surgically insert something into the living organism known as the data center without causing any harm to it. If what they insert exposes a weakness in the data center, they need to have the skills to help the end user fix that weakness. An integrator doesn't have the luxury of saying, "That's not our product."

Storage suppliers need to make customers care about certification. I don't want to date myself here but I can remember when Novell rolled out this thing called a CNE (Certified NetWare Engineer) certification. It marketed the importance of that training to customers, who learned that it was important and started asking resellers for people with that training. I even paid extra to have the cool little logo on my card. The program then was ruined by the cram session courses, where resellers could take all the exams in a condensed class; when the quality of the training went down, customers stopped asking for it. That brings us to the situation we have today around certification.

Clearly, things need to change. Suppliers need to overhaul their training programs and invest again in certification like the original CNE.

In the meantime, what can integrators do? Unfortunately, to be excellent, you have to invest. I strongly suggest a lab; beg, borrow and steal (of course, TechTarget does not endorse stealing) products if you have to, but get some. Even if you have lab experience, for your first few installations of a new product, sell the manufacturer's installation services and shadow them so you can learn in the trenches. Usually, the installing engineers know all the tricks that suspiciously never make it into training. Lastly, fight hard not to go to training. Ask for refunds if the training was ineffective; the vendors will likely give you your money back or at least give you some product for your lab! (If you go down this road, I'd be interested in hearing about it. Email me.)

Finally, you need to tell your customers that you've made this investment. They've been to the supplier training, and they know how bad it is too. In talking to customers about a project, we made the quality of the implementation a key component. I always started the conversation with, "What was the last manufacturer training you went to?" and then asked, "What did you think?" Almost always, the answer was something like, "It was OK." They were being nice. I would respond with, "We do this type of installation day in and day out; OK is not good enough. We have a lab, we've shadowed their engineers, we've designed our own installation guides." Our commitment to the storage training process showed that we were not only more qualified to do the installation than the next reseller but we were also more qualified than the manufacturers. A similar commitment to storage training and certification should bring your organization the same competitive advantage.

About the author
George Crump is president and founder of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. With 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the United States, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, George was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest storage integrators, where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection.

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