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LongEx Mainframe Quarterly - February 2010

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 results.

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 @#$% manual!”

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):

Course cost
Return airfare Melbourne to Sydney
4 nights accommodation
Travel costs (taxis, per-diem expenses etc.)
Total Cost

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 professional.

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 training.

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.

David Stephens

LongEx Quarterly is a quarterly eZine produced by Longpela Expertise. It provides Mainframe articles for management and technical experts. It is published every November, February, May and August.

The opinions in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of any other person or organisation. All trademarks, trade names, service marks and logos referenced in these articles belong to their respective companies.

Although Longpela Expertise may be paid by organisations reprinting our articles, all articles are independent. Longpela Expertise has not been paid money by any vendor or company to write any articles appearing in our e-zine.

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