Hands-On, Virtual Training for i Coders and Admins
July 18, 2011 Jenny Thomas
Whether you’re looking to learn some new skills or just brush up on techniques, if you’re an IBM i programmer you probably already know that finding hands-on education can be a tricky proposition. If you can find a class, you’ll likely have to travel, which means more time out of the office and away from home, plus the expense of airline tickets, hotel rooms, and rental cars, all of which can make the idea of training pretty unappealing.
Pre-recorded Webinars are another option. There’s no traveling, which many people would consider a bonus, but there is also no opportunity for interaction with the presenter or other students. Conferences and trade shows might offer some educational opportunities, but taking notes in a crowded room and waiting to get back to the office to try out something new isn’t the most effective means of learning.
So where can companies find training for their programming personnel?
Dan Riehl thinks he has the answer. Riehl has been in the business of training folks on the i since 1988. He has always recognized the need for hands-on i education, and started out doing training to supplement the time he wasn’t doing consulting.
“When people are looking for training, there is no place to go for live instruction,” said Riehl. “IBM doesn’t teach them. They don’t offer much training, and classes will get cancelled if there aren’t enough students signed up.”
In 2003, Riehl opened The 400 School. “I was doing boot camps to train on basic skills,” he said. “I took people who knew nothing about the IBM i to an entry-level programmer level. These people were being supported by their companies–being sent in to learn a specific skill the company needed. But it didn’t do very well; maybe four students each time. Enough to do it, but not enough to be profitable.”
After years of traveling to provide i programming education, or trying to get people to come to him, Riehl was certain there was demand for training and that there had to be a better way to reach students no matter where they were located.
In March 2010, Riehl introduced live, instructor-led, hands-on training in a virtual System i classroom.
“The technology is there to do it,” Riehl said. “That’s what I was concerned about. Is the speed of the video there to do it? Is the audio going to be OK?”
Riehl did a lot of research into available technologies to open his virtual classroom, eventually choosing WebEx, citing its video capabilities as one of the deciding factors. “Students can see the instructor and I can see them,” Riehl said.
“We all log on to the same system that is out there on the cloud,” he continued. “It actually works out better than the classroom setting because I can see what they’re all doing all the time.”
Besides the obvious benefits, such as eliminating the need for travel, the virtual classroom allows for students to log on to The 400 School’s System i during the class, and is available from any location in world via an Internet connection. This means Riehl can oversee hands-on lab exercises and easily offer personal assistance to individual students. “It’s just like being in front of the students,” he said.
After registering for a class, students are mailed any related materials and textbooks, and, if necessary, connection software for their PC. About a week before class, students will attend an orientation to verify all the necessary connections are working properly. Students connect to the classroom via a shared live video using a Webcam, and get audio through a phone call or free VoIP.
Riehl believes that being able to ask questions and be an active participant during the live class enhances the learning experience. “The comments I get back is that they really are thrilled with the quality of the technology,” he said. “Students are amazed with the way it’s like a classroom.”
Class sizes are capped at 10 students, and Riehl is currently offering training in RPG, COBOL, control language, operations, system administration, and security. Classes are priced as corporate training, ranging from approximately $1,600 to $2,500, depending on the topic. Riehl also offers students a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee.
“There’s no other place to get this type of training,” he said, “and, we have not had to cancel [a class] because we have always had enough interest.”
Riehl also still offers on-site education to companies that want to bring him in, but recently he got an opportunity to try his virtual class on a larger scale. The client put a group in a classroom setting and Riehl was beamed in on a big screen. The class shared a Webcam and a microphone. The customer saved the expense of sending the programming team out to train and Riehl could use all of his own tools to complete the instruction while virtually teaching the class.
For Riehl, the potential of being able to have students attend full length courses from the comfort of their own desks, anywhere in the world, is huge. “We’ve had a couple of people from Alaska, and done some classes internationally, including one customer from Bulgaria,” he said.
Upcoming classes include a five-day “administration and control workshop” scheduled to begin July 25, A three-day “security and assessment workshop for IT auditors” starting August 10, and a four-day “System i security workshop” beginning August 16. For more information, visit The 400 School.