by Meridith Levinson

Safari Books Online: Five Ways to Make the Most of Your Subscription

May 20, 20089 mins
IT Skills

Christy Confetti Higgins, a program manager in Sun Microsystem's Digital Libraries and Research group, explains how Safari Books Online has become an indispensable training and educational resource for her company.

In 2004, Sun Microsystems purchased a subscription to Safari Books Online, the leading web-based provider of publications for technical professionals. The subscription gave 1,000 Sun engineers access to Safari Books’ database of thousands of electronic books and articles. Today, Safari Books also offers to subscribers access to unfinished manuscripts known as Rough Cuts and online training videos.


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Soon after Sun rolled out Safari Books to its first 1,000 users, hundreds of other Sun employees began clamoring for access to it, according to Christy Confetti Higgins, a program manager in Sun’s Digital Libraries and Research group—a team of four people within Sun’s Learning Services organization, which provides e-learning and training content for the company. (The Digital Libraries and Research group is responsible for making sure Sun’s 34,000 employees have access to all the e-books, online journals and market research they need to do their jobs.) These other Sun employees also wanted at-their-fingertips access to technical content from such publishers as O’Reilly Media, SMI Press, Peachpit,, Addison-Wesley and Pearson (Safari Books Online is a joint venture between O’Reilly and Pearson). Higgins said she had to kick inactive users off the subscription to make room for employees on a waiting list.

The following year, Sun purchased another 1,000 seats on its Safari Books subscription, and eventually Higgins’ group received enough funding to extend access to Safari Books Online across Sun. (According to Safari Books’ website, a 12-month corporate subscription to its premium library, which includes both technology and business books, for five users costs $519.) Today, 5,000 Sun employees actively use Safari Books Online to get answers to pressing technical questions, to learn new technologies, to read books on management and to provide feedback to book authors.

“Having early access to information before it’s in full e-book form, before it’s available in print and before most others have access to it is a pretty big competitive advantage to an engineering company like Sun,” says Higgins.

After all, the subscription to Safari Books Online lets Sun’s technical workers keep their skills up to date and remain at the forefront of the ever-changing technology landscape.

Neeraj Mathur, a principal web technologist and technical program manager with Sun, says Safari Books Online is an invaluable resource. Just as humans can’t survive without water, engineers can’t survive without quick access to information, he says. “If I didn’t have Safari Books Online, I’d be spending a lot of money buying physical books and lugging them around.” That would be a heavy load for Mathur to shuttle between his three offices: one in Menlo Park, Calif., and two in India.

Sun’s deployment of Safari Books Online has been successful because the company has purchased a resource that’s truly valuable to employees, because Sun has properly promoted it, and because Sun has made it easy for employees to access. According to a May 2008 report from Forrester Research on learning strategies, for training and educational resources to be effective, employees must be comfortable with them, and the tools must be placed in the context of the work they need to complete on a day to day basis. That’s certainly the case with Safari Books Online.

If you’re having problems getting users to adopt training and educational tools you’ve deployed, you might want to take a cue from the measures Sun Microsystems took to promote the use of Safari Books Online.

For more best practices on providing training to technology staff, see Six Best Practices for Delivering IT Training.

1. Integrate it with your Google Search Appliance.

Sun’s Learning Services organization originally deployed Google’s Search Appliance in 2007 on a learning portal for employees so that when employees needed information on particular topic, say Java Beans, they could use Google to search all of Sun’s internal content on Java Beans, which includes courses, technical documentation and marketing materials, as well as content from external third parties, such as market researchers.

In the course of deploying the Google Search Appliance, the Learning Services organization decided to integrate the Google product with Safari Books Online. The group wanted Safari Books’ content to show up in search results when people used Google. Higgins says the goal in integrating Safari Books with the Google search appliance was to make Sun employees aware that Safari Books was a new resource available at their fingertips.

Higgins says members of Sun’s learning services organization worked with engineers from Safari to create a module called a One Box that’s part of Google’s Search Appliance. The One Box allows users to hook external content into Google’s search results. So when a user types a keyword into the search box, the One Box sends a query to Safari Books through a gateway and brings back two examples of relevant results from Safari Books as well as a link to all the other relevant results from Safari. When a user clicks on one of the results from Safari, they automatically get sent directly to Sun’s Safari Books Online page.

