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IoT training 101: For newbies and seasoned pros alike

IoT education isn't just for students or new employees; workers from all areas are brushing up on their training, as IoT is an often messy and diverse skill to master.

IoT is everywhere -- even the classroom. Understory Inc., a company that provides sensors for local weather monitoring, is teaching young students through its "Weather is Cool" program how sensors gather weather data. But that's only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to IoT education. IoT training extends far beyond grade school -- with many students in high school and college, as well as newly hired and seasoned employees taking seats in the classroom.

Whenever a new technology comes along, there's often a clear path to upskilling or reskilling. Containers, virtual machines and, going deeper into the way-back machine, client-server computing each spawned clear learning paths through vendors and academic programs. While that's still true with IoT, it's also a bit different. With its embrace of all kinds of industries and the wide diversity of consumer and enterprise applications -- and, therefore, every imaginable kind of infrastructure -- it is not so tidy. Thus, when one considers the educational component of IoT adoption, it is a more messy and diverse picture.

Three levels of IoT education

One challenge of IoT training is to not get stuck in the weeds -- for example, protocols, connectivity, chips and devices -- or only focusing on the forest -- aka the tremendous opportunities, according to Mats Samuelsson, an IoT practitioner and consultant with both a technology and business perspective.

"The building blocks of IoT are trees," he said. "The devices, connectivity, platforms and applications together form an IoT-based business."

Echoing Samuelsson's taxonomy, Bharat Kapoor, principal at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney Inc., said IoT training programs need to be provided at three different levels:

  1. At the top are those focused on strategy and mind set, aimed at the vice president level and above. The outcomes from this audience are very much focused on the far horizon.
  2. The second level of training is typically aimed at the nitty-gritty of programming and specific technology deployments. This area, Kapoor noted, is not unlike any other kind of tech training.
  3. The third level, however, is where he sees the greatest needs and the most interesting potential results. "This is about engineering for IoT; it is a very much a systems-integration perspective where we learn to think about playing with Legos, and the Legos are the various kinds of building blocks available to create IoT systems. It is not something where anyone knows the right answer," he noted, adding. "Even the pioneers are still trying to figure this part out."

Kapoor said he learned a lot from attending a program targeted at that third level and run by Relayr Inc., a German IoT hardware and software company. In the program, participants were given Arduinos and Seed Studio products. The inexpensive sensors and kits allowed participants to immediately start inventing solutions to their IoT problems. Kapoor said this is a key attribute of successful programs at this level: hands-on doing -- and results. "You are working with elements that have been tested and approved, so it is suddenly possible to hack together a solution for a hundred dollars instead of thousands of dollars," he said. Furthermore, in some cases, that "hack" technology could turn out to be good enough for permanent use, he noted.

"This gets you past the older waterfall chart approach -- and even beyond the processes of agile," he said. The pace of the approach supported by this kind of training, Kapoor added, means companies could start to think about achieving a testable result once a day rather than once a week, potentially cutting costs and speeding IoT adoption.

We see people applying to the program to get a leg up at getting into higher education programs, to learn to teach, to help raise funding for their own company, to secure a promotion, or to facilitate a transfer to a new department, organization or industry.
Josh Siegellead instructor, MIT IoT Bootcamp

IoT training programs bring the skills

Hands-on IoT education programs are often run in affiliation with companies that supply the IoT market. For example, infrastructure-oriented Cisco offers IoT training through the Cisco Learning Network. IoT platform company Particle Industries Inc. partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to support its IoT educational program, working directly with CMU's Integrated Innovation Institute. Particle has also partnered with MIT's IoT Bootcamp.

According to Josh Siegel, lead instructor of the MIT IoT Bootcamp, program offerings have attracted hundreds of well-qualified applicants, "including high school students, college and graduate students, entrepreneurs, newly hired employees and executives from across industries." Because IoT impacts so many disparate fields, there's no one typical profile, he said.

"We see people applying to the program to get a leg up at getting into higher education programs, to learn to teach, to help raise funding for their own company, to secure a promotion or to facilitate a transfer to a new department, organization or industry," Siegel said.

The program focuses on "sensing, connectivity, inference and action" -- and sometimes includes short lectures on machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and virtual and augmented reality, Siegel added.

Meanwhile, at the MIT Sloan School of Management, George Westerman, a principal research scientist with the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, agreed there is a huge need for IoT education, both to understand the general direction of the technology as well as the specifics. The courses offered at Sloan appeal to a wide audience, but especially management.

While many IoT concepts are similar to the transformative ideas of previous technology waves, Westerman said, the challenge with IoT is "how to make a clean architecture and change the business, rather than simply implementing a new technology." Thus, he said, managers don't need to know how it works, but they need to grasp the possibilities.

Sloan offers courses that can serve both management and technical audiences. Those attending range from entry-level professionals to seasoned executives, and include those with both highly technical and purely business skills.

At CMU, focusing more on the technology side, Jelena Kovačević, head of electrical and computer engineering and professor of biomedical engineering, said she finds companies asking for specific cyber-physical systems or IoT education. In general, she said, "they are looking for people who have broad engineering skills and who can tackle complex real-world problems from hardware to software." According to Kovačević, CMU has a new master's program with a concentration in cyber-physical systems starting next fall and is working to offer a parallel program at the undergraduate level. "Our undergraduate class is about 180 students per year, and a large percentage is interested in such topics," she said.

The push for more IoT education and certifications in colleges is often a matter of companies having needs that are not being met by current graduates. Thus, companies are drawn to sponsor students with tailored programs. "Companies sometimes sponsor projects in classes, mostly at senior undergraduate level such as capstone projects, or at the [Master of Science] level," Kovačević said. Another option involves partnering with specific prominent faculty, supporting their research and having access to their Ph.D. students, she added.

"There are still several unresolved issues of IoT that most training ignores," Samuelsson said. Those issues include the lack of standards, the functions and implementation of IoT servers, and the high knowledge and organizational entry barriers. "The fundamentals of IoT business training are as simple as web and internet business training -- the challenge is to create an IoT business, which is 10 times as difficult as creating a simple web business," Samuelsson said, adding, "The web solved these challenges after five or 10 years, but IoT is just beginning the process."

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