I have instructed people in IT technology for more than ten years. The thing I love about my job is that in the span of a week or less, I am able to help people meet their goals. There aren’t too many careers where you can significantly impact things in just a few days. Sometimes, however, it does not work out that way. When students walk away from class and have not learned much, I know I wasted their time. What makes this especially disheartening is that the situation is entirely preventable with just a little preparation on the part of the learner. Don’t squander your future training opportunities. Instead, follow these guidelines for what—I guarantee—will be a productive training experience:
1. Have an Immediate Need to Know. When a student is not sure why they are in training, or it is going to be months before they put their training to use, I know they are wasting their training dollars.
Have you ever heard the phrase “use it or lose it?” I firmly believe in this axiom. If you don’t have an immediate need to know the material covered in a training class then wait to take the training until just before it is needed. I define “need” as having a reason to use the material you learn within the coming days or weeks, not months.
If you are told you are going to be put in a training class, know why. Ask your manager if you are not sure why. Perhaps you are going to be put on a new project or in a new role. Understand why you need the training before you show up in class. Necessity is not only the mother of invention, it also serves as the motivator to learn!
Work with your training provider to make sure you get what you need when you need it. At Intertech, students are allowed to re-take a class within one year of their original class. This helps insure that when a student is not able to use what they have learned and need a refresher, they can get it without extra cost.
2. Know What You Need to Learn. So the boss has told you that you are going to be in charge of the new web project and he also told you to get whatever training you need. Congratulations! Now what? Do some research. There are a lot of technologies out there and a lot of training options. And since you may have never done the work before, you may not even know what you need to know. Figure out what technologies your organization is currently using. Create an educational plan for yourself. You can’t learn all the technologies at once, but you need to figure out what you need to know, what order you need to know it, and where to find the training. When a student arrives in my class and discovers the material isn’t really what they use or when they realize the material is too advanced for their current skills, I know we have missed an opportunity to deliver useful instruction.
When you contact a training organization, ask them for help. It is the job of training account representatives to help you. They know about various training options. Through soliciting some information about you, your organization, and what type of work you have coming up, they can help pinpoint educational solutions that will work best for you. They also have access to instructors and industry experts that can help you determine the optimal educational plan to match your resources.
3. Understand Training vs. Consulting. In the software industry, it is impossible to know it all. Even if you have expertise in a particular technology, you come across new scenarios and problems every day. Most training classes are designed to provide a “knowledge foundation” to people entering a new technology. That is not to say that all training classes are for beginners. For example, perhaps you are a Java guru but you have never created a web service before– or you have created lots of .NET web Services, but never one in Java– a Java Web Service class probably would be perfect for you. If you already have a foundation of knowledge in an area but need to solve a particular problem, chances are good that you need a consultant and not a class.
Consultants provide specific skill sets to solve specific problems or address specific needs in your organization. Training classes provide general skill sets to address general needs. When a student comes to class only because the title of one chapter of the whole class is in an area where his/her project has a problem, the instructor probably will disappoint that student’s expectations.
Hire a consult to address a specific need. Consultants pride themselves on finding solutions, but they also enjoy mentoring clients. Intertech’s slogan sums up this philosophy: “Instructors who Consult, Consultants who teach.” Find a consultant that can teach you how to address very specific needs. In the long run, it will be cheaper and a much better use of your time.
4. Read the Course Literature. Training organizations publish a lot of information about a training class. Typical class marketing material includes a class description, a class outline, prerequisites, training or learning objectives, instructor information, along with the course title, length and cost. Read these carefully before signing up for a class. Make sure you have the prerequisites suggested by the literature. If you don’t, contact the training organization and ask how important the prerequisite is and if there might be suggested resources you can use to prepare and be ready for the class.
Look at the full outline. Does it fit with your education plan and cover the topics you are going to need to know in the near future? Are the learning objectives in line with your expectations and consistent with your upcoming needs? Learn about the instructor and ask the training organization for more details when necessary. Does your instructor have experience that can help you understand the material and do they have a proven track record in the classroom? When in doubt, call the training organization and speak with the account representative, or the instructor if necessary. Make sure the class is right for you and you are right for the class.
5. Clear Your Schedule. When you show up for training, make it your only focus for the week. Training is a full-time job. It requires your full attention and focus. If you are trying to solve a big problem at work or if you have something going on in your personal life that does not allow you to focus, you are not maximizing your training dollars. This is a particular issue for “virtual” students (students that take the training on-line). Training organizations try to provide a training conducive environment. Your office cube or even home office might be wonderful, but how well do they allow you to keep focused on your class? If you are taking a class remotely, make sure distractions and interruptions are kept to a minimum.
