Who's the Fool When it Comes to Training?
Published: February 9, 2009
by Dan Burger
Is it true that the biggest hindrance to learning is fear of showing one's self a fool? I asked Susan Gantner and Jon Paris what they thought. Their combination of experiences when presenting IBM System i and RPG programming topics at local user group meetings, for in-house training at businesses around the world, and on the speakers list at nearly all the major technical conferences tops just about everyone in this field. They also play a major role in the System i Developer team that organizes and presents the RPG and DB2 Summit.
Creating a learning environment, it seems to me, is critical to the success of any training. And that means dealing with a suitcase full of motivations, anxieties, and teacher/student interactions. One piece of baggage that fits into each of those categories is the fear that a lot of people have of speaking up and sounding stupid.
Talking primarily about what they have set out to accomplish with the twice-a-year RPG and DB2 Summit, Gantner and Paris put a great deal of emphasis on creating a sense of community among the attendees and the speakers and how far that goes in overcoming the fear of making a fool out of yourself.
"The familiarity of speakers with their audience and audience with the speakers opens up the opportunity for attendees to ask more questions and not feel like a question is a dumb question," Gantner says. "It's a feeling of being comfortable."
We all know there is nothing to fear but fear itself, but acknowledging it and acting on it still makes palms sweat and voices stutter. How do you get comfortable and how do you learn if you remain uncomfortable?
"We choose speakers who feel like we do about meeting people and helping them to improve regardless of skill level," Gantner says. "They could be very advanced and be looking for specific skills or they may be just getting started with RPG IV and want to understand a built-in function."
Developing a comfort factor is also attributable to session participation that is intentionally capped at approximately two dozen people and a session schedule that has many attendees seeing many of the same faces in session after session. Not only do the attendees have a greater opportunity to get to know one another compared to larger conferences with a wider diversity of topics, but a stronger bond between instructor and class is also a likely result, the two trainers contend.
Combine these things and the result is a higher degree of socialization, which according to many experts is conducive to learning. As a side benefit, it lowers the fear factor.
"The smaller size of the audience means it's easier to interact with the instructors and each other," Gantner says. "There's a lot to be said for working face to face and sitting down at meals with the instructors and the other attendees who are focused on the same things you are."
"The size of the conference does have an impact," Paris says. "If you sit down next to someone at lunch at the Summit, for instance, there's a one in four chance that the person sitting next to you was in the same session with you." And even if that person was not in the same class, it's likely that the class was something closely related to the same topic area, he says.
And it's not like fear is griping everyone or even those who feel their skills don't match up well with the rest of the group. What's really important about training and education is the learning part. Every person learns somewhat differently. But in a social setting like an education-oriented conference, the environment and the instructors play an important role.
Paris downplays any difference of teaching style that separates him from any of the other qualified subject matter experts teaching RPG or other topics at this conference or any other.
"I don't think fundamentally there is a difference. In practice, it creates a difference because of the family feel [at the Summit] and the fact that an audience that will follow sessions throughout a conference," he says. "If there's a difference in the way I present a session, it's a reaction on my part because I have a much higher percentage of audience that was in the last session I taught. When I know that 25 to 50 percent of the audience was in the previous session I gave, there are assumptions, comparisons, and allusions I can draw that can't be done with larger audiences where maybe only 10 to 15 percent of the audience attended my previous session."
It's a natural transition (easy for me to say) from the social learning aspects of education and training to the economic realities of today's business climate and the value of professional development. The reality is that few companies invest in their employees in the same way they would their IT hardware or their offices or their manufacturing or retail facilities. By comparison, upgrading staff gets the short end of the budget stick . . . if it gets any stick at all. Investment in training and education has been a downward trend and that's surprising based on how results-oriented business has become. The value of a well-trained, better-skilled employee would seem to far exceed the alternative.
Paris says, "It's demonstrably provable that you get greater staff loyalty and higher staff retention rates in companies that provide educational opportunities for their staffs."
Gantner was prompted by this line of thought to remember a quote from training expert Zig Ziglar that gets to the core value of employee education and training: "What's worse than training your people and having them leave? Not training them and having them stay."
