Sunday, June 21, 2015

IT super user training

It is strange how one is sometimes able to recall a seemingly innocuous conversation years after it taking place.  For me it was around 1998 (which I mark due related work involving Windows 98… good thing they didn’t call it “Purple Leopard”) and it was with Bill, who expressed to me that he believed we had a window of opportunity that was quickly closing to make a career change to the work of information technology (IT).  Bill was a registered nurse (RN) and I was a licensed social worker and we were working in the world of substance abuse and mental health.  At that time, many technologies were still in their infancy.  Microsoft was close to delivering the death blow to products like Word Perfect, Lotus 123 and Netscape Navigator and someone would more likely say “what’s a google” than “Google it”.  There were not an abundance of “experts” because much of the exciting stuff was too new to have experts.

Up to this time, I had little formal IT training.  I had taken courses in BASIC and COBOL programming many years prior to the introduction of home PCs which had taken their toll in scaring me away.  I was pulled back to the power of the Word Processor while in the US Army and then when home PCs started arriving took out one of those no interest if paid in a year deals to purchase an IBM 386.  One thing the IBM 386 had was plenty of documentation – multiple books covering DOS and Microsoft Works which along with a dose of masochism launched my tech learning.  So when I worked with Bill in 1998, I was considered somewhat “tech savvy” and having that reputation opened some doors whereby our employer paid for some face to face application courses through a company called Ikon (no longer providing training) and then convinced my employer that it would be cheaper for them to purchase a buffet type plan (all the training you want during a period of time).  The buffet plan allowed me to grow beyond application courses to operating systems and hardware and I was able to achieve a Comp TIA A+ certification.

Since that time, I’ve tunneled through many a boring tech book, sat through a few more face to face classes and queried Google many times.  I was able to successfully make a career hop from social work to an analyst position with a salary well beyond what I would have achieved within social work.  In my current role as an analyst, I am widely regarded as an IT “super user”.  In my experience, super users are often the bridge between the typical employee and the “techies”.  Super users are often the ones to find practical ways to use technology to solve day to day type business problems.  In my role as a super user, I am frequently asked about where to go for good tech training.
I often start with suggesting books.  I frequently get a response along the lines, “I’m not a book learner”.  (I often wonder if in our smart phone world whether the operators have become less so, but this train of thought may be fodder for a future quip).  For some things such as learning SQL (structured query language) or other language / coding type technologies, I think that books are near essential.  Even for those who struggle with books, I would encourage you to explore some of the fast, easy to read books such as the “For Dummies” series and similar offerings.  A great place to identify books that may fit your needs is

Sadly, face to face training is quickly vanishing.  In Albany, NY, there is a small independent company, Computer Visions that does a decent job with Microsoft Office applications courses.  There is also a larger company, New Horizons, which has an office in Albany.  Another large IT trainer is Learning Tree which does not have an office in Albany, NY but does provide training in some large metropolitan areas 3-4 hours away from Albany.  I have experienced training with all 3 and I would consider the experiences mostly positive.  I will remark that I liked the intimacy of the personal touch of Computer Visions and had explored purchasing some training for my wife but was told by them that the training needs to be through an employer due to some technicality with New York education law.  (It made no sense to me, but there are many crazy laws in NY).

One caveat to note is that “instructor lead” training may not be the same thing as face to face training.  I think there is some advantage to having the instructor on site where he/she can provide an immediate response to your question or examine your computer desktop first hand.   The current trend in “live” training is for the instructor to be in one location and deliver training to multiple locations.  It is often difficult or cost prohibitive to provide an expert for some technologies in a face to face environment.  I have experienced some occasions where I asked in advance to ensure the instructor was on site and then found out that although the instructor was on site at the location that I attended, there were also 2-3 students who were participating virtually.  At times, I found this distracting although I will note that the instructors have juggled this reasonably well.  (For example, instead of “Bob” in the chair asking a question that everyone would hear, a virtual attendee might instant message (IM) the instructor who would express the question to the class then answer it.  Sometimes in face to face training you can learn from the experiences of other students through casual conversation which does not happen as fluidly when participants are dispersed geographically).

Currently, virtual training seems to be hot.  I say this with some trepidation as while there is a place for virtual training and it does tend to be cheaper, it is not always better.   I have experienced virtual training in 3 different flavors.  First is the instructor led training whereby a “live” instructor delivers training over the Internet (“web conferencing”) to virtual attendees.   While this may sound like the best case scenario for virtual training, this modality is my least preferred based on extensive personal experience.  First, since there is a “life” instructor the training will run in real time.  Real time means that you must be available (receptive) to learn at the appointed time.  As Murphy’s Law would have it, there always seems to be a crisis or some “hot” issue that needs attending whenever I try to attend one of these events.  When I have attended, there are often participants from 20 – 75 different geographic locations so it is difficult for any type of question and answer.   Instead, these trainings tend to be lecture of what the “instructor” thinks you need or feels obligated to say.  While these web conferences tend to have a “chat box,” I have found that it is very distracting if you’re trying to listen to the instructor.  To us old farts, it is akin to having multiple conversations going on at the same time.  Many times there will be multiple people writing in to the “chat box” at the same time.

The second modality is pre-recorded virtual training such as Skillsoft where training courses are molded around subject matter.  I have found some of these trainings to be very helpful but as they are modeled as courses there are times where there may be portions that are redundant to what you already know or portions that just don’t fit your needs.  Unfortunately, these courses tend to be all or nothing whereby if you don’t work through all sections of the course, you don’t get credit.  Another irritating thing that I have encountered with these is the peskiness of their pre and post testing.  There are times where I just want to take what I can from the offering and not be tested.  I don’t want to be forced to figuring out which multiple guess to pick to complete a test.   One asset owned by Skillsoft, Books24x7, is particularly noteworthy.  This service provides online access to a large number of quality tech books which is a very valuable resource.  Overall, Skillsoft is very high quality but it is geared toward commercial (enterprise level) customers.  I did not spot a way for an individual to easily subscribe to this product.

The third modality is pre-recorded virtual training such as  These trainings are a hybrid of lecture accompanied by demonstration.  I stumbled upon due to a business need whereby I needed to create a simple workflow in Microsoft SharePoint.  I found a free video and found its “watch and learn” type format extremely user friendly.  In short, I found that instead of having to wade through a course curricula, I could quickly get to what I needed and see it professionally demonstrated.  In addition to the quality of the Lynda demonstrations, I have also been impressed with the breadth of their offerings.  Quality SharePoint training for super users is hard to find.  Much SharePoint training is geared toward typical users (one extreme) where they teach skills such as how to upload a document or geared to techies (the other extreme) where they teach about managing the server.  Beyond SharePoint, I was delighted to see offering on Design, Usability (including Section 508 compliance), and even offerings on Gimp (an application that I seldom see offerings for formalized training).  Due to my very positive experiences with the product, I am pleased to announce that MyTurnQuips has become a partner and I have added their advertisement to my site.  I invite you to take a look.