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F5 Networks trying to push top-level F5 partners to Guardian program

In hopes of boosting participation in the Guardian Professional Services Program, F5 Networks introduced Guardian Fast Start, which offers a number of training incentives.

In December, F5 Networks launched Guardian Fast Start, a global training program for F5's Silver and Platinum Unity Partners to deliver advanced F5 implementations to their customers. The Guardian Fast Start Program aligns with the Guardian Professional Services Program, which F5 launched about two years ago. The Fast Start program is designed to speed up the process by which F5 partners can become Guardian partners.

"The objectives of [the Guardian Fast Start program] are to accelerate -- through incentives -- the pace by which partners become Guardian Program approved," said Jim Ritchings, senior vice president of worldwide channels at F5 Networks.

While F5 has its own consulting and professional services organization in place, the company has no desire to massively scale out the organization, he said. The company instead has embarked upon a strategy through its Guardian and Fast Start programs to enable more top-level F5 partners to do professional services work themselves.

Ritchings cited the numerous trends influencing the IT industry, such as cloud, varying consumption models, utility-based offerings, mobility and the dissolving of the IT perimeter , saying that "all of those trends really put a lot of pressure on vendors like ourselves to make sure that we're fully enabling our partners."

The Guardian Fast Start program offers a post-sales technical development roadmap that focuses on F5 training, technical certification, professional shadowing and delivery. "It's a commitment from the top down in our company to say we want to make sure that our partners are well-positioned to do this consulting work, to do this implementation work, to basically write all of this business on their paper. … Our partners are now making more services dollars on our business, where, years ago, it was primarily just profit coming from products."

The program's professional shadowing gives F5 partners' engineers and consultants a firsthand understanding of the implementation process. Partners in the Guardian Fast Start program will select engineers or consultants to travel with F5's own staff and participate in implementations. "They literally sit with [our staff] as integration is being developed, as projects are being executed. So they'll go into the customers. They'll go into our development centers. They'll go into our offices -- wherever the work is being done, remotely or onsite. And they will spend time elbow to elbow with our own consultants so they can learn through that process how we do it." Participating engineers and consultants will also review F5's project plans and statement of work documentation.

According Steve Rogers, director of the infrastructure practice at Nexus IS Inc., a Dimension Data-owned solution provider and F5 Gold partner, some vendors launch partner programs around a new technology but fail to offer formal training, onboarding or acceleration. "So, in essence, you're sort of meeting in the channel in front of clients, where you're trying to work together and figure out the best practices," he said. The Guardian program successfully formalizes all the best practices around service delivery of F5's advanced technology, he said.

The exposure to the technology is critical, too, Rogers added, pointing to the mandatory shadowing phase as a valuable portion of the Fast Start Program. Without getting that introduction to the technology in the field, "what you tend to see happening with partners is … their first customer deployment [of the new technology] tends to be very sketchy."

Rogers also believes the Guardian Fast Start accreditation lets Nexus stand apart in F5's partner community. "From a partner's perspective, it really is important to differentiate ourselves. There's a lot of people who want to sell F5 technology," he said. "What's great about this is … I can actually say, 'We're an F5 Guardian delivery program partner.' And that really helps differentiate ourselves from our competition."

While the educational development of partners' staff is important, Ritchings noted the drawbacks to actually doing it. "We understand that to take engineers out of the field or to take engineers off of customer implementations is not a decision easily made by our partners," he said. "To pull them out of the field, give them classroom education, have them go through certification and testing, have them go and shadow our own professional services consultants -- all of that requires time for resources that are traditionally billable."

The Guardian Fast Start aims to fix this problem by offering what are essentially sales performance incentive funds (SPIFs) for successfully completing each step of the process. "If they pass certification, we're basically paying them SPIFs -- back-end SPIFs. If they participate in shadowing with F5 consultants, we're paying them with SPIFs again. And if they deliver a proposal on their own paper for an F5 implementation and they get that contract, we'll actually pay them a SPIF there, as well," he said.

"We're not eliminating all of the costs [of the education], but we're meeting the partners well past halfway," he said. By incentivizing the enablement process, Ritching believes F5 will see many more of its Unity partners become Guardian approved. In fact, F5 has set its sights on tripling the number of Guardian partners that they have in the program as of December 2014 by September 2015.

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What are the challenges of training your staff? Is training and education always worth the investment?
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By far, the biggest challenge I have faced in training employees has been in the creation of the curriculum for the class and subject matter. Because the information of the employee training must be standardized, drafting the needed curriculum to ensure all employees walk away with a base level of knowledge from the session is quite difficult. I have tremendous faith in the employees but each has a unique method learning, making training a challenge.
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You could bring in outside instructors or send staff to off-site classes. But I think you gain much more by keeping the work and the knowhow in-house. There’s no reason to send anyone off-site if you can reallocate the time of your more advanced workers already on staff.

Pick people whose skill sets you appreciate and want to replicate. You’re dealing with known factors. These top workers become mentors to the trainees and you build a strong chain of responsibility. In essence, you’re recreating the age-old apprenticeship program. It worked then, it works now.

Not only do you get smarter workers, you increase employee retention by keeping them right at their workstations and building camaraderie across disciplines. Endless studies have shown that well-trained works stay put. That’s win/win for almost any company.
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A lot comes down to budget and the project. If this may be a one time need it may be cheaper to hire a consultant. That would be based on the needs of the project to get it done on time compared to the other option,  can afford to lose the man hours needed for the proper training.  Secondly will this training be used again in the near future. A lot of time new knowledge is lost if it's not reinforced by continual use.

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I have had several different types of training opportunities at my current company. I work in Software QA and have attended several QA/software conferences at company expense, which I found tremendously beneficial. The company has also brought in an on-site instructor a couple of times. I also found that engaging and beneficial, and I learned a lot. 

The department really wants to push online training at sites such as Pluralsight, because this type of self-paced, online access to training materials is so much cheaper.

I personally have not requested access to any online training, because I find that I don't get much out of it. I highly prefer a class type of environment. Sometimes I learn the most from group discussion in that type of environment, and that's something that's completely absent when completing a course online.
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The biggest challenge to any training initiatives at any organization are for what is being taught to be effectively applied. To that end, what we found to be most helpful was what we called our "Brown Bag Thursday" lunch meetings and a white board that we actively maintained. The Brown Bag Thursday was a standing lunch date the team had where we'd all get together and cover some topic relevant to our team and help cross pollinate between us. The white board was a listing of skills, technologies and tools that we use or wanted to use, and we'd use a colored marker, unique to us, and we'd make a circle. A circle with just an outline meant we didn't know much about that area but wanted to learn. A fully filled in circle meant we knew a lot about that area, and could teach a bit about it. semi filled circles meant we knew something in between. This way, if we had members on our team who didn't know about something (three empty circles) and someone else had a fully filled in circle, that was an obvious topic for a Brown Bag Thursday. I kid you not it was very effective, and helped us al cross train each other :).
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Years ago I worked for a company that had plans to go in a certain direction. They sent me for training in Java. When I completed the course I was eager to use this new knowledge.. The project fell through for some reason and I did not get to use my knowledge. I was in the IT department on the RPG/ILE side. Now I work for same company on the . NET VB side. IT would be nice if I still remembered all the Java I had learned about 8 years ago...My point is don't invest too far into the future with training. Your visions and goals change more often than you think.
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No, certainly not always they worth it. A lot depends on the approach - whether it's formalistic with people being ordered to attend some training or opportunistic.
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How would the Guardian program successfully formalize the best practices around service delivery of F5's advanced technology?
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