Is Training A Waste?
Integrator Cambridge Computer Services' storage training center is not an A+ moneymaker, but it is a principal factor in the company's predicted 50% revenue increase for 2001.
When should a VAR spend money on a business unit that couldn't be wildly profitable on its own? The answer is when its very existence contributes to company profits as a whole. Cambridge Computer Services' (Boston) areas of integration include SANs (storage area networks), backup systems, high availability clustering of servers, and data archiving. These technologies are often not easy for customers to understand, and confusion leads to aversion, which leads to a longer sales cycle - or no sale at all. Providing education to those customers can help them make more informed decisions in a shorter amount of time.
Cambridge Computer Services' storage training program traces its roots back to 1991, when the company's staff consisted of the cofounders, Deena Berton, president and CEO, and cofounder Jacob Farmer, chief technology officer. Back then, storage was in demand, easy to sell, and little training was involved.
By 1995, the company had grown in revenue and staff, but hardware was becoming a commodity with a disappearing margin. Berton and Farmer realized that adding value to hardware was essential to preserving profits and that they needed to train their own staff. They designed a one-room training center, making a commitment to educating their employees and customers.
The one-room schoolhouse at Cambridge Computer Services worked well for five more years. But as the company grew and storage technology became more complicated, Berton and Farmer realized the training program should be expanded. In April 2001, its new $250,000 training facility, complete with a SAN lab, opened just down the street from the Harvard Business School campus.
Does A Training Center Fit Into Your Business Model?
A training center does not fit into the business model of every VAR and integrator. Some VARs differentiate themselves by providing technical support as the anchor for their businesses. For Cambridge Computer Services, the training center is not a business on its own, but is part of the bigger picture. There are three main virtues of the training center. It adds to the integrator's expertise and reputation, it adds value to the solutions it sells, and it can shorten the sales cycle.
"We spend enormous amounts of time educating our technical staff on the technologies we sell," said Berton. "Our training allows the technical staff to get real, hands-on experience with constantly evolving storage technologies. Then during the sales process, they have real experience behind them."
According to Farmer, the biggest benefit of the training practice is the level of expertise that it builds in the technical staff. He explained, "There is no better way to solidify one's understanding of a set of material, than to teach it to others. Our technicians end up with a wonderful mix of book smarts and street smarts."
Though it may sound trite, Berton believes that an educated customer is a happy customer, whether you are talking about presales or postsales. Customer training is a value add that box pushers cannot provide. "Our pitch to our customer is that we minimize the customer's cost of ongoing support and ownership of technologies by helping them make the right decision up front."
Taking The Fog Factor Out Of SAN
For professionals of all varieties who need a greater understanding of SANs, Cambridge Computer Services offers a complete curriculum of SAN classes. They offer "essential knowledge" classes that are designed for decision makers up through laboratory classes that serve as preparation for the Storage Network Industry Association's professional certification. Cambridge also offers a series of half day technical seminars for which there is no charge at all.
At Cambridge Computer Services, the training staff have aptitude for both teaching and technical implementation. They are hired for their communication skills, but they draw their knowledge from extensive hands-on work with the technologies in the lab and from experiences in the field. Once they become trainers, they must take part in extensive lab exercises, reviews of the materials, practice teaching, peer reviews, and testing. Though a few of the classes call for a lecture-type format, Cambridge Computer Services' trainers do not typically stand in front of the class shining laser pointers at white boards or clicking through PowerPoint presentations.
Many members of the training staff also work on the course development teams that produce Cambridge Computer Services' class materials as well as those of other companies that contract with Cambridge to develop training programs. In fact, Cambridge Computer is hosting a program to educate Legato's entire reseller base and was recently named Legato's "#1 Partner in Training and Professional Services."
Other members of the team refine their understanding of the industry through writing. Cambridge has produced a number of unique white papers on a variety of storage technologies. Currently a team led by Farmer is writing a book on storage networking technologies under contract with the publisher O'Reilly and Associates.
Coopetition: Getting Along Well With Others
Many of Cambridge's students are the salespeople, consultants, and technicians of other integrators. Providing training to potential competitors may seem strange, but Berton does it in the spirit of cooperation. Berton, and many others these days, use the term "coopetition," a phrase coined by Novell founder Ray Noorda in the 1980s to describe the synergies that can be achieved by cooperating with your competition. In Noorda's words, "You have to compete and cooperate at the same time."