Employee education is like performance tuning IT software or buying fast hardware. Those that invest in these areas almost always get a good return on investment. Employs work smarter. They tend to implement new technologies that provide competitive advantages. Businesses tend to move ahead instead of lag behind.
"When people talk about why their company is a good place to work, one of the first things out of their mouths is the education requirements that are in place," Gantner says. "For RPG programmers, it seems to me that is a huge perk. I don't know if companies realize that is a big reason employees are loyal."
Jeb Bouchard is a senior programmer analyst at Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom, (a phone company) where she has 23 years of experience on the AS/400 platform. IT staff training at this company is considered a priority. There are funds dedicated to training, her RPG-fluent boss is very supportive, and the programmer team is dedicated to bettering themselves and not remaining stagnant. Bouchard is part of a three-person team that has attended the RPG & DB2 Summit. She says the Summit experience makes them a better team and "puts more tools in our toolbox."
A lot of RPG programmers would like to be in such a position, but it doesn't come without goals and objectives. There's a goal, a year-round effort, and the benefits are real and accounted for.
Programmer skills are reviewed annually and a plan is made accordingly. For instance, there was value in getting everyone's RPG ILE skills to more or less the same level so that code that had already been written could be maintained by more than the person who wrote it. The plan also included learning to use IBM's WDSc tools and coming to grips with HTML and PHP.
The goal is not accomplished at the end of a three- or four-day conference. The team works together throughout the year to stay focused and organized, even though all the members are not working in one location. They are self-directed and do not rely on company mandates. Bouchard says self-motivation is very important, but regular training plays a huge role in their mission to deliver modern solutions.
What have they accomplished?
The list of credits is long. They have a System i Web server and Web-based customer service applications as well as PHP apps. They've added CGI functionality and have created new and reusable code. Based on what's already listed, it's not surprising that they are using WDSc for coding.
"If we put into practice what we learned, we feel the training was effective," Bouchard says. "If we learn something new, we feel it was effective. If we connect better as a team, we know it was effective. If we come back to work with more enthusiasm, well, you get the picture."
Bouchard says the Summit's small size and the modern RPG topics are a great fit for her team. (After five Summit conferences the attendance has consistently been in the 200 to 250 attendee range.) She has become acquainted with the Summit instructors and e-mails are exchanged whenever she's needed help.
The enthusiasm to learn and the skills that have been acquired and implemented by the phone company IT crew is very typical of many Summit experiences, Gantner says. "We have a handle on the part of the community that is interested in moving forward with i and with RPG in the mix--not necessarily exclusively RPG--and bringing their applications forward. I think we see a pretty wide cross-section of those [System i customers]. There are those shops that have decided, for whatever reason, that what they are doing is good enough and they are going to keep doing it that way because if it was good enough for the System/38, it is good enough now. We don't see that subset of i customers."
John Ebrecht is another alumnus of the RPG & DB2 Summit. He works as a project manager for a small insurance software house that also does consulting and contract work. During his years as an IT professional, he's piled up skills that connect him to the days of FORTRAN, the System/38, and Synon. An abbreviated list of his accomplishments includes RPG IV, COBOL/400, DDS, CLP, and SQL. He's been an application developer most of his career, but now he concentrates his efforts on consulting and contract work.
Not many people pay out of their own pocket to attend conferences and seminars, but Ebrecht believes his money is well spent at the Summit.
"I'm trying to improve the quality of the applications I help build and my productivity," Ebrecht says. "And, frankly, to get excited about this business again."
The excitement tends to fade when, like Ebrecht, programmers work for companies that let their OS/400 and i5/OS applications go dormant. Because he was seeking new challenges, Ebrecht found the RPG & DB2 Summit. "I wanted to learn those new technologies and put them to use by making use of ILE features: procedures instead of subroutines, service programs instead of replicating code, and SQL instead of DDS," he says.
It's not a coincidence that both Ebrecht and Bouchard view education and training as a good investment that pays off personally in terms of staying energized and pays off professionally by putting modern technologies to use helping businesses to grow.
Education and training among the System i users has no inertia, Paris says. The value of education is under appreciated. In this economic climate, when companies are looking to cut expenses, education is one of the first things to be eliminated in a lot of instances. "It should be the last thing to go," he says.
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