opinion: Mentoring as a Technical Training Option
Using existing staff or consultants to perform 'mentoring style' training
can be an option that not only saves money, but provides far better training
When I first left university, mainframe sites had a more or less standard way
of training up new systems programmers. Most learning was done on-the-job, and
we'd start by installing small ISV products. We were also thrown IBM manuals,
and expected to read them. I can't remember the number of times I would turn
to a senior systems programmer with a question, only to be told read the
We were also sent on courses, invariably held at the training organisation's
premises. In that first year I spent four weeks in training courses two
of them in a different city. All these courses were exceptional, covering a
vast amount of information in a very short time. The problem was that by the
time I returned to my job I'd forgotten half of what I learnt. More was forgotten
as time went on particularly anything that I didn't use immediately in
my day-to-day job.
The Disadvantages of Classroom Training
Research by the Research Institute of America supports this, stating that 42%
of learning is lost after 30 minutes, ramping up to 85% after three weeks. Most
courses attempt to combat this with repetition, classroom notes, reference material,
hands-on workshops, and evaluations at the end. But no-one's arguing that traditional
classroom training is far from perfect.
The problems with classroom training don't stop there. Consider one of the
five-day out-of-town courses that I took in my first year. Today the cost breakdown
would be (in Australian dollars):
|Return airfare Melbourne to Sydney
|4 nights accommodation
|Travel costs (taxis, per-diem expenses etc.)
That's a lot of money. And while I was on the course, I was away from my desk.
So my employer lost a full week's productivity.
Even if you're prepared to overlook these disadvantages, finding mainframe
classroom training can be very difficult particularly if you only have
only one staff member to be trained.
Alternatives to Classroom Training
So what are the alternatives? Online training like that offered by Datatrain
looks good. They are cheaper than classroom training, can be done at the student's
desk, and involve no travel. But anyone who has tried to complete online training
knows that it is passive, and can be incredibly boring. Although this training
can include multimedia presentations, tests, and quizzes; it's still very difficult
to sit at a desk staring at a screen. There's no immediate interaction with
a human being, so in many ways it's not much better than reading a book or manual.
There's no workshops or hands-on training, and the student is chained to a set
curriculum. They can't ask questions or share in the experience of a seasoned
Webinars and Virtual Classrooms are another good option. Using video-conferencing
technology, a student from anywhere in the world can see an instructor presenting
a class. They can also communicate using text, or sometimes voice. Again, there's
no travel, the student studies at their desk, and prices are less than classroom
This type of training is still predominately passive the student watches
and listens to the instructor on a window on their computer. This makes it all
too easy for a student's mind to wander, or be diverted by something that is
happening next to them. Although they can interact with the teacher, few actually
do. And as the teacher can't see every student, it's almost impossible for them
to actively involve every student in the class. The student is still tied to
a set curriculum, and there's little scope for workshops or hands-on learning.
Ongoing training options for experienced staff can be hard to find. Technical
conferences such as Share are the most common option, providing excellent insights
into new technologies and trends. However the need for travel and high attendance
costs make these harder to justify.
Mentoring as an Option
As I became a senior systems programmer, I began to train up junior staff.
Over time I worked out a system where I would talk to the junior for an hour
a week. During this hour we'd discuss a technical topic, and then I'd give an
assignment to be completed before the next session. This assignment could be
a programming or technical project, investigation, or reading assignment. The
next week we'd review the student's assignment, clear up any points, and move
on to the next topic.
This style has several real advantages:
- No fixed curriculum. The student studies what they need to study. No need
to discuss JES3 when you're a JES2 shop.
- The student learns at their own pace.
- The student is always actively involved. It's a one-on-one direct interaction,
so there's no way the student's mind can be distracted.
- The student learns on their own computer systems so it's easier to
apply new knowledge. Assignments and analysis aren't done on a training system,
but on the computer systems that the student uses every day.
- The student learns at their desk, which is a better place to learn.
- The student learns slower information is imparted over weeks, rather
than crammed in over days. There's more repetition, and they're applying what
they've learnt. Result: far better knowledge retention.
- The company doesn't have to lose the student for a week they can
the training within their normal working week (and no travel time).
- The student learns from an experienced professional. They not only learn
theoretical topics, but how to apply them in the real world.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that I wouldn't teach the student technical
topics. Instead I'd assign reading assignments, and then discuss the topics
later. Or in other words, I'd teach the student how to teach themselves.
This is a huge benefit: the student will find out more by themselves over time,
and rely less on their mentor.
This type of training is hardly new apprenticeships have been used for
centuries. However in the IT industry it is unusual, and grossly under-used.
Companies often have a vast amount of experience at their fingertips - experience
that they're not using to its full advantage.
There's no doubt that teaching isn't for everyone. Senior staff may have no
teaching aptitude, or lack the necessary technical knowledge and experience.
However in most professions teaching is a logical continuation of a career.
And as anyone with teaching experience knows, teaching improves the knowledge
of the teacher as much as the student. In fact I'd like to see more companies
use and recognise this style of training by adding training responsibilities
to the assessment criteria of all senior technical staff.
It's from this experience that we developed our 'mentor' style training at
Longpela Expertise. We can't be next to every student, so do it remotely using
the telephone and web-based tools like GoMeeting to see each other's screen.
This way we can conduct training for students around the world - just like when
I was mentoring junior systems programmers. There's not doubt that this style
of training doesn't work for every training situation - we still use classrooms
for our Introducing Mainframes training. But we've seen great success with this
approach, and our students have had fun learning. In fact we're constantly
surprised at how quickly a motivated student can grasp new concepts.
But before we get carried away, let's compare prices:
|Five day out-of-town classroom course cost
|4-6 Weeks Longpela Expertise Mentoring:
$1000 - $1500
|Mentoring by current staff
(1 hour per week)
On cost alone, it's a convincing argument.