2. Integrate the training service with key websites inside your company.

Sun’s Digital Libraries and Research group put links to Safari Books Online on internal websites geared toward the employees who use Safari Books the most: Sun engineers and members of the company’s research and development staff. One of these engineering websites, OneStop, has an RSS feed from Safari that lets Sun engineers know when new books are available. Internal engineering wikis feature pages listing titles from SMI Press, which is a publishing partnership between Sun and Pearson.

“Our philosophy is to integrate the content where the users are,” says Higgins. “We don’t want to force people to go to a library page or to use the learning portal to get to Safari. We put the links where employees do their daily learning.”

3. Integrate it with search visualization tools.

Sun uses a search visualization tool called Grokker to make sifting through voluminous amounts of search results quicker and easier for employees. Grokker filters search content into different categories. Each category is represented by a circle on a visual map of the information. By clicking on one of those circles, users can zoom in and out of each category to get a sense of the information they contain. Since Safari Books provides so much useful content to Sun, the company wanted to make sure Grokker picked up search results from Safari. Grokker searches all third party content to which Sun subscribes.

Higgins says Sun worked closely with Grokker and Safari Books to make sure Grokker picked up Safari’s content. She says Grokker had to create a connector into Safari and get permissions to send queries through a specific XML gateway that Safari had to set up to enable a transfer of information and to make sure Grokker was pulling the right information from Safari.

“It’s a great way to hone in on a massive amount of information quickly,” says Higgins of Grokker. “It saves you time because you can search all of these technical resources all at the same time.”

Mathur agrees. He recently used Grokker to do a search on agile project management. He was specifically looking for ways to ingrain the principles of agile project management into his team. Through Grokker, Mathur found a fook on Safari, Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products, which he quickly skimmed. Within a matter of minutes, he had the information he was looking for.

With Safari Books Online, says Mathur, “you can find the information you’re looking for and explore 10 to 20 books in maybe an hour’s time.”

4. Make it easy for users to access beyond the firewall.

Since Sun engineers look to content from Safari Books Online when they’re trying to solve an immediate technical problem, they need to be able to access Safari’s content anytime, any place, whether they’re working from home or in a client’s office.

“If they had to use a VPN or a token card to get into the Sun network, that would be too many steps,” says Higgins.

To make access easy for users, the Digital Libraries and Research group set up Sun’s Safari Books website so that it’s public. It’s outside of Sun’s network and doesn’t require IP authentication from Sun. Sun employees only need a user ID and password to log into Sun’s Safari Books subscription.

Mathur says not having to use a VPN or a token to access Safari Books Online makes his life much easier. “Engineers need access to information in the least amount of clicks. The fewer clicks we have to do to find information, the more time we can spend picking up information and putting it to good use,” he says.

One feature of Sun’s Safari Books subscription that Higgins says is particularly useful to Sun’s knowledge workers is the ability to download chapters of books onto their hard drives so that they don’t have to be connected to the Internet to access Safari content. Mathur loves this feature because it enables him to catch up on his reading during long flights from his office in New Dehli to his office in Menlo Park.

5. Promote the service and train employees how to use it.

Higgins says the Digital Libraries and Research group launched a campaign to promote its subscription to Safari Books Online throughout the company. They put posters advertising Safari Books Online in Sun offices around the world. They stuffed postcards that plugged Safari Books into welcome bags for the 3,000 to 4,000 Sun engineers who attended the company’s big engineering conference in 2006. They also wrote about Safari, its features and content on Sun’s many blogs.

In addition, Sun piloted Safari Books Online for six months. During that time, the learning services organization surveyed engineers to get their feedback on the service and to identify the features that they considered most important. They also conducted webinars to show people how to use Safari Books Online and to demonstrate the service’s features. And they sent e-mails with tips on using Safari Books Online as well as lists of new titles that were coming out.

Many of these promotional and training efforts, such as blogging, the e-mail communications and the webinars, continue to this day. Higgins has no doubt this big promotional push paved the way for Safari Books’ success inside Sun.