The Leap to Linux: How do you determine your training needs?

Many companies initially installed Linux for noncritical uses, but now the operating system is frequently being used to run core applications. To keep those applications running smoothly, IT managers must provide their staff with the necessary Linux expertise.

The challenge is determining what kind of training will work best in your IT culture. The following are questions each IT manager must consider when deciding how to establish a training program for Linux.

-- Should IT staff attend formal training sessions? The wide availability of online self-training courses in Linux allows many organizations to skip formal Linux courses and instead encourage staff to learn the system on their own. Other managers consider formal training to be essential.

"Four or five of our lead technologists are currently taking Linux courses," says Martin Armitage, senior vice president and head of the Global Infrastructure Organization at Unilever in London. "Those four or five will run workshops for their extended teams of 20 or 30 people." In this way, he says, Linux proficiency can "grow like mushrooms" throughout the organization. The consumer-goods giant plans to completely move its global IT infrastructure from Unix to Linux by 2006. By then, Armitage says, 200 people from his IT staff of 2,000 will be trained in Linux. As this work progresses, the company plans to use certification testing to make sure that everyone who's trained is up to speed. Because of the scale of the effort, he adds, "this is better than having people going out and self-teaching" (that is, learning on their own from books and online courses).

For Barry West, CIO at the National Weather Service (NWS) in Silver Spring, Md., the rationale for formal training is that the stakes riding on NWS systems lend a whole new meaning to the term mission-critical. "We're using Linux in an environment where time can make the difference between life and death, with the weather warnings we put out," he explains. "The more our staff can be trained, the better off we'll be." The NWS will need to train more than 120 IT workers in Linux.

-- What about certification? Many IT executives don't require certification -- at least for those on staff. Working hands-on with Linux, the reasoning goes, is a better test of whether you know it than a certification exam. But for others, having staff get certified seems well worth the effort.

"You'll be exposed to topics you might not be otherwise," says Steve Evans, vice president of information services at PGA Tour Inc. in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "It's also a good technique for evaluating people across their peer group, so that as we do compensation reviews, certification will help us determine where there's equity and inequity."

The PGA Tour's use of Linux is relatively new, and so far, the six staff members who work with it have been "picking it up in bits and pieces," Evans says. "As the project moves down the road, we will need to do formal education and certification."

Certification can also reveal what type of training each staff member needs, says Evan Leibovitch, president of the Linux Professional Institute in Brampton, Ontario. "Sometimes it boils down to the individual," he notes. "Some of your staff will need a class, while others do fine reading a book. Certification measures results: If someone studies on their own and then passes the test, they clearly didn't need the class."

-- What does your staff already know? "Going from Unix to Linux is like going from Windows 2000 to Windows NT," notes Robert M. Lefkowitz, director of open-source strategy at Merrill Lynch "They're not the same, but the differences are much smaller than the similarities."

That transition is harder to undertake for those working on a mainframe, he notes. "There's more that's unfamiliar."

Even if IT workers don't know Unix, it helps if they are accustomed to a command-line environment, such as non-Windows DOS, says Dave Ennen, technical support manager at Winnebago Industries Inc. in Forest City, Iowa. "The people who are from a pre-GUI environment are learning it faster than those who've worked only in Windows," he says.

-- Are they inspired to learn on their own? One of the most powerful benefits of Linux is the innovation and enthusiasm that IT staff bring to it. At Winnebago, for instance, the move to Linux was initiated by a single staff member who had become expert at using the system and inspired his colleagues to learn it as well, Ennen says. In fact, they learned to use it on their own time, outside of business hours.

Evans says PGA Tour's IT staff is excited about Linux because it lets them do more, such as write software to help monitor data. In a different environment, Evans says, they would have had to hand that job off to an application developer. That ability to do more on their own gives them a feeling of empowerment, he says.

"That enthusiasm and energy for learning is more important than past experience," he adds. "Anytime someone's pumped up about learning something new, good things happen."

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