A couple of challenges that a lot of us in the industry face are that of keeping our skills sharp and having the capability to learn new products and technologies. At Varrow we have a very fundamental engineering culture. The company was built around that and it’s something we constantly work to grow and foster. But…it’s not easy. We invest more in growth, education, and equipment for learning than any other partner that I’ve seen but often it’s still not enough to keep up with the pace of technology. One of my responsibilities is our demo/pre-sales lab in Charlotte where we have Cisco Nexus 1K/2K/5K, EMC VNX, and Cisco UCS amongst other things and it’s a great lab, but often unavailable for education and testing since we want to keep it working smoothly for demos. We also have a lab in Greensboro that is our “engineering” lab where the delivery teams can test things out, run through processes, etc….but everyone can’t use it at once and you don’t always know the state of that lab. So how do you keep yourself current?
Last year I built my home vSphere lab and I documented it here on my blog in several parts. When I started to build the lab I thought I’d use it off and on to play with things and try new products and features. What I found is that I use the lab all the time…way more than I even anticipated. It’s so useful and convenient that I use it for all sorts of things and have learned a lot with it. In fact, I run a number of VMs out of that lab that I affectionately call “Home Production”. Things like Untangle for NAT/firewalling/malware defense…media servers…plus “utility VMs” that I remote in to when on the road for work. It’s used constantly and I get such return out of it that I wanted to try and get others to do the same.
The problem is, and if you’ve built a lab you know this, that labs aren’t cheap. They really aren’t cheap if you want to build a lab that simulates many production environments. By that I mean a lab with multiple hosts, dedicated storage, and a network with a good managed switch. It adds up…quickly. I’ll admit that I have several thousand in my lab and while I realize that’s out of the range that most people want to invest I’ve gotten my money’s worth…but how do we make this attainable by others without causing too much of a financial burden?
It’s great working at a company that was founded by two people that geek out on this stuff just as much, or more, than you do. We talked about ways to make labs available to our technical teams and I was really proud to see Varrow announce a plan to subsidize home labs late last year. Basically, we offer to pay for half of a home lab, up to $750. If someone spends $1500 Varrow will reimburse $750 of that. Along with that I worked to create a “suggested”, but in no way required, bill of materials for a lab to try and meet that budget.
The program has been a HUGE success within Varrow. It’s been a lot of fun watching labs get built, adjustments to the BoM get made, and people showing off their setups. Even on projects like this you see people’s passions come out and I love it. It’s yet another way I see where Varrow is investing in its people and their knowledge. If you work for another partner (and if you’re in our area..you should be with us!) I can’t recommend a program like this enough. If you run the numbers you’ll see it’s a very inexpensive way to help your people maintain their skillsets and learn new ones. It also shows that the company cares and is looking for ways to solve these common problems.