I like to tell my students that good training is like a good workout at the gym. At the end of class, you should leave feeling absolutely exhausted, but also absolutely satisfied and rejuvenated by what you just did. You know that if you just go through the motions at the gym, you really aren’t getting much out of it. Same thing happens in the classroom. No pain, no gain.
Stuff happens. So if something happens at work or in your life whereby you cannot focus on training, work with the training organization to drop the class and get signed up for the next class. Intertech, for example, has a no-questions-asked policy about returning to a class. As long as you take the class within one year, you can drop out of class for any reason and get placed in the next class at no cost.
6. Get the Instructor’s Business Card. While attending training, ask your instructor for his/her business card or contact information. Instructors have a facilitator’s personality. The reason they do what they do is because the like to help people. So don’t be shy about asking them for their business card and if they would be available to answer questions in the future. The instructors are people that know and have worked with the technology you are learning. Allow them to be another resource you can leverage once class is done and you are trying to apply what you have learned. At the very least, an instructor usually can direct you to a helpful web site, book or other resource if you run into a problem after your training class. Also, instructors are typically consultants. So when your problem is bigger, they may be able to help in other ways too.
7. Get a List of Additional Resources. Having worked with the technology you are learning, your instructor has developed a list of resources for more information on the topic. He/she knows web sites, books, professional organizations, etc., that serve as resources when trying to find solutions and solve problems in the field. If your instructor wrote the materials you are using during class, they probably have an extensive bibliography. During class, ask your instructor for a list of resources they use for the topic. Ask them where they would go next to learn more about the subject you are learning. Are there follow up classes you should consider? Get this list before you leave class. A training class is a wonderful way to get started in a subject, but you are eventually going to need more details and help. Find out where to get this help from a current expert.
8. Participate and Ask Questions. I am often confused when a student attends a whole week of training and never once asks a question. Am I that good that I was able to convey all the information perfectly? Unlikely! Even if you understand the material as it is presented, start asking yourself questions like “do I really know how this works?” “Why is this important?” “How would I apply this in what I am going to do?” “Does this like <fill in the blank>; something I already know?” When you can’t answer your own questions, don’t be afraid to ask your instructor.
Students sometimes are afraid to ask questions for fear of looking foolish. Every instructor I know will tell you that if you have a question, nine times out of ten someone else in class is wondering the same thing. And your question or comment will help sharpen your fellow students’ thoughts. A class comes alive and people learn faster when there is a rapid and free flowing exchange of ideas, questions and answers. There really is no such thing as a “dumb question,” but if you really are intimidated by your fellow classmates, use the time before or after class, or the break times, to approach your instructor privately to ask your questions.
Not only will you (and your fellow students) learn more in class by interacting with your instructor, you also provide invaluable insight to your instructor. I have no other way of knowing if you are understanding the material unless you question and comment. So when you participate, I know if I need to slow down, speed up or take other actions to assist in your learning. Your participation is an instructor’s pace gauge.
9. Share in the Work. A proverb says, “Teachers can only open the door, students must walk through it alone.” Learning is a shared responsibility, but you are the one really in the driver’s seat. As an instructor, it is my job to present the material to you as clearly and concisely as possible. It is your job to work at understanding the material. Again, learning is a full-time job. Knowledge isn’t spoon-fed. Knowledge comes from (metaphorically speaking!) deeply inhaling and bathing in the training offered.
When taking a class, make sure you give yourself a little time in the morning and/or evenings of class to review and study what you learned so far. Practice some of what you learned if you can. If you are taking a class where there are hands-on laboratories, don’t just go through the motions. I like to tell students to “work” the labs not “do” the labs. In other words, make sure you understand what is happening in a lab, don’t just follow the steps. Explore what skills/lessons labs are trying to highlight.
Once class has ended, continue to explore the materials and resources provided during class until you have to put your training to practical use. Use it or lose it. As long as you are studying the material and working your training, you are still using it.
10. Get to know your Fellow Students. During your class, get to know your fellow students. During breaks and labs, find out why they are taking the class and what are they learning. Find out how/why/where are they using the technology you are learning. Before you leave class make sure you have their contact information. Why? Because you are probably about to share in many of the same experiences once you get back to work and use the information you are learning. You are probably going to encounter some of the same issues and solve some of the same problems. By getting to know your fellow students, you are building a network of people you can leverage that are probably nearer to your own world (and problems) than anyone you can imagine.
What’s more, by getting to know your fellow students, you’ve just learned the names of some potential co-workers. Maybe not now, but in the future, if you need help finding a job or the boss asks you to assist in finding people for your project, your class roster might offer some help!