High Tech High Touch In Action

Using The Latest Technology To Teach The Latest Technology.

It's a common quandary as technology becomes morecomplex and harder to master, training and travel budgets seem to be shrinking. So howdoes a company that depends on a knowledgeable workforce and as knowledgeable a customerbase use IT to overcome that dilemma? Click for a virtual classroom.

Centra Software, Inc. (Lexington, Mass.) is a provider of Web-based training andcollaboration systems. Their flagship product, Symposium, provides live, multi-point voiceover IP and an application sharing capability that delivers training over the Internet oran intranet. Founded in 1995 and only two years since the release of Symposium, Centra'scustomer and partner's list reads like a 'Who's Who?' of technology providers andintegrators. It includes Baan, Nortel Networks, Hitachi Data Systems, Oracle, and Kronos.

Not surprisingly, says Allen May, Centra's director of Partner Programs, technologyfirms were the first to integrate the concept of collaborative Web-based training andcertification into their offerings. "Their consultants can't be pulled out of thefield where their hours are billable," he says. "They have to build their skillswithout interrupting their normal work."

He points to Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PWC), a Centra Premier Partner, as a typicalexample. One of the world's largest consulting firms and system integrators, PWC hasincorporated Symposium into its application deployment methodology and the delivery oflive interactive, end-user training, support, implementation and consulting services aspart of its deployment of products such as SAP, Peoplesoft, Oracle and Siebel.

"Symposium is the enabling technology for [PWC] to deliver change management andtraining to their customers and internal consultants," says May. "[Along with]instructor led training complemented with Symposium, they're using it for hundreds ofthousands of people."

Centra claims that Symposium is the only live Internet collaboration software to offerfully integrated, multi-way audio conferencing as a standard feature accessible to allusers on a LAN, Internet, or low bandwidth dial-up connection. "We realized early onthat we would need to have control over all the types of content we could deliver,including audio, video and application sharing data streams," says Michael Hackney,Centra's CTO. "Other products maintain different data streams for each source whichleads to problems of synchronization and number of ports."

Symposium Skeleton

Symposium makes use of Windows multimedia APIs to capture the audio stream then usescompression technology from Voxware, Inc. (Princeton, N.J.) in a process Hackney describesas, "optimizing bandwidth by taking the pauses out. We wrap it up in ahigh-performance proprietary protocol, wrap that in TCP/IP and end up using 7.5kbps ofbandwidth per client." The combined data stream travels on what Hackney calls theSymposium Backbone. That high-compression algorithm allows for a connection as slow as a28.8kbps dial-up.

In March, Centra announced its Centra '99 product, which adds event templates and newtoolkits to the Symposium foundation. Hackney highlights the addition of open architecturesupport for HTTP, HTML, TCP/IP, XML, IMS, ODBC/JDBC and gateway services for LDAP thatwill offer integration with Microsoft, Oracle and other standard database products.

Centra '99 templates include: Sales for 1-to-1 and group sales training; Marketing forlarge-scale events; Training and Education to augment classrooms with hands-on technicaland certification training; Channel to enable product training for resellers; and Serviceto support mobile and remote service personnel.

May adds that Centra soon will be offering Web-hosting services for training."Customers who don't want to invest in the overall training infrastructure will beable to do one-stop-shopping. They will be able to purchase Symposium with an outsourcingoption and offload the burden."

THE CERTAINTY OF CERTIFICATION

The goal of HP Education is to create a high level of technical competency by offering programs that include both HP-UX and HP Information Technology Service Management (ITSM)/OpenView certification tracks.

Jamie Mulkey, HP Education's Worldwide Certification Program manager, attributes the recent rise in the popularity of certification programs to Microsoft's many product training offerings. But, she differentiates HP's certification program from Microsoft's by emphasizing the concentration of lab and lecture times involved. In HP's practice labs, students and teachers can interact with each other and solve problems as a group by way of shared-screen technology. The typical HP certification, she says, will take as many as three classes over 15 days. She adds that with the recommended three to six months of real-life experience between classes, to become HP Certified may take as much as 18 months.

"Microsoft focuses on passing tests," she adds. "In six to eight weeks you can become a [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer]. HP Certification is the first OpenView certification program specifically for HP customers that's based on specific skills. We're focusing on technical tasks, not on other aspects of their whole job like project management or people skills."

The program's philosophy, says Mulkey, is that employers have to be able to derive improved service quality, increased user satisfaction through enhanced technical support, greater staff productivity, heightened staff quality, lower operating costs and improved company reputation. Employees, on the other hand, will have faster career advancement, greater technical credibility, greater job satisfaction, better problem-solving skills, and ultimately, potential for higher pay and marketability.

The HP Certified program is constructed in two tiers: the HP Certified IT Professional and HP Certified Advanced IT Professional. The first tier deals with job-relevant skills that are matched by HP's core curriculum for HP-UX and ITSM/OpenView. Mulkey says that the second tier requires deeper, proven skills as shown by mastering complex tasks in special areas, such as High Availability, Operations, Performance and Capacity Management and customizing Network Node Manager in a multi-vendor environment. Both tiers require the passing of detailed tests: The IT Professional track includes a written exam only, while the Advanced IT Professional track includes a workshop and test comprised of written and hands-on components.

In addition, Mulkey says that practice tests are available for students to assess their readiness for true certification testing and that a program of knowledge maintenance will be offered for those who have finished their program. "We're implementing a continuing education model," she says. "To help keep their knowledge up to date, rather than re-test, we want to offer additional courses."

-- K.D.