INTERVIEW: Directions in IT Training

As an author/editor of over 50 computing books and a professional with background and experience in the field of education plus several years working as a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) I have always been interested in keeping up with trends in the IT technical training field. But while I continue to write prolifically, mainly in the areas of Windows server and cloud technologies, and provide weekly editorial content for WServerNews our weekly newsletter, I am no longer actively involved in the technical training field. So I thought it might interest our readers here on WindowsNetworking.com, many of whom are continuing to enhance their skills and credentials via various forms of training, if I interviewed someone who is still active in the IT training field to get a take on how things have changed in recent years and how they might evolve in the future. For this purpose I interviewed Mike Pfeiffer, an accomplished IT architect, consultant, author, and conference speaker with nearly 20 years of experience in the tech industry. He’s a former architect for Amazon Web Services and engineer for Microsoft. In addition to working on large scale architecture and migration projects over the years, he’s published books, blogs, white papers, and training courses on a variety of topics related to cloud computing, infrastructure architecture, deployment automation, configuration management, and more. Mike was happy to be interviewed and gave us his perspective not only on the IT training landscape but also on topics like consulting and authoring books. So let’s begin the interview…

MITCH: We’re talking today with Mike Pfeiffer, a technical architect, author and speaker based out of Phoenix, Arizona. Mike thank you for taking time to share some of your wisdom and insight with the IT pro readers of our site WindowsNetworking.com.

Mike: Thank you Mitch, happy to be here.

MITCH: Mike it sounds like you do quite a lot of things. Tell us a bit about how your IT career has evolved over the years.

Mike: I’ve been in the IT business now for almost 20 years. I started out by answering tech support calls for PC manufacturers back in the 90’s. I worked my way up and landed a job as an IT consultant. I spent about 10 years working for various consulting companies doing all kinds of different projects; lots of migration work for big enterprise customers. Eventually I started teaching training classes and running a user group, which led to speaking at conferences on a regular basis. After that I spent several years working at Microsoft and then Amazon where I did all kinds of interesting things. I still love having a variety of things to work on, and these days I split my time between consulting, writing, and teaching.

MITCH: Let’s narrow in a bit on training. What’s it like being a technical trainer nowadays in the IT industry? I used to be a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) myself, but that was more than a decade ago so I’m sure things have changed somewhat.

Mike: Yes, the pace of change in IT is definitely the biggest difference. Things are moving faster than ever and it’s much harder nowadays to keep up. Even Microsoft has had a hard time keeping courseware up to date. I recently taught a Microsoft Azure class where the courseware was way behind the current technology. You have to be well organized and stay on top of updates, which can happen daily or weekly in some cases.

MITCH: How integral is the cloud to technical training nowadays? I’m thinking more of the learning environment and not the subject matter being taught…

Mike: I think it depends on the class. In my case, I mostly teach Azure and AWS so it’s critically important. I’m a big believer in hands-on practice and I don’t think you can become proficient with any technology without it, so labs are super important. Without access to these cloud platforms, I don’t think my students would learn much. On the other hand, when teaching something like Windows PowerShell for beginners, we could get by with a single Windows machine per student. So it really depends on the technology. If lots of virtual machines are involved, I know some training centers have had some success in using both private and public cloud solutions.

MITCH: Are the days of classroom training for IT pros coming to an end? Or is there still a place for that kind of training environment, even in a cloud-connected world?

Mike: I think there’s still a place for classroom training. Everyone learns differently and some people really prefer to have a live experience where they can ask questions and get instant feedback. With that said, I do believe traditional live training is slowing down and online video training will be the standard going forward. You can already see this happening by looking at the popularity of providers like Pluralsight who have grown massively in just the past few years.

MITCH: If someone wants to become or to succeed as technical trainer today, what should they do?

Mike: To become a trainer, my advice is to start chipping away at the MCT requirements. There are several and it will take some time to get certified. However, you can and should start teaching right away using alternate methods. You can do this by blogging, posting YouTube videos, or speaking at user groups.

To succeed as a trainer, make sure you’re bringing your “A” game. You should be an expert in what you are teaching. Years ago I attended a training class where the instructor literally read to us from the book and it was clear they had very little experience or knowledge in what they were teaching. My advice is to never put yourself or your students in this position. Pick one technology and master it. After that, move on to another. Teach what you know.

