The Impact of Digital Badges on Digital Learning with Darren Surch


Darren Surch is CEO of Interskill Learning, respected industry expert on mainframe, workforce training, noted speaker and mainframe computing conferences at events worldwide. We met with Darren Surch to discuss how digital credentials are impacting the labor market.

Jim Daniels: Darren Surch is CEO of Interskill Learning, a respected industry expert on mainframe and workforce training, noted speaker at mainframe computing conferences and events worldwide and also one of only 32 IBM Champions, a worldwide distinction that is given to non-IBM employees. These are people that work out in the industry that work with IBM technology. It’s the highest distinction that IBM actually gives. And I know that you’re one of only two who actually have earned the lifetime IBM Champion distinction for IBM mainframe technology, which is pretty impressive. So over 30 years, Darren has driven the evolution of digital mainframe training from once what was simple computer0 based training on standalone pcs to today’s globally deployed multimodal mainframe workforce training programs and I  believe you all have now trained over one million mainframers globally, literally creating careers for generations of mainframe professionals. 

Darren Surch: So, grand, when you say it.

Jim Daniels: So there we go so, David, I’m going to turn it over to you to get the questions started here and see what we can learn.

David Leaser: We are just so honored to have you here, Darren, because you’ve been with the IBM Badge Program since the earliest days and you’ve helped influence that program as well. So, just a quick question to add on what Jim was saying. If you were going to give an elevator pitch about what it is  you do, or what your passion is and also, maybe a little bit about what mainframe technology means. I think a lot of people think that mainframes are gone, because they are hidden from most people. So maybe you could talk a little bit about that.

Darren Surch: Absolutely and thanks very much for the invitation. It’s terrific to to speak with you. The mainframe is still alive and well, I think its processes just under 90% of all financial transactions. So credit card and banking transactions still run through it. The mainframe is the heart and soul of global business, security and power. I think over 80% of the world’s business data still sits on mainframes as well. So, again, the way global business is done today — that’s all on the mainframe. Every time you buy an airline ticket, every time you use a bank, every time you swipe a credit card or purchase something online, it runs through mainframes. So the mainframe is incredibly important to the way the world runs. My company does training on mainframes and we deliver a lot of training digitally. I remember when we started with computerized training, no one had ever heard of it, because all the training had been done with classrooms before that through.

I would go and visit mainframe managers with this new computer-based training and show them training on a PC. And they looked it horrified and didn’t quite know what this thing was. But, you know, with the Internet and the way e-learning has transformed, I don’t think there’s anybody out there that doesn’t know e-learning. Schools, user colleges, corporates use it extensively. So e-learning is widely used today. We went from maybe two and a half thousand companies worldwide that are big enough to run a mainframe and we used to deliver about 250,000 hours of training, which is massive.  

Digital Badges are absolutely perfect for a learning. There is such incredible synergy between e-learning and digital credentialing, so we embraced IBM’s digital badge program, wrapped that whole product around all of that curriculum in our e-learning courses. Now, six or seven years later now, we delivered 960,000 hours. So, it’s sort of quadrupled and a good part of that is just a drive that digital credentials give on a on a micro level. People want to add credentials to their training.

Jim Daniels: So, do you see any particular challenges around mainframe technology and workforce, readiness?

Darren Surch: Through the 1960s and the 1970s, the big corporations that ran the mainframes hired a lot of people, built up their workforces with programmers and systems people and so forth. But if you do the math, they are all Baby Boomers. So, a lot of these original mainframe personnel are getting senior now, and they’re starting to retire, so the next generation of mainframe talent is needed. These big corporations rely on the mainframe at the heart and soul of their information systems. They have to train their personnel. And the mainframe also now is not the monolithic computer sitting in a in a data center. It used to be 20 or 30 years ago. The mainframe touches everything. Now it interacts with all the other systems. So personnel working on the mainframe have to be not only skilled on the mainframe. They have to be skilled on on a variety of other distributed systems and other systems and so forth. This relatively small global workforce of highly skilled people is incredibly important too, data breaches. The systems are incredible, but downtime can come from people not being trained or not being skilled and making errors and things like that. So there’s a real constant attention to keeping the skill levels up on these people and, and also training that next generation of mainframe talent.

