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Talent Spotlight - Allan Johnson

Our business is all about our people. All the ideas and innovations, the possibilities and the solutions that have impacted thousands of clients and millions of learners over 30 years have come from the minds of our Talent. That's why we're excited to showcase the people of Unicon through our Talent Spotlight, giving you the opportunity to get to know them! Today I have the pleasure of highlighting Allan Johnson, a valued asset to the Unicon team for the past seven years, who serves as Senior Curriculum Developer and Cisco Account Lead at Unicon.

Kate Valenti: Hi Allan, I’m glad to have a chance to sit and chat with you today about your work with the Cisco Networking Academy. Cisco is our largest and longest running client, and we're so grateful to have your leadership in this account. You've been with Unicon for about seven years, but you have an even longer history with this client and with the Networking Academy. Tell us about that.

Allan Johnson: In 1999, I began teaching technology education classes at a local high school in Texas and completed my Master’s in Occupational Training and Development in the summer of 2000. During that first year, I taught business courses such as business law, keyboarding, bookkeeping, and Microsoft Office. A district representative approached me about piloting a new program called Cisco. She sent me to another high school to see it in use. I walked into a classroom where students were fully engaged, doing labs, and connecting networking equipment. Having networking equipment in the classroom was a brand-new concept back then, allowing students hands-on experience. I thought it was fabulous.

I started the training in January 2000 at our local community college. It felt like stepping behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz—I finally understood how an email traveled from one computer to another, not just by pressing send, but everything that happened in between. It was fascinating to me, and I still have that kind of fascination with networking technology because it constantly evolves.

Cisco needed a way to jumpstart training, so they started the Cisco Networking Academy as part of their corporate social responsibility initiative. They essentially gave away this content to their academies, which were mostly high schools and two-year and four-year universities. At that time, a network administrator within two to five years could easily be making $100,000. So, in the spring of 2000, I went into classrooms during registration and asked, "Who wants to be making $100,000 in six years?" I filled seven sections of Cisco Networking classes for the fall! The industry promised a lot for what students could achieve without a college degree; however, I always recommended they pursue a college degree and include business in their academic studies because business would always be a significant part of their lives.

I started teaching the Cisco content during the day at my high school and soon became an adjunct instructor for a local college at night, teaching higher-level networking courses called CCNP (Cisco Certified Networking Professional). CCNP is for people who are making networking their career. By 2001/2002, Cisco Networking Academy had already gone global, and courses were being translated into other languages. I gained some visibility from the resources I shared with the instructor community, and Karen Alderson from Cisco Networking Academy reached out to me to develop content. I started part-time in 2003 as a contractor, and during Christmas 2006, when it was time to revise the curriculum, Telethis Willis asked if I would like to work full-time as a contractor. In 2016, I moved with the rest of our team to Unicon. I continue to serve the needs of Cisco Networking Academy today.

Kate: Right now, in our market, we are in the middle of such an emphasis on workforce skilling, and how to get non-degreed learners the skills they need to get jobs. This was 25 years ago that Cisco started doing this. So even though it feels like a new space to many, it’s really not. Companies like Cisco have been trying to emphasize actual workforce skills to help people get good and better jobs for many years. It's such a good story. And as you know, as you were working as an instructor and curriculum developer, Unicon was partnering with Cisco to build the first management system that ran the Networking Academy, and eventually, the assessment system and numerous other components of that technology over time. 

Allan: Yes! And we currently have about 35 people who work on the Cisco account, about 20 full- and part-time Uniconers and 15 contractors. 

Kate: That’s right. Our approach with those contractors is to maintain a subject matter expert network, right? Practitioners who have specific skills in this area who can pop in and help us to build out curriculum as needed.

Allan: Yes. In almost every case, they are practicing instructors who use the content. So, they know what the students need.

Kate: There's a ton to be proud of in Cisco Networking Academy, with the clear value that it has brought to so many people across the entire world. When you look at the work you’ve done, what are you most proud of?

Allan: It’s making the Cisco Networking Academy courses accessible to any audience, regardless of language, location, socio-economic status, or disability. The curriculum is WCAG compliant, ensuring that a screen reader can provide detailed explanations of images and interactions. For example, if it’s a topology of network devices, a screen reader will describe how router one is connected to router two and router three, providing the same information a visual learner receives. To me, that’s amazing.

