I surveyed 53 IT professionals about online IT training in August 2021. Most of the folks I interact with are networking & cloud infrastructure professionals, and the answers reflect that. 53 responses isn’t enough to draw hard and fast conclusions from, but I still believe there are interesting trends & individual comments worth thinking about.
By the way, if you’d like to submit your own responses, I left the survey open. I told Google Forms to not collect email addresses, so your responses are anonymous.
1. Which online learning sites do you have a subscription to or have bought an IT course from?
- Udemy – 32
- Pluralsight – 24
- INE – 19
- A Cloud Guru – 16
- CBT Nuggets – 12
- Coursera – 9
- O’Reilly / Safari – 7
- ITProTV – 4
- LinkedIn Learning / Lynda – 3
- Juniper Learning Portal – 2
- Pearson – 2
- Skillshare – 2
- Adrian Cantrill – 1
- Cisco Learning Network – 1
- Global Knowledge – 1
- Ivan Pepelnjak – 1
- KBITS – 1
- Kirk Byers – 1
- Routehub – 1
- Skillsoft – 1
- TalkPython – 1
- Teachable – 1
- YouTube – 1
I believe Udemy is so popular because it’s a great platform to discover courses and instructors, and buy what you like a la carte. No subscription is required for students to use Udemy. But Udemy itself is just a marketplace–a platform that does well delivering instructional material, but not creating it. When buying a course through Udemy, your experience will vary as instructor quality varies.
Sites like CBT Nuggets, INE, and Pluralsight offer their material via potentially pricey subscriptions, but the content libraries are large, deeply technical, and taught by experienced experts. You want what they are teaching, and you’re willing to pay for access to that knowledge–or you aren’t.
Large media companies from the world of books aren’t attracting as many students as they once did, despite well-recognized brands. Pearson and O’Reilly stand out to me as struggling to pivot successfully into video training.
Independent creators not tied to a larger brand or content library have fans, too. Adrian Cantrill, Ivan Pepelnjak, KBITS, Kirk Byers, Routehub, and TalkPython are all independent folks. That should encourage instructors who want build their own platform and deliver exactly the experience they want their students to have.
2. Subscription vs. single purchase. Which would you rather?
- 57.7% – Pay a monthly subscription and have access to everything.
- 26.9% – Buy one specific course or bundle at a time.
- 15.4% – It depends.
The folks in the “it depends” camp offered the following to qualify their choice.
- Depends heavily on pricing. If my learning goals are specific to one area or course, then a subscription may not hold value or my employer may not want to fund it.
- Yearly fee, especially if employer pays.
- Ideally I want to be able to go access/redo any course whenever I like, so that tends toward buying one specific thing. But subscription-based services typically give you access to an entire pool of courses. So, tough to say if can only do one.
- I do both where it makes sense.
- It depends (as usual)… If the platform has enough peripheral content and a subscription is affordable, then I prefer subscriptions. I have a subscription or Pluralsight for this reason. Others that want too much money for limited content that is not updated frequently, but there is one trainer or course that I want, I would prefer to be able to pay “a la carte”.
- Depends on the platform offering.
3. Who pays for this training?
- 42.3% – I do.
- 26.9% – My employer does.
- 30.8% – A mix…it depends on the material or provider.
The issue represented here is, I believe, one of price sensitivity. Self-funded learners tend to be more price conscious, while employer-funded learners less so. Corporations see dollar costs in a different way than individuals do. This is a conundrum for independent instructors who want to maximize their income while providing affordable training to folks on a budget trying to keep up their career demands.
4. Why do you train?
I asked folks to choose the one most significant reason that they train.
- 41.5% – Lifelong learner! (Because I am intellectually curious.)
- 22.6% – Money! (For career opportunities.)
- 20.8% – Certs! (To pass certification exams.)
- 15.1% – Some combination of the three.
The response here surprised me, as I expected the majority of folks to be focused on certification. But as I’ve considered this, I’ve realized that IT certifications, while still important to the industry, aren’t the meal ticket they once were. Cert exams have lost integrity due to braindumping. Vendor cert programs have become more vendor-specific and less broadly applicable. Both hiring managers and IT professionals are increasingly skeptical about certs as a result.
Many VARs are obligated to care about certifications, because their partnerships with vendors depend on employing certified folks. Non-VAR companies might require a cert to reduce the applicant count a hiring manager has to consider. Screening in this manner is a bad practice as experienced, valuable candidates are filtered out by an algorithm, but is still common practice at some organizations.