MITCH: Is most of the training you do towards the goal of the attendees getting certified? Or is it just to learn about new technologies? What motivates the people who take training with you?

Mike: My live classes are usually not certification focused. Most of the time, students are ramping up for a project at work. In my most recent Azure class I had students who started moving virtual machines from their on-premises environment to Azure before the end of the week. Not everyone is that bleeding edge, but most students are usually looking for a way to solve a problem or just move to the newest version of a technology.

However, I have been doing a lot of certification-based training for Pluralsight which you can find here. I think the video format is great for studying for certifications because you can take your time and rewind the videos if needed. Plus you’re not constrained to trying to learn and memorize stuff in a short 3-5 day window that a traditional live class would require.

MITCH: Let’s move on and talk about authoring. I see you’ve written at least three books on managing Microsoft Exchange using PowerShell. Is that a big technology need area nowadays or is it more a special subject interest you have?

Mike: PowerShell in general is certainly a core skill for IT pros working in Microsoft-based environments. The technology has been a passion of mine since it was in beta 10 years ago. I wrote the first version of that book about 5 years ago. I was an Exchange MVP at the time, so writing a book on PowerShell for Exchange was just a natural fit for me since I worked with both technologies daily.

MITCH: Is getting into writing IT pro books something you would recommend to those interested? From my own experience writing books is a lot of work, and nowadays with so much free information available online you usually can’t earn very much from writing books…

Mike: I would only recommend it if it’s a personal goal or “bucket list” item for you. I wouldn’t recommend it as a way to make money. With the speed at which technology changes these days, your book could end up outdated before it’s even published. If you want to make money developing content, my advice is to become a Pluralsight author. The royalties are much better compared to writing books, and in my experience I can put together a course in much less time. Anyone who wants to learn more can feel free to ping me on Twitter or LinkedIn to discuss further.

MITCH: Your LinkedIn profile says that you also do consulting. What sort of consulting work do you do i.e. what technology areas?

Mike: I spend most of my consulting time helping customers with projects on Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Azure. The technologies or services vary from one project to the next, but one constant is automation. I’m typically doing deployment or process automation in one form or fashion using a variety of tools and services.

MITCH: You’re also listed as a speaker in your profile. What’s the speaking circuit like nowadays for technical professionals?

Mike: The speaking circuit is great from my perspective. It seems like there’s always some type of event going on, whether it’s a big conference or just a local meetup. Both IT/Dev Connections and PowerShell + DevOps Global Summit are events I’ve spoken at in the past that encourage anyone to share their stories. You don’t have to be an expert speaker, you just have to be willing to share your knowledge. I recommend getting involved with conferences or local meetups, whether it’s as a speaker or as an attendee. It’s a great way to stay current with technology and network with people in the industry.

MITCH: How do you manage to balance everything e.g. writing, speaking, training, consulting etc? Is there any time left for family or having fun? <grin>

Mike: Fun is a luxury I can’t afford Mitch! Seriously though, for me it’s all about balance. You just have to become detail oriented and manage your calendar vs. letting your calendar manage you.

MITCH: What excites you most about being a self-employed IT pro? And what are the biggest challenges you face in this regard?

Mike: I’m enjoying the independence. If I have a good idea, I execute on that idea. There are no gatekeepers in my way.

My biggest challenging is squeezing the most productivity out of each day that I can. I’m constantly adjusting the way I do things to improve efficiency. For example, writing and shooting videos are both things that need editing. If I have to do those editing tasks on my own, it takes away from other things I can be doing which I am much better at. However, if I get someone else to do it, then I can focus on things that are more important to my business. Those are a couple of quick examples, but I challenge myself daily to be as productive as possible.

MITCH: Is there anything else you’d like to say or suggest to our IT pro readers?

Mike: Almost everyone I know has something they wish they could do or could have done. Whether its career related or not, my advice would be start trying to achieve that goal today. You’re probably busy, so start small. Just focus on getting a little bit better or a little closer to your goal each day.

MITCH: Mike thank you again for giving us your time.

Mike: Thanks again Mitch, I really appreciate the invitation and opportunity to speak with you and the readers of WindowsNetworking.com

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