The IT Essentials and the Introduction to Cybersecurity courses have been translated in over 20 different languages, requiring us to be culturally sensitive when writing content. I remember when we were developing the first IoT (Internet of Things) course back in 2014, we used Packet Tracer, Cisco’s network simulator, to create a Winery simulation. It demonstrated how sensors in the field could track soil state and temperature, with all the data coming back to a data historian inside the winery. However, we had to redo it because the Winery example was not acceptable to some cultural audiences; we changed it to a health care provider. Cisco is willing to invest in making sure even the smallest minority is addressed.

For inspiration, I look up success stories published on NetAcad Success Stories. The impact we've had on people worldwide is amazing: over 20 million students to date. Last year, Cisco reported that over 2 million students were impacted. Just yesterday, they reported that this year alone, over 1 million students have enrolled in the Getting Started with Packet Tracer course that Unicon developed.

Kate: That is excellent! Besides the role that you play for us as a curriculum engineer and as a leader for Cisco, you also write books. Tell us about your life as a published author.

Allan: I was very fortunate to meet some Pearson folks during a working trip to Mesa, Arizona. They publish all the Cisco certification guides through their Cisco Press imprint. They were looking for authors to develop support materials for the online curriculum. At that time, in many states, every high school course was required to have a textbook. When I first started, Pearson had manuals they were printing of all the online labs and needed somebody to add more value to them. I built a study guide for every chapter in the course to go along with the labs. Then when I came on full-time, with other authors, we wrote the companion guides that would go with the online curriculum. I'm still doing that today.

I'm also an author for, and the series editor of, the “31 Days to your whatever” exam series. We've done 31 Days Before Your CCNA Exam, 31 Days Before Your CCNA Security Exam, 31 Days Before Your CompTIA A+ Certification Exam, and, most recently, 31 Days Before Your Cisco Certified Support Technician (CCST) Networking 100-150 Exam. I’m currently working on its fifth revision of 31 Days Before Your CCNA Exam, which should come out in September. Between all the companion guides, lab manuals, and 31 Days books, I think I have about 12 books that are current.

Kate: You have been in education technology for a long time. Even as an educator in high school, you were focused on technology. What are the big changes that you've seen in this space during your career?

Allan: When I first started teaching, the textbook was the standard for supporting learning in the classroom. The Cisco Networking Academy was a pioneer in online education. Because I was teaching keyboarding and Microsoft Office, every student had a computer in my classroom, but that was rare in those days. When we were doing Cisco Networking Academy, every student had a computer, but not every student had a computer at home, so we would use class time to go through the online curriculum. I would have them keep a notebook to take notes. Because there was no textbook, they needed some other activity to learn it and get it down. 

Online content has changed dramatically over time. It has gone from an online version of a textbook to interactive content that engages the student with videos and practice questions, and interactive activities. The most recent thing that we've been doing is modular design, where we can break up large curriculum sections, like networking technologies covered by CCNA, into smaller mini-courses, and the learners can choose what they want to learn. We're also starting to do more adaptive content with a new Networking Technician career path. Students can take a pre-assessment to determine where they are in their understanding of networking technologies, and then focus on the modules they are weak in. The branching pathways that we have in online curriculum are not possible in textbooks.

Kate: What's one Edtech trend that you're excited about, and how do you see it having an impact on your work?

Allan: How did we get this far without talking about AI? At Unicon, we are learning all about AI, and how it can partner in just about everything we do. Just recently, I was on a UXBS (User Experience Brainstorm) call with colleagues who created a rough Unicon bot. They fed all of our public-facing content from our website into this bot and you could ask it questions about Unicon and it would spit out pretty good responses. Next, they fed in RFP documents and then could query the bot about the RFP details. I imagine we could take our “Pre-sale to post-service process,” which is a huge spreadsheet, and feed it in. The sales engineering process could also be fed into a bot. This kind of pattern is going to be very powerful for us internally simply from a productivity and efficiency standpoint. 

In December 2022, one month after ChatGPT 3.5 was released, we used it to create two fictional companies for a Cisco course called Ethical Hacker. In an afternoon, I generated these two company profiles, including their executive leadership personas. Previously, this kind of work would have been too expensive, taking lots of time and multiple brainstorming sessions. Although we didn't take the content verbatim from ChatGPT, it was 95% complete. Then, our colleague Dave Suriano used AI to generate avatars for the four leaders of each company. It was amazing. The curriculum team used those company profiles throughout the entire 70-hour, instructor-led Ethical Hacker course, which is aligned with a CompTIA PentTest+ certification.

