Nortel Educates and Indoctrinates

Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) yesterday announced a scheme for training and certifying what it calls “Optical Internet” professionals (see Nortel Offers Optical Net Certificate).

At first glance, it seems like a good idea. After all, optical networking technology is evolving at an incredible pace, and it’s absolutely essential that the folk selling, designing, implementing, and supporting networks keep abreast of the latest developments.

However, it’s important to realize that Nortel’s program will be education with indoctrination. Not surprisingly, Nortel will be teaching professionals about its own products. And Nortel’s long-term goal is also clear. It’s aiming to create an environment where the availability of engineers with Nortel qualifications will encourage service providers to buy Nortel gear.

In many ways, in fact, Nortel is copying a strategy that’s already been used with enormous success by its rival Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO). Cisco’s professional certification schemes have won widespread recognition and have entrenched Cisco’s dominance of router and switch markets.

Nortel’s effort to repeat this in optical networking targets information technologists and networking professionals in both enterprise and service provider environments. The program is expected to begin in early 2001. A three-day course will cost anywhere from $1000 to $5000, and the actual certification exams will cost from $100 to $300.

Six levels of certification will be offered within the Optical Internet track. Four will be specialist-level courses, including account, support, design, and field specialist rankings. And two will be expert level programs. Those who achieve certification as either a design specialist or support specialist will be eligible for certification at the expert level.

Nortel is also calling on partners to take part in the development of the course. IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), Metromedia Fiber Network Inc. (Nasdaq: MFNX), and Unisys Corp. (NYSE: UIS) have already signed up to participate.

Experts tend to agree that some sort of education is needed in the industry to keep it moving forward. Nortel even admitted on its earnings conference call that a lack of qualified professionals slowed down deployment of equipment in customer locations last quarter (see Nortel's Fright Night).

While universities might seem like a logical place to go for this training, there are several reasons why this won’t work. For one, only a handful of universities like University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of California at Davis, and University of Texas-Dallas even offer courses in optical networking.

Also, the role of a university is to provide engineering students with a broad understanding of the technology, and not specific trouble-shooting techniques on a particular piece of equipment, says Byrav Ramamurthy, assistant professor in the department of computer science and engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And because optical networking is still in its early stages of development, the technology changes too rapidly for people to run back to a university every time they need to learn about something new.

“It doesn’t make sense for people to come back to a university to take a semester-long course when they are working 60 hours a week,” says Ramamurthy. “But if they can do it in a few days at a conference, I think that adds value to their expertise, and I would like to see more of it.”

Take Cisco’s successful training program as an example. The company established itself as a leader in the routing market early and has used its certification program to keep customers coming back for more. The program has perpetuated its success by making its certification the de facto standard among network architects.

“Cisco’s philosophy has been that if you train the user community so that they are more familiar and comfortable with your product, they’ll want to deploy it in their network,” says Dan Nicholson, senior manager of operations for Comdisco Inc. (NYSE: CDO).

Nicholson adds that Nortel has a reputation for installing equipment without divulging too much information about how the gear actually works.

“They are a very closed-door, not real user-friendly kind of company,” he says. “I think they are looking at what John Chambers has done with Cisco and thinking, 'Maybe we need to change a little bit if we want to stay on top.' ”

It’s still too early to tell how successful Nortel will be, but some of Nortel’s competitors like Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA: Paris: CGEP:PA) claim that they have been offering certification to customers for years.

-- Marguerite Reardon, senior editor, Light Reading, http://www.lightreading.com

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