You know that movie about dreaming within a dream within another dream? Well, that kind of inception world is what I think about whenever I take one of the Cisco Learning Courses to learn something I need to know to work on the platform that hosts those same courses. It blows my mind every time!

I know what you are thinking – “Certainly with all the experts within Cisco Learning & Certifications (L&C), they already know everything.” I don’t want to speak for everyone over here in Cisco L&C (there are some really smart people here), but I’ve often joked that I’m not really an expert. I just play one on TV. The truth is that every expert started at the beginning, not knowing anything about the topic. And just like every other organization trying to keep up with the rapid pace of technology, the leadership within Cisco L&C is invested in training our engineers to ensure they have the skills needed to keep our systems running in tip-top shape. After all, we want you to have an amazing experience when you log in to your CCNA, DevNet Associate, or CyberOps Associate course. In order for that to happen, our team needs to keep our systems operating at peak performance.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been actively working on a massive project to update our data center architectures, lab automation platforms, and the systems behind our classes. This has involved bringing in new technologies from Cisco, other vendors, and the open-source world. In addition to adopting new technologies and software solutions, we’ve also been very focused on updating our operational approach towards NetDevOps and automation. Add all this together and we are asking our engineers to become skilled with new technologies like:

This is just a sampling of the full list that makes up our architecture (I didn’t want this blog post to turn into an IT products bingo game). Selecting the technologies that go into our architecture is something that our leaders put a lot of thought into. Our team is small (probably like yours) and already working at capacity (also probably like yours). We knew that every aspect of our system needed to be installed, operated, upgraded, and integrated with the rest of the system.  This meant that our engineers were going to need to learn to become proficient in these solutions. And being Cisco Learning & Certifications, we saw this as an opportunity to put ourselves into the shoes of our customers. Many of who are going through similar reskilling activities of their own.

Building Role-Based Learning Maps

One of the coolest things I learned when I joined Cisco two years ago is that in addition to certifications and certification classes, Cisco L&C has a team of curriculum and education professionals who can work with our customers to design learning plans for their organizations. This is the same team


that builds the training plans on the Cisco Digital Learning Library. Their superpower is taking something as unwieldy as “we need to teach our network engineers how to automate,” breaking it down into job role definitions and skill requirements, and identifying the resources available to meet this goal. One of the members of that Learning league teamed up with us to tackle this challenge.

After several meetings, our masked learning crusader was able to put together a set of learning maps aligned to the roles on our team and structured in a way that our team could consume. This was loaded up into the learning management system we use within Cisco for training, and the problem was solved. Well, not quite solved…


Learning Maps
Learning maps created to train the Learning at Cisco lab automation engineering team.

Making Time for Learning

Having the learning maps identified for the roles on our team was a major win, but it wasn’t the end of the story. Having a list of training resources is no good if the team has no time to complete the training. Our leadership team recognized early that we had to make learning a part of our infrastructure project plan.  This was made real in two very specific ways.

First up is the slightly more straightforward technique. Successfully completing specific training courses within the plan were made priorities for team members as part of our sprint planning. This was often done when we looked ahead by 1 or 2 sprints and saw someone on the team was going to need some new skills to be successful. We would then clear their active work so they could focus on completing the training without feeling the need to do so on their own time. This approach to training isn’t that unusual; sending someone to a week of training is a strategy used a lot. What was slightly different for us is that the training on our plans is mostly the digital version of courses that are self-guided.

Our second strategy has been to include learning time in projects where the project involves some new technology or approach for the assigned engineer. This often means doubling — or tripling — the allocated time for a task to be completed. This has the benefit of reducing the stress on the engineer to finish the assigned task as fast as possible and allowing them the breathing room to learn, experiment, and find the best solution. To be successful with this approach, it has been important to work upfront to identify the relevant learning resources that align with a project and include these in the project descriptions. This often includes links to courses – or even specific lessons within a course – from our training plan. I personally like this method because it puts the learning of a skill alongside the application of the skill. I have found this approach to be incredibly helpful as I continue to learn in my own career.

What’s Next?

There is still a lot left for our team (myself included) to learn as we continue on the path of making the hands-on lab experience for learners the best it can be. But armed with these training plans, it feels a little less overwhelming. So the next time you are watching a video from one of our experts, you can think about me watching the same video, learning right beside you!

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What are you learning these days?  I’d love to know.  Let me know in the comments below, or over on Twitter @hfpreston.


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Hank Preston

Principal Engineer

Learning and Certifications