This January, we built a module called Road to Intelligent Machines. We used AI to draft every aspect of that course: content, text, audio, video, and assessments. Cisco incorporated much of our drafted content into the released version. While we saved Cisco time and money in developing the course, the biggest benefit was the significant increase in content quality for the learner. We’re continually discovering new ways to use AI to enhance our content's effectiveness.

One of my big heroes right now in AI is Ethan Mollick from Wharton Business School. He wrote a book called Co-Intelligence that was released this spring, and in it he has four principles about working with AI: 

  1. Always invite AI to the table. I've been integrating that into just about everything I do.
  2. Be the human in the loop. Don't just copy paste. Read every word AI spits out.
  3. Treat AI like a person. Treat it like a person, but tell it what kind of person it is. 
  4. Assume this is the worst AI you will ever use. Of course, this is already true. After the publication of his book, Anthropic released Claude 3, OpenAI released ChatGPT 4o, and Google released Gemini 1.5.

So, it's a very exciting time. It's like when the internet first came around - how that just completely changed everything. It was a seed change in the way we did business. I think this is the next wave. 

Kate: I remember distinctly when you were working on the Ethical Hacker course. Internally we were spending a lot of time trying to decide what was the ethical way for us to be using AI. It feels like that was a lot longer than just 18 months ago. We were discussing topics like whether we needed to cite AI, how we could be sure to appropriately utilize this information that's been returned from AI. I feel like the world has, in some ways, come so far since then. But the point here is that you told Cisco that we had used AI to generate this information. How did they respond?

Allan: They loved it. They said it was fantastic, especially the artificial intelligence module. They were particularly impressed with all the videos. In fact, they created a different module than the one Dave and I worked on, merging much of our content into this new module. They took the best pieces we had built and incorporated them into the course. In the introduction to the module, learners are informed that AI was used in the development of the course. We tell them about the tools we used and explain that they will get to learn to use these tools, too.

Kate: I expect that won’t be our last conversation about AI. Seriously though, it's been a pleasure talking to you about your history and about the work with Cisco over the years. I know you have lots of personal interests as well. I happen to see a typewriter and a Nintendo behind you on the table there, and I recognize those as Lego. What's the latest Lego build in your house?

Allan: I’m thinking I might buy the Artemis. I love space. When I went to UT, I took three courses in astronomy. I thought I might minor in astronomy. I learned how stars were born. I learned about the universe, all that stuff before it became more mainstream. Yesterday, I was glued to my phone watching the 4th launch of SpaceX’s Starship. Artemis is NASA's vehicle for sending us back to the moon. When I count my passions, I've got gaming, I'm a writer, and I love space. So the Artemis seems like the next best thing for me to get as far as Lego is concerned.

Kate: Thank you so much, Allan. Your passion for learning shines through. It's a pleasure to work with you, and thanks for giving us some insight into your world.

Allan: Thank you, Kate. It’s been an honor and a pleasure. 

Allan Johnson

Allan Johnson

Senior Curriculum Developer and Cisco Account Lead
Allan Johnson is a Senior Curriculum Developer and Cisco Account Lead at Unicon, Inc., the leading provider of education technology consulting and digital services. Mr. Johnson has over 20 years of experience developing online curriculum content and assessments for learners as well as support resources for instructors. In addition, Allan publishes books and study guides in networking technology for Pearson.
Kate Valenti

Kate Valenti

Kate Valenti leads the senior executive team and all aspects of corporate operations at Unicon. Kate is responsible for the profitable execution of the firm's business strategy, balancing outstanding service to our clients, significant impact to learners, and enjoyable work experiences for our employees. Throughout her 20+ year career at Unicon, Kate has previously held key leadership roles including Chief Operating Officer and Senior Director of Integrations and Analytics. Previously, Kate worked at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young as a management consultant with a focus on enterprise application integration. Kate is passionate about the impact that well-designed and well-integrated technology can have on the learning experience. During her career in education, Kate has designed and developed integration strategies, programs, and technical services teams, and has delivered dozens of integrated solutions to the market. Kate has both participated in and facilitated industry panel conversations and holds the EDUCAUSE Review Author microcredential.