Coopetition benefits Cambridge Computer Services' bottom line in two distinct ways. Firstly, Cambridge increases revenue by allowing other integrators to resell and sub-contract its services. After establishing a business relationship with Cambridge, a reseller can sell seats in Cambridge's training center and can offer on-site classes to its customers. Integrators are also invited to partner with Cambridge on all aspects of the sales cycle, from presales consulting through on-site installation. Many of Cambridge Computer Services' largest installations have been joint deals with companies that would otherwise appear to be competitors.
Secondly, by establishing a reputation as a collaborative company, Cambridge has been able to sell services to OEMs and ISVs (independent software vendors) who feel obligated to protect the competitive interests of their integrators. For instance, Cambridge is often hired by an OEM or ISV to integrate products that were sold by another VAR. Naturally, the VAR who made the initial sale would be concerned about losing account control with the end user. Cambridge honors these boundaries and does not solicit future business from the end user.
All of this contributes to Cambridge Computer Services' reputation and increases the level of trust from its customers. This often shortens the sales cycle. When customers have trust in the integrator's ability to provide advice, training, and service, they will be more likely to make a purchase decision faster.
"Education has always been a key component of our philosophy," said Berton. "We educate our customers about technology, so they can focus on their customers rather than their MIS challenges."
Berton said that Cambridge Computer Services encourages its clients to view training and education as a critical component to successful technology implementations. Education is an added value to the hardware and software that goes into customers' storage solutions. VARs can separate out the charge for training in the proposal, or they can build it into the entire proposal.
Training Center Demands Focus And Planning
Now that Cambridge Computer Services has its new training center up and running, it can offer more sophisticated classes than in the past. But it took a lot of planning to get the center operational. When the new center was first proposed a year before it became reality, Berton didn't meet with any objections from her staff, and many employees asked to be put on the project.
One of the biggest challenges as people started talking about the center was focus. "We did brainstorming and homework, but the biggest task was duking out which technologies we'd focus on," said Berton. As they settled on backup and SAN technologies, they realized the most important issue was making sure that they had a solid infrastructure. The two classrooms are networked with both Fibre Channel and Ethernet connections to simulate hybrid SAN and LAN environments. It has become a living, breathing entity as new products constantly cycle through the center. Some of these products are lent by vendors that are eager to showcase their products, and some are purchased outright by Cambridge Computer Services.
The actual set up of the center took about three months. The center consists of two classrooms, each designed for only 8 to 10 students so each student receives attention from the trainer. Inside the classrooms there are individual stations for each student, including a server, tape hardware, large monitor, and space to write.
SAN Lab Makes This Training Center Stand Out
Though the center's course offerings include software, tape backup, and general SAN technology training, the aspect that differentiates it from other training centers is the SAN lab. The SAN lab classroom gives students hands-on experience connecting and configuring Fibre Channel and SAN equipment. This includes switches, bridges, HBAs (host bus adapters), disk arrays, and cabling.
Berton uses prevailing market rates from other training providers to price her company's training programs. Classes that are more equipment-intensive are more expensive. For instance, the SAN Concepts & Architecture one-day crash course is only $295. This class was originally designed to educate network architects and other IT decision makers on SAN technology, so that they would be better prepared to plan their own site's migration to storage area networks. It has since been modified to suit a broader audience that includes consultants, technical industry analysts, and system engineers.
Technology professionals who need in-depth information on implementing Fibre Channel SANs can take the three-day Fibre Channel SAN Training Class, which costs $1,950. This course is particularly useful to administrators and consultants who will be responsible for the technological implementation of a Fibre Channel SAN. In the instructor-led open SAN lab, students are free to bring their own hardware or use Cambridge Computer Services' equipment for testing, experimentation, and interoperability questions.
Because Cambridge Computer Services has built its reputation over the past 10 years and the training program developed over that time, it does not require an aggressive marketing campaign. The company's Web site devotes a significant number of pages to training. But most importantly, the training program is part of every sales effort they make. Berton stressed, "We don't send out billions of flyers. We create demand through our selling process. We've also created relationships with vendors, like Legato, and provide training for their employees and their customers on a continuing basis."
Though Cambridge Computer Services makes education an anchor for its business model, it spends a great deal of time in integration. The company offers a suite of professional services in storage and backup technologies, ranging from presales and project planning to installation and training.
Adding a training program business unit that does not generate wild profits, certainly has not hurt Cambridge Computer Services. Indirectly, it actually contributes to the company's expected 50% increase in revenue during a period of economic downturn. Other VARs and integrators can apply this idea to their own businesses. They must look beyond what stares them in the face. Investments in training programs or other services may be difficult for VARs to apply ROI or payback analysis to. By considering the practical effects of each part of the business, an investment that seems like a waste may actually be a matter of common sense.Questions about this article? E-mail the author at AnnS@corrypub.com.