What’s The Value Of Training Courses & What’s The Alternative?

Normal practice for a company to up-skill an employee is to send them off to a 5 day training course, usually costing €2,000 plus lost revenue/productivity, travel, and accommodation.  I’ve been on those courses, and I’ve sent people on them.  What are these courses worth? 

I’ve seen behind the curtain of the typical official training course.  Let’s just say that I was not impressed.  The authors were not experts on the subject matter.  Much of it was copied and pasted from the software publisher’s support site.  There was no education on why things are the way they are, best practices, or supported scenarios.  In fact, 40% of the content on that course was irrelevant content that was forced through by marketing.  Official approved training rooms usually have 1 PC per person and attendees are expected to learn failover clustering and management on that!  It seems to me that generic training fails to train.  And folks, things are not getting better.  The authoring of this sort of content is not developed by who you think it might be – it’s usually outsourced on a tender basis (and can mean the cheapest tender wins, which isn’t necessarily a good indicator of quality), they then outsource to SMEs (subject matter “experts”), and they often outsource again to friends or other online contacts because of deadlines.  What can you really learn from that?

Let’s look at the experience from a two perspectives:

The End Customer

A company has hired a consulting company to deploy some technology, e.g. Hyper-V, System Center, SharePoint, Exchange, etc that is new to the company.  At some point, the consultants will leave and the internal IT department will have to take over day to day engineering and management.  The traditional solution is that 1 or more admins are sent away for a week and expected to come back knowing all there is to know. 

OK – consider a Windows Server 8 Hyper-V course.  In the room they’ll get 1 PC with VMs to work on.  They might get partnered up with someone they don’t know, who could be a rookie/moron.  They have enough hardware to build a cluster but with no storage – unless the class hoster sacrifices one of the 10 PCs for iSCSI.  It’s likely the attendees will learn zip/nothing about Storage Pools, and they’ll get a pretty crap education on System Center too.  I reckon you’ll need 4 physical servers plus SAN access to learn Windows Server 8 Hyper-V.

If like the typical course, they’ll learn the absolute basics, and return back to the office the following week not really grasping anything that was implemented by the consultants.

The Consultant

I have to break the 1st rule of the magician’s circle here.  Very often when you hire an “expert” consultant, they’ve just been on the course the week before.  Sometimes, and it’s happened to me as a consultant, they don’t even know the product (I once was forced by sales to pretend I was an expert on a product that I didn’t know the first thing about, and the customers had been on 3 weeks of training – that was an experience full of ecumenical matters).  A lot of customers actually pay for their consultant to learn something because they are Googling on the customer site, or hammering the forums for help, while the customer pays their day rate.

What normally happens is the consulting business decides to sell and expertise but not develop it until they get traction – there’s “no point” in investing €2,000+ per consultant plus lost consulting days revenue until they know that they can sell it.  Then a customer bites and someone is hurriedly sent packing on a course.  The following Monday they are in on the customer site to do a complex install … but all they’ve learned is some terminology and how to run setup.exe.  For example, I hope you now understand that there’s more to a virtualisation project than installing ESXi or enabling the Hyper-V role!

So What’s To Be Done?

Let me talk about my last 3 training courses:

  • SMS 2003: This one was a MOC (MSFT official course) that I did years ago, using some tokens from a MSFT EA.  The content was shite.  I learned more about this product from one of my team and from reading by myself than I did from the course.  The MCT running the course didn’t know the product and we usually went home just after lunch because we ran out of content – she didn’t know how to expand on the brief written subject matter.  It was an appalling waste of time for me, and a waste of money for the others who attended.
  • VMware ESX 3.x: This was a course (official VMware I believe) that was run by the Irish VMware distributor that I did in 2007.  It was excellent – it taught me the fundamentals, the trainer knew the content and could answer my questions.  And the lab – we each had access to servers and storage kept in a back room, giving us close to real world environments.  The following week I was prepared to do a cluster deployment.  That was reviewed afterwards by a consulting company and given a pass.
  • DPM 2010: MSFT Ireland has heard the feedback on training from local partners and started running bespoke training last year.  The first round of courses were developed and run by John McCabe.  It focused on real world preparation of consultants for deploying DPM in customer sites, with plenty of practical work.  And this was made possible by each person having access to several physical servers plus iSCSI storage kept in a back room.

I know that MOC courses haven’t changed much in the 15 years that I’ve been aware of them.  I’ve steered clear, often telling my superiors that I’d much prefer to go to a technical conference where there is level 400 content presented by experts and hands-on-labs to learn on. 

The VMware experience is rare in the overall market – VMware have the advantage of having a small product portfolio, having a tight/small channel, and can control the quality and delivery of content by delivering from it at the distributor level.  The latter DPM 2010 example was the ideal one for MSFT product training IMO – but here in Ireland that experience has a limited number of seats that are only open to the first few Microsoft partners to register.

In the USA, there is a market for bespoke training for the public where the likes of Mark Minasi, Rhonda Layfield, Jeremy Moskowitz, and a host of others run scheduled classes at the local airport business hotel, full of content to teach you everything from the fundamentals to the advanced, often in condensed modules that minimise your time away from the office.  I know that this doesn’t really happen in Ireland. and other than a couple of the Scandinavian deployment gurus, I don’t know if it happens in Europe. 

My gut tells me that there is a market for bespoke training that isn’t MOC, that gives the attendee a real world education that isn’t driven by corporate marketing, and provides them with the equipment that is necessary for a real education.  2012 is going to be a crazy year full of Windows Server, Hyper-V, deployment, and System Center, with customers (adoption) and consultants (competencies) seeking to be re-educated.  What do you think?

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4 Replies to “What’s The Value Of Training Courses & What’s The Alternative?”

  1. Couldn’t agree more Aidan. We’re looking for some training (on all the above) and I’m worried that we’ll know beforehand than the trainers from trawling blogs like this and Technet.

    Oh and your Hyper-V / System Centre rates are…?

  2. I once delivered some MOC training (VBSCript) internally to some colleages, and found that it was good at focusing on the basics, but didn’t actually mean they were able to go away and actually write their own scripts. I added a session on the end that dealt with the ‘how do you go from a blank sheet of paper to a working script’ which was very well received. That experience, and of sitting in similar classes, proved to me that the ability and willingness of the instructor to go ‘off script’ for a short while was very useful. Of course, the point made in the original post is that an instructor is probably catering for a wide variety of skill levels in any given class – perhaps the market for advanced or compressed training delivered by ‘in-the-field’ experts (though how you get these skills for new technologies I don’t know – they’d have to be delivered by the vendor or partner organisations who worked with and deployed the beta I suppose) is alive and kicking, but just hasn’t been exploited, at least in the UK?

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