David Leaser: That’s interesting because one of the things I wondered about was the challenges with the talent and, in particular, an aging workforce that grew up running these mainframes. And now there’s a new generation, and the new generation sometimes doesn’t understand the how the mainframe systems work and what the opportunities are. I think a lot of people kind of get kind of seduced by the idea of being a developer or something that’s very customer facing. Do you face any kind of challenges like that, trying to attract people? What are any challenges you have trying to get people in the door?

Darren Surch: I know that mainframe talent is generally more highly paid than their peers in distributed systems. You’re right, a lot of youngsters come out of university and they want something a little more sexy than what they think the mainframe is. They want to develop games or do web apps or things like What we’re finding is a lot of these big corporations will look for their non-mainframe in their Java programs and .net programmers and C programmers. I’ll train them internally on mainframe skills. They’ll teach them how to code COBOL and CICS and I teach them IBM systems. And then when the job comes up in the mainframe space, they will be paid 10 to 20% higher than what they are earning. 

And digital credentialing ties into this. So perfectly, because as these people do this training, they’re earning IBM digital badges. Then, as a corporation, they can do a pick list through Credly and say, okay, I need someone with COBOL skills and this skill and this skill this skill who has these badges. “Here’s a pick list of the people in my organization that have these mainframe skills. Reach out to them and say ‘you’re already qualified because if you’re trained.’”

Not only have you done a course, it’s a course that is verified by these digital credentials. With the metadata in the digital badges, you can click on the badge and see exactly what they learned and know. For corporations, it’s not just a skill thing. It’s all the verification in the digital credentials. It’s incredibly powerful.

David Leaser: I was talking to somebody at IBM, and it was an executive who had a client, a major bank, and they had been paying a lot of money to use certain services like LinkedIn to try to find talent to run their metrics. And they couldn’t find it. And they spent months looking for it,until we gave them access to the data in the badge wallets. In just one afternoon, they found somebody who had exactly the skills they needed. Within an afternoon they had, I think, four or five candidates.

Darren Surch: It’s incredibly powerful. It just as a little extra snippet of information. Josh Bersin is a luminary in the in the training space. He and his organization did a big study on,  hiring and sourcing personnel Apparently it’s six times more expensive to actually go out looking for personnel than it is to identify internal personnel for the skills needed. That’s why a lot of companies will take internal people. They’re already onboarded. They already know the company culture. They already know the systems. They’re already there, and they can just come straight across because they’ve been internally trained. 

It makes endless sense to d use the power of the data of the badges and find the exact people you need for the job role and bring them across internally, or foresee that these jobs are going to be needed and say “let’s get this group of people training on these courses now so in three years, when these jobs come up, they will have the relevant badges, they’ll have done these skills. There’s a natural transition and, because you’ve got that objective data to look at this stuff on a big picture, you can plan all this stuff and you’re not running around scrambling looking for people at the last minute. You can see it all coming.

Jim Daniels: Right. You know that’s fantastic. So you, you mentioned the credentialing and I know people would love to know what was sort of trigger really made you sit up and take notice of the need to bring digital credentialing and badges to your strategy at Interskill. And what are some of the impacts you’re seeing since doing that. Can you kind of expand on that a bit?

Darren Surch: Taking us from 260,000 hours of training a month to 960,000 hours of training a year delivered globally in in six or seven years is the exclamation point on the end of that question.

Jim Daniels: I mean, that’s pretty compelling, that’s a kind of growth. So then what you’re saying is the digital credentialing definitely . . .

Darren Surch: Drove I drove that. Anecdotally, at a conference, a manager from one of those mainframe companies came to me and said he earned three badges in the last year. And I’m doing a little bit of mental mathematics. I figured out that was that was 30 hours of training to get these these three badges. I said, “That’s brilliant. That’s a lot of training.” And as he was leaving, I said, “Just on a personal level. Would you have done that much training in a year, if it hadn’t been for the badges?”  And he laughed, “I wouldn’t have done any training in the year if it hadn’t been for the badges.”