Therefore, I can’t say certs don’t have value (especially for junior roles), but I believe the career role certs play continues to change. I see certs & their learning blueprints as a valuable learning path. The credential itself? Not so much without a specific reason to have it…or maybe for the bragging rights. 😉
5. What do you feel is most important for you to learn over the next 1-3 years? Optionally, tell me why.
This was left as an open-ended question, rather than multiple choice. I was curious to hear the answers without my own opinions poisoning the well via my own selection of multiple choice options. Here is a summary of the responses in no particular order.
- Big 3 public clouds – AWS, Azure, and GCP
- Networking vendor platforms, products, and certs – Arista, Cisco (ACI, DevNet, wireless, CCDE, CCNP), Dell, Itential, Juniper (including Apstra), Nokia, VMware NSX
- Open source networking & whitebox switching
- Networking fundamentals – routing, switching, BGP
- Containers & container-based infrastructure
- Python programming
- Developer-related skills – REST APIs, JSON, GitHub, CI/CD pipelines
- Infrastructure-as-Code (IaC)
- Orchestration & automation tools – Ansible, Terraform, Nautobot, Nornir
- Open source visibility tools – Prometheus, Grafana, ELK stack, TIG stack
- “Soft” skills – interpersonal relationships, effective communications, work/life balance, time management
As I reviewed the responses, the most repeated themes were AWS, Azure, IaC, GitHub, Python programming, and Ansible. This echoes discussions we’ve been recording in our networking and cloud engineering podcasts at Packet Pushers, and underscores at least two things that are happening in IT organizations.
- Public cloud adoption continues to grow. There’s no surprise in that. If there is a nuance worth bringing up, it’s that public cloud is not resulting in the demise of on-premises computing. Instead, public cloud has introduced a new, complex skillset that IT professionals must gain alongside their so-called legacy knowledge.
- Infrastructure provisioning and information gathering is becoming automated. IT engineers are treating infrastructure as code, not merely because it’s interesting, but because it’s necessary. Organizations are less and less tolerant of provisioning cycles that take weeks or months. That puts automation, IaC, and the related tooling and skills in the spotlight.
Demand for skills like Python and Ansible show an appetite for IT organizations to roll their own automation. To me, that means network automation is still in its infancy. Many of us that have begun automation of repetitive tasks realize that one-off scripts don’t scale up to a system teams can use jointly without a tremendous amount of planning and execution, plus a dedicated human.
I anticipate that the popularity of network orchestration and automation platforms will grow over time as IT shops outgrow their early attempts with scripting and playbooks. There are many robust entrants in this space, including Itential, Gluware, Anuta, Apstra, NetYCE, and Pliant and several more not leaping to mind. But for now, open source DIY tools provide a quick aspirin for some headache relief.
6. Name things you love or hate the most about your online IT training experience.
This was another open-ended question. I’ve shared the most actionable and enlightening responses, most of which were complaints rather than kudos.
- I love when there is a lab or simulator to do the commands / API calls.
- Labs & exercises – because it is easy to read/listen to info but being forced to do exercises cements the knowledge.
- I love clear, deep-dive examples that enlighten.
- Generally like the depth that some trainers will go just to explain technologies.
- Few offer well-organized contents & most of them lack real world examples.
- Poor visual slides/diagram. No workbook step-by-step.
- Don’t fill up all the space with words. Some trainers think, “Speaking is training, so the more I speak the better I’m training!”
- Many courses have tests that are difficult or impossible to skip.
- No contact with other participants.
- Hard to make them social learning or group learning. Most of the platforms it is a solo effort. For some topics, that is fine, but for others, not the best way to learn like you do with a team of people working on a real problem in your environment.
- Searching could be better when looking for a specific technology to learn.
- High cost – some platforms charge assuming companies are paying. When not an option, this locks you out.
- Lack of depth into the details that make things actually be usable or starting off with too many assumptions about existing knowledge making it difficult to get started.
- There is a giant cliff between the “100k foot view” Step 1 and the “Deep in the weeds” step 2. Most training is written for people who already understand the material. Few trainers think about or remember HOW they learned the material in the first place. They’ll forget to define acronyms and what they mean, or place the technology into context when introduced. Since this info is cumulative in the training, I often quit very early on when they move beyond the absolute basics because they haven’t described things smoothly enough.
IT learners want more than lecture–they also want labs & hands-on examples. Learners also seek clear context about what they are learning. I’m reminded of the joke about how to draw an owl. Step one. Draw these two circles. Step two. Draw the rest of the owl. Training courses that assume too much about where the learner is at might lose them if they ramp up too quickly.
