Network training: challenges and solutions for the new millennium


The rapid rate of change in technology is revolutionizing the way training is delivered to customers.

Anyone working in communications today who does not feel like they're on a freight train nearly speeding out of control is not paying close attention to the business. That edge--that slightly nervous feeling of moving faster than one's headlights--is critical to address not only because of the sheer size of the networks being built, but also because of the rate of change occurring in technologies that support today's networks. For instance, some networks being built today are so colossal they could handle the entire Internet traffic in the United States on a single fiber! That possibility is due to technological advances like dense wavelength-division multiplexing (DWDM), new laser transmitters and receivers, and dispersion compensated fibers that have only recently been introduced.

Two key challenges face all of us working in the communications business in terms of understanding the technology and our ability to effectively work with it. First, and foremost, is the speed at which new technologies come into play. What used to be a two- to three-year cycle for the introduction of new technologies into the network is now as brief as three months. Each new technological wave is so cost-effective that no network service provider can avoid applying the latest technology and training that must go with it. Secondly, the move from solely hardware-based, point-to-point transport solutions to the feature-rich software-based reconfigurable-network solutions has shifted the entire nature of training in network technologies and added a great deal of capability and (unfortunately) complexity.

The question then becomes, how to approach, deliver, and continuously evolve training to maintain a leading-edge position for both customers and companies delivering these rapid advances in optical technology?

Like most companies today, Lucent Technologies is communicating with customers in new, faster ways relative to training. There are now Web-based international and domestic U.S. training catalogs available to provide information on the most current Lucent training available at www.lucent.product-train ing.com/catalog. Customers will find a wide range of multimedia training products as well as the traditional hands-on, lab-based training on Lucent products and the underlying technologies.

Since communications growth and development is such an explosive phenomenon worldwide, Lucent has taken the approach to locate training centers in areas of greatest customer convenience throughout the world. The recently opened Lucent customer training center in Altamonte Springs, FL, houses an array of networking technologies, including the latest wireline, wireless, data-networking, network-management, and optical-networking technologies in both U.S. and international formats that can be configured into almost any network arrangement for hands-on training.

Lucent applies its capability for "suitcasing" training to customer premises when the group size is significant enough to warrant it. While there are a variety of multimedia training products available, hands-on training remains a key strategy.

It makes a real difference when technicians and managers get to put their hands on equipment and to see what happens when they take action--right or wrong. Only then can network personnel get a better sense of the impact of what they do. Technologies are on a path to increase the size of networks by a factor of ten every one to two years, with optical networking now operating at gigabit ranges and terabit systems on the horizon. When network systems become so large, it's extremely instructive to see just what can happen when one "pushes the wrong button" and impacts an entire network, or what happens when the "right button" is pushed and a whole new multigigabit network is established to meet customer demand.

Consider the position of some students working for network service providers building gigantic networks that have never been seen before. For many of these students, it is through training that they are able to experience, for the first time, technology they will be responsible for handling--technology they may have only heard about. Through hands-on training, they are being raised to a technical level to operate a system where they may be one of a handful in their whole company--or country--with the skills to do so. These students know they're on the leading edge of technology that's created by going beyond theory to practical experience.

How seriously do customers take training? In the area of optical networking alone, Lucent will have provided training for some 15,000 network managers and technicians by the end of the year. With an average course lasting three to four days, that means about 45,000 days of training a year.

Many students who travel to a location like Lucent's Altamonte Springs training center will book multiple courses and stay for several weeks to get the widest array of training in a concentrated manner. Lucent's approach has been to make its training centers a place where technicians and network managers can experience an array of technologies and see how each interacts with the other, because the future is not about one technology but about a lot of different technologies.

For example, if a customer wants to see the impact of a switch on an optical or wireless network, or how a data network feeds an optical network while operating a real/live network in a safe environment where there are no paying customers to be impacted, then such an experience teaches rather than just "shows" how things work. If one is studying optical networking, there's the opportunity to be exposed to other things at the same time. This capability is particularly significant when a company doesn't have a network yet but is poised to buy. Such training can give broad-based knowledge that can yield valuable perspective on network development and design. In short, the interaction of various network technologies and the links between these systems is a critical factor in today's network-knowledge base.

Practical knowledge also makes a difference. Virtually all Lucent instructors have come from operational units in the field, so they know what it's like to deal with the installation and operational issues customers face. Real-world knowledge is different than theory.

How does one stay on top of rapid change? It's almost too late to get involved with a product when it's ready to be rolled out. Lucent's approach is to develop training as the product develops. It is important that the training organization live with new products in the lab and sit on product teams as features and capabilities are discussed and designed. Only by being that far up the developmental pipeline can we meet our goal of having training available the minute the product is available--an issue of great concern for customers.

Lucent views training in terms of a knowledge transfer. Technologies and capabilities are being delivered that customers simply never have had before. It's an opportunity for both individuals and companies to jump to a whole new level of technology they couldn't imagine even a year ago.

The difference in training requirements today can be comprehended through understanding that the decades of the '60s, '70s, and '80s moved very slowly in terms of introducing new transport technologies--mostly delivered as hardware. But in the last two years, optical technologies and software introductions have accelerated to reach what seems to be the speed of light. For instance, there are now "designer" fibers that are "tuned" to meet specific applications, laser devices that can discriminate among many wavelengths, and software controls that let you manage a network with the capacity of the entire U.S. Internet traffic on a single fiber--and multiplied many times over. The magnitude of that change requires knowledge and training of an entirely different order than existed in the past--change so profound that it has driven the needs of customer training to a whole new level of delivery.

Wayne Stewart is director of optical networking for Customer Training and Information Products at Lucent Technologies.

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