Training IT Staff Is Key To Your Company’s Success

titsSoftware development, maintenance, operations and support is tough. One of the most important ways you can increase your organization’s chance of success at the software game is to have competent staff with a robust skill set.

Classroom training, via traditional colleges and universities or through professional training schools, is often an effective way for people to learn new skills, but it isn’t the only way. Since no single approach to training and education is perfect for everyone, you want to foster an environment which is flexible enough to meet the needs of individual students.

Mentoring, learning teams, bag-lunch training, self-paced training and computer-based training (CBT) can all be used to supplement your organization’s training efforts.

Many organizations make the mistake of sending someone to a training course with the expectation they will internalize the material and be able to apply it immediately when they return to work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Therefore, why would you send somebody to a couple of Java programming courses and expect them to develop mission-critical EJB software with their new-found skills?

The bottom line is that a couple of days or weeks of training is only a couple of days or weeks of training. Classroom training on its own is not sufficient to meet the complex needs of modern software development.

One of the most important supplements to classroom training and education is mentoring — having someone experienced with object technology guiding novices through the learning process and showing them how to apply new skills effectively. The mentoring effort should be performed on a development project, one in which the trainee is given the opportunity to apply and evolve the skills they received during training.

In order for mentoring to be successful mentors must be qualified to do the job. Good mentors have communication skills and several years of experience in what they are mentoring.

If you do not already have people with the skills and it’s likely you don’t, you’ll need to hire from the outside.

Another effective way to supplement classroom training is to put people into learning teams, who work together to learn a particular subject. Learning teams are often asked to produce a small application for the company and spend between 20 and 50 per cent of their working hours on the mini-project, while devoting the rest of their time to their current responsibilities.

The best learning teams are made up of people from separate areas in your systems department with different skill sets. Perhaps one is a manager, another is a systems programmer, another an analyst etc.

The wide range of skills and backgrounds enables the team to approach the learning process from several directions, increasing their learning opportunities.

For learning teams to be successful, team members need initial training to give them the base skills, access to development tools and access to literature in order to gain a better understanding of the development process. Unfortunately, the one flaw with learning teams is they have a tendency to flounder without the guidance of an experienced mentor.

Formal classroom training can also be supplemented with informal bag-lunch training sessions. These are one-hour mini-lessons held during the daily lunch break. The sessions are typically given by development experts, usually your mentors and cover a wide range of topics over time. Successful bag-lunch training programs typically involve two or three sessions a week with each session given several times so everyone has an opportunity to attend. Bag-lunch sessions are easy to do and really give a boost to the learning process.

Many organizations find CBT is also a valid approach, especially when combined with formal training and mentoring. Many organizations provide their employees access to introductory CBT courses before sending them on formal training courses, giving them a head-start on learning. Unfortunately, CBT by itself is of minimal value for teaching people modern development skills. Modern software development is simply too complex and evolves too fast to be captured in a CBT course.

Furthermore, when you have questions you need to talk to an expert to get them answered. A computer cannot do that for you, although a mentor can (mentoring and CBT are a powerful combination). In short, CBT is only part of the overall learning picture.

I cannot stress enough that for your training and education efforts to be successful, your organization must supply access to development tools and appropriate literature. Most developers learn by playing, reading and then playing some more. This means they need access to programming languages, modeling tools and testing tools.

Training and educating your development staff must be taken seriously if your organization is to succeed in today’s software development environment. You have a wide variety of complementary techniques to choose from, so choose the ones that best fit your unique situation.

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