The issue of online learning with others is a sticky one. An instructor who facilitates online group learning via Slack, Discord, or a forum should moderate the discussions to keep them free from spam and badly behaved participants. That’s a tradeoff as moderation and interaction takes time that could be otherwise used to create more training material.
7. I wish there were (better) courses available about…
This open-ended question was a follow-up to question 5. I wanted to see what cutting-edge training material folks were looking for, but not finding to their satisfaction. I selected the responses that stuck out to me the most.
- Open source networking & how hyperscalers design their network
- Advanced Free Range Routing (FRR)
- AWS Cloud Development Kit (CDK)
- Practical, real-world network automation–not just another Ansible course
- Data modeling as related to IaC
- OpenID/OAuth2 for infrastructure engineers
- Git + CI/CD from the ground up, no prerequisite knowledge required.
These topics expose a few interesting problems in the networking training space in particular.
Some topics have low demand, so trainers looking to sell as many copies of a course as possible will be less interested in developing course material for them. Open source networking including FRR fall into this category.
This becomes a chicken-and-egg problem. Perhaps a company wants to adopt open source networking, but decides against it because there’s not enough decent training material. But there’s not enough decent training material because there aren’t enough adopters to make it compelling for an instructor to build the material.
This situation places the burden on OSS project maintainers to have outstanding documentation, which some do. But unless there’s enough people to spread the work around, OSS project leaders might have to choose between good docs and new features. I’ve talked with enough OSS folks to know that they’d rather be working on features if they have to make a choice. Almost every OSS leader I’ve interviewed has called for more people to contribute to their projects as documentation writers.
What’s a potential instructor to do? I think the answer comes in differentiation. An instructor teaching about a niche topic trades short-term sales volume for the benefit of establishing themselves as an expert in a hopefully growing field. Being first to market has advantages that can pay off in the long-term.
Other topics mentioned relate to the challenge infrastructure folks face transitioning to IaC. For instance, API authentication is a big topic for infrastructure folks. OAuth2 is a common roadblock to run into for the uninitiated. It’s a miserable protocol to get your head around when you’re used to old-school user/pass credentials or simple tokens. Git is a great mystery at first, and GitHub even more intimidating as you don’t want to get it wrong when collaborating. How to apply CI/CD to infrastructure isn’t always obvious, and can at first feel like busy work without an obvious benefit.
IaC is nascent. The tools are evolving rapidly. The techniques keep changing. Not that many people have a good handle on how to do it well. That means there’s just not much training material, because there’s not a paved path strewn with roses we can all follow on our way to programmatic nirvana. There’s room not only for training how to use a tool, but also for a philosophy of tool usage–the design and architecture of IaC systems management.
8. Anything else you want to share with me about online IT training?
This was my closing survey question, meant as a catch-all to gather whatever else was on folks’ minds that they were willing to share. A few especially noteworthy responses grabbed my attention. As they were diverse and harder to generalize about, I’ll analyze each in turn.
- Some of the YouTube and podcast-based learning I’ve gone through which has a Slack/Discord/etc so I can ask questions and clarify have been way better than $500 courses of watching videos with no check or resource if something is confusing.
While I’ve pointed out that moderation of group chats is a possible concern, I can’t deny the value of a group discussion. For the instructor, there’s the opportunity to learn where students are being tripped up and improve their content. There’s also the benefit of fellow students helping each other out, so it’s not always a unicast between instructor and student.
- Creating blogs and videos as I learn help me both share and solidify my understanding.
In my opinion, there is no greater way to learn a complex topic than to write about it well enough that someone else can understand it.
- At times I feel overwhelmed with learning in networking and feel the burnout hard. Anyone else feel the learning burnout?
Yes. I feel it, and especially sympathize with anyone coming into the networking field fresh. The fundamentals are hard enough to learn, let alone all the overlays, policy controllers, automation tools, and proprietary vendor magic we’ve bolted onto the side. Add the unusual guardrails cloud service providers add to your packets, and learning burnout is almost the only possible outcome for a network engineer.
- It needs to be to the point, less rambling and more actual knowledge sharing.
This point about “getting to the point” came up often enough throughout the survey that I felt it was worth including. Some instructors are great talkers, but have no economy of words. More isn’t always better for some students, though.
- Keeping material fresh to latest product models and software release versions is a key value position for training material (not every training video is good for all time).
This is another point that popped up throughout the survey, and it’s a tough one for instructors to hear. Much technical training material needs to be updated regularly, or it slowly loses relevance as the industry changes. For me, the takeaway is to keep modules short and tightly focused. It’s easier to update a 3 minute video than a 30 minute lecture.