So extrapolate that, out over your entire workforce. You can have the training available. Everyone’s busy with their jobs and they get to December and they got I really wanted to do some training this year, but I haven’t done any. And then you get caught up in your work again. Badges drives training. This gets people doing 20, 30, 40 hours of training. And it is not just adding the badges and getting the recognition and the feel good about it, but it’s cumulatively lifting the skill levels of the entire workforce because they’re doing so much more.

They’re being recognized, because they’re getting these badges and they’re putting them on LinkedIn and their colleagues are saying, “Hey, well done. I see you’ve got these skills and management’s noticing.” 

IBM did the study showing people are twice as likely to stay with your organization, if they’re being recognized through things like credentialing, and they’ve been giving copious training. If you can double your workforce retention, you know, half the chance that people are going to leave, these skilled people that you need, that are already employed — the cost savings are astronomical. D igital credentialing and readily available training can half the chance that your workforce personnel are going to leave. The cost savings and the stability in your organization because of that, it’s almost incalculable. 

David Leaser : You talked a lot about mindset. In one of our case studies on the badge program, a woman who had been out of out of work just couldn’t find a job. She got a couple of IBM digital badges and then, within a matter of weeks, she got a job at a good company. And so we interviewed her, and we thought it was these credentials that were getting her the job, and she said it was her mindset. She said, “I felt like they were not giving me a job. It was an equal exchange for my skills, so I went into these interviews very confident.  I had some value to provide for them. And they’re going to give me money for that value” What’s your what’s your take on all of that, and, you know, the value that students are getting out of this, or is there any impact to their careers?

Darren Surch: Helps you get over that imposter syndrome we all suffer from, doesn’t it? Also, back in the day, your resume that you used to put out on a piece of paper and presented a job interview. That’s a that’s a single thing in that I mean, nobody sees it. Your skills on LinkedIn show 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. So, if anyone’s looking for people with certain skills again, with the badges that are put on there, that’s objective. An objective statement by an organization that these people know their stuff.

And a lot of stuff can be done online now. Years ago, corporations would hire a workforce based on the people that lived within 20 miles of their corporate office. That was the pool that you had to work with for personnel. And hopefully, you got lots of really good personnel, but you probably get a lot of personnel that were not so good because they had to be in that geographic location. They had to be close. Now, that people can work remotely corporations, especially in the mainframe space. But right across IT, you can have people anywhere in the world, so you can hunt for the most highly skilled, brilliant people in India, in Brazil, and in Eastern Europe, wherever they are, and they can work on these mainframe systems. And you’ll find them again by digital credentials. You’ll find them by the skills on their LinkedIn profiles.

David Leaser: And it’s not on a self assertion, right?

Darren Surch : Exactly.

David Leaser: Resumes. 40% of people lie on them.

Jim Daniels : And you have to be willing to put in the effort to earn those badges. So kind of continuing with this idea of digital credentialing and badges, you know, providing that verified evidence that someone really knows what they’re doing. And they know how to apply the knowledge that they’ve learned through training in that. What are some of the recommendations that you would make to other, whether it be commercial education providers, or even, you know, corporations, you know, in their learning organizations inside the business that are considering, you know, using badging? What recommendations would you make to them to stand up the kind of high impact program like you have.

Darren Surch: Firstly embrace it. Everyone should be embracing digital credentialing because it’s the truth. Do you know what I mean? So much of training is now online, but how do you know what’s real? The digital credentials are truth, and they’re from a company saying that this person has done this training or spoken at this conference or and a patent or whatever, digital credentials and not just training. It’s for all sorts of achievements and so forth. But, again, it’s that verification from an organization or a governing body or so forth that this person has done that. And again, it’s not just a piece of paper sticking on the wall saying I earned a degree. As marvelous as that is, on any badge, you can click on it and say, “okay, when did they learn this stuff? What did they learn? How granular was? What areas did they cover?” You can start to dig down in and see to an nth degree exactly what was involved.

Back to your question, we saw badges as a driver of training, because half the battle is getting people to do it. So we wanted to embrace digital credentialing because it would drive training and we’d get people interested in training and push them to do more which has been an enormous benefit to our company. It spreads the word as well. 

Credentialing helped us and lifted us in so many ways. I suppose primarily the verification, the truth behind it, the promotion that it gives training.

