In-Depth

IT Training on the Cheap

Keep your IT knowledge up-to-date without breaking the bank with these simple tips.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year, you know that the United States is in the midst of a deep recession. As such, companies are doing pretty much anything they can to cut costs. According to a lot of the people I've talked to, one of the first things to go is the IT training budget. But that doesn't mean you have to go without training: You just have to be a little bit creative.

This was something that I figured out a long time ago. In 2001 I quit my job as a CIO to become a full-time freelance writer. One of the things I quickly discovered was that the only way I could prosper was to keep my knowledge current and to learn as much as I possibly could about a wide variety of technologies.

As much as I love training classes, there's no denying that they tend to be expensive and time-consuming. In my line of work, attending traditional training classes just doesn't make sense for me. Many of the classes that I'd be interested in cost about $2,000 per week. Not only would I have to pay the tuition out of my own pocket, but the time I spent in class would be better spent making money by writing articles. Fortunately, I've discovered a lot of different techniques over the years for keeping my education current without breaking the bank. Given the current state of the economy, it's an opportune time to share some of these techniques with you.

Microsoft Events
When I mention Microsoft events, your mind probably turns to the large events like TecháEd. Although I find TecháEd to be an extremely worthwhile event, it's far from being the only event that Microsoft has to offer. What you might not realize is that many of Microsoft's events are completely free. Microsoft offers free TechNet and MSDN events all over the country. If you happen to live in or near a major city, then chances are you'll be able to take advantage of some of these free events without even having to worry about travel costs. You can find out which events are happening in your area at www.microsoft.com/events.

User Groups
Another free source of training that I've used on occasion are user groups. Before moving out of the area, I used to be a member of the Carolina IT Professionals Group. This particular group had monthly meetings that featured technical presentations by Microsoft experts and well-known IT professionals. As an added bonus, the group's sponsors typically gave away several thousand dollars worth of door prizes at each meeting. Granted, each user's group is unique, but it's not unthinkable that other user groups may offer similar benefits to their members.

Technical Conferences
One of the best ways to further your professional education is to attend various IT conferences. The presenters typically have a great deal of knowledge on the subjects they're talking about, and can often give practical advice about how to apply a particular technology to real-world situations. As great as going to conferences is, however, they can be expensive. The price of admission is usually well beyond a thousand dollars, and you also have to take travel expenses into account. But, believe it or not, there are ways to make going to conferences far less expensive.

Generally speaking, if you have an expertise that's specifically related to the conference agenda, that expertise can be your ticket into the conference. For example, I speak at several IT conferences each year. Being a speaker gets you into the conference for free. As an added bonus, you usually get paid for speaking, and the event organizers even pay for your travel expenses.

Obviously, not everybody is cut out to be a speaker. I know some very intelligent people who would rather die than have to get up on stage in front of 200 people. Fortunately, there are other techniques for getting into conferences for free. One method is to be a volunteer for the conference. Some conferences that I've attended will allow you to attend for free if you'll spend a certain number of hours answering attendees' questions on a specific topic.

Yet another way of getting into conferences for free is by being a member of the press. If you regularly contribute content to any of the better-known, technology-related Web sites or magazines, then you can often obtain press credentials for IT conferences. Not only does a press pass get you into the conference for free, it often comes with other perks such as access to media-only events and media lounges with free food and drinks.

One last strategy for attending a conference on a budget is to get an expo-only pass. Many conferences offer tickets that allow you to visit the exhibit hall but that won't allow you to attend any of the technical sessions or other conference events. Expo-only passes are almost always either free or very inexpensive -- less than a hundred dollars.

Although only visiting the exhibit hall may not sound that enticing, it may very well be worthwhile. I've had some of my toughest technical questions answered by vendors in the exhibit hall.

Books
Prior to going freelance, I worked for several different companies as a network administrator. One of those companies had hired me under the condition that I obtain my Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification within a certain amount of time. Unfortunately, MCSE training classes were completely out of the question. There was no way I would've been able to take the time off from work to attend certification classes. Furthermore, the organization I was working for had agreed to reimburse me for the cost of the certification exams once I had passed, but there was no reimbursement for the cost of the training itself.

Ultimately, I ended up purchasing several different books that prepared me to take the various exams. If memory serves me, I spent about $400 on the books. Since that time I've attended several Microsoft certification classes, and looking back, I feel as though I received almost as much knowledge from the books as I did from the certification classes. The biggest difference was that the certification classes are hands-on in nature; you learn about a particular technology by working through various hands-on labs. In contrast, the books don't really give you any hands-on experience, unless you set up some computers and work through the labs.

Most of the certification books on the market are pretty good. In fact, I've passed certification exams for products that I've never even worked with just by reading some of the certification books.

Something obvious but worth noting: When purchasing certification books, keep in mind that some are better than others. When I was studying for my MCSE exams I was initially reluctant to purchase the study guides from Microsoft Press because some of the other publishers' guides cost much less, and I was on a tight budget. For the most part, the third-party study guides were fine. However, I failed a particular exam three times even though I had memorized the corresponding book. I couldn't figure out where I was going wrong until, out of desperation, I bought the Microsoft Press study guide and discovered that the book I'd been using had omitted a lot of important information. Sometimes it pays to pay up.

Video Training
There's a series of commercials on late-night television that advertise video-based training for computer novices. Although I can't help but laugh every time I see these corny commercials, video-based training is actually a good idea. After all, for far less money than it costs to attend a Microsoft certification class, you can have a video-based class that you can play over again any time you want. More importantly, though, video-based training makes it possible to train the rest of your IT staff at no additional cost. You pay for the video once, and then use it in whatever way is the most beneficial to your organization.

There are several good video-based training products on the market. One that I particularly like is Clip Training. The essence of Clip Training is that, rather than requiring you to watch a huge, monolithic video, the program is task-oriented. In other words, you can simply click on the task you need to know -- for example, setting up an Exchange mailbox -- and then watch a short video that shows you how to perform the task.

Another video-based training product that I find useful is the Video Mentor series from Pearson Education. These videos go into a lot more depth than the Clip Training and are very similar to attending a certification class.

Train the Trainer
Back when I had a corporate job, I had a boss with an unorthodox philosophy regarding training. Rather than sending the entire staff out for training, he usually only sent me. Upon completion of the course, it was my responsibility to train my staff on the material I'd just learned.

At first I wasn't pleased with this arrangement. However, I soon realized there were benefits beyond the money the company saved by not sending everyone to training classes.

The place where I took the training classes had a policy that allowed you to retake any class for free once you had paid for the initial session. Because I was responsible for training my subordinates, I made an arrangement with my boss that allowed me to take each class twice; often back to back. This helped me in a few different ways.

First, it meant that I got to spend a lot less time in the office dealing with day-to-day support issues. That was definitely a good thing. More importantly, though, taking classes back to back helped me absorb much more of the material than I would have been able to if I'd only taken each class once. That better prepared me for teaching the material to others in my department and for passing the certification exams.

Finally, spending so much time in training helped me to build a good relationship with the trainers at the facility. This was probably the greatest benefit of all, because any time that I ran into a jam on the job, I was able to pick up the phone and ask one of my buddies at the training facility for advice. Needless to say, doing so was much less expensive than opening a Microsoft support incident.

As you can see, I've picked up a lot of different techniques over the years for getting free or cheap IT training. These techniques all work well, but don't forget another great resource: the Internet. The Internet is chock-full of free technical articles and webcasts on just about any subject imaginable.

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