Other things I speak about at conferences is a culture of learning. Managers must push a training culture 

where training is rewarded and recognized and it becomes cool. It becomes something that is part of everybody’s job. The days when people used to do one course a year and think that that was enough training have gone. The half-life of your skills is getting very short, and people need to be constantly training in new areas and keeping skills up to date. That culture of learning means that people are actively going and finding training and doing training and completing training to build their careers and to do their jobs properly. But, again, the credentialing provides the truth and the substance to it. And the recorded recognition to it.  I mean, there’s no substitute for feeling good about something you’ve done. You walk around a little bit taller and a little bit prouder and do your job a little bit better and you’re a little bit more engaged and more productive

I can’t understand why any software vendor, especially training wouldn’t embrace digital credentialing. I don’t know why universities and colleges don’t wouldn’t use badges in tandem with their printed certificates and degree graduations. 

Jim Daniels: You mentioned something there. You cannot read any study out there about, you know, what employees are looking for in terms of work environment without seeing something about recognition, and obviously there’s a direct correlation between engagement and recognition. I’ve seen it myself in terms of badging in.

How it can really increase that engagement just 11 other kind of little follow up in in my rounds in the industry, and working with digital credentialing and badges now for going on 8 years. From time to time. I run across people that look at them and they go oh, a sticker, you know, it’s just.

And with your program, I know that it’s not just “complete the training and here’s the badge.” There’s a typically a series of courses that must be completed that add up to some specific capability or competency and ou have to be assessed at the end of that training. Right?

Darren Surch : And that’s why training should be on on technical things. And, and some training is videos that you can sit and watch. Another thing we’ve noticed is badges increased effectiveness of the training. And what I mean, by that is, without the badge, people might get to a video and be playing on their phone while the video is running. And, uh, you know, just not concentrating. With our courses, students learn more from the course because they know if they’re going to be tested, they have to pass that test to get the badge. 

When we issue a badge,  students are going to try harder, they’re going to learn more. They’re going to make sure that they pass. So, our courseware is heavily assessed with quizzes and exercises and questions and interactions screen simulations. So it’s very, very rigorous.  And the digital credentials managers can run reports and see everything the person has learned and how they performed on all these quizzes and in all these areas. And the really powerful part of that is if someone does a course and the only thing that manager can see is they got 90%, you’d say 90% that’s a really good great. Well done on the course. But what was that? With granular reporting you can identify there’s this one topic, this one piece of technology that they just completely messed up. They did not understand it. You know, like, 90% looks great, but there’s a skill gap there and somewhere on that mainframe system a month, a year two years or five years down the track, something’s going to go horribly wrong because this person didn’t understand this, and it could lead to downtime or errors or who knows what’s going to happen. We can fill that skill gap and then they know everything they need to know. 

People should read about stacked badges methodology. Students can earn skills badges as they pass each section. So you’re  not looking at 60 hours of training and saying “Holy cow! That’s a mountain I’ve got a climb. I don’t know if I can do that. ” You’re doing five hours and you’re getting your skills credential on that topic and you’re doing 10 hours, and you get a skills credential on that topic and so forth. So it’s motivating and pushing you through and breaking up.

David Leaser: So, as we wrap this up, what’s the one piece of information  you would give people that are watching this? What’s the one tip or idea or a stumbling block that you’ve had along the way or a recommendation for success?

Darren Surch: Pick training that that has credentials. It’s as simple as that. It will build your culture of learning and exponentially increase the  final training outcome. So, simply as that for no cost, it’s just having something that’s got a credential associated to it. So, it’s a bit of a no brainer.

Jim Daniels: That’s fantastic. Darren, I can’t thank you enough on behalf of both David myself for taking time out of your schedule. to sit down with us. We’d love to have you back sometime, maybe to kind of dig into your actual strategy and let people take a deep dive into how you’ve wrapped that around your learning. On the Interskill website, you’ll easily find information about their badging program and how it is wrapped around all of the education that’s there. So, it’s a great resource I think, for people to  have a look at to see how someone else has has done it. 

Darren Surch: Thank you, gentlemen for your leadership in the digital credentialing space. Full disclosure, I’ve learned so much from you last seven or eight years. You’re both absolutely remarkable trailblazers.

David Leaser: Thank you very much. This has been really terrific.

Jim Daniels: Thank you, Darren.

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