Technology Training Needs a Hands-On Approach

March 4, 2014
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Many technology companies begin training by handing employees binders of technical manuals, topics and user guides.  Employees are expected to plow through reams of text and diagrams to learn what they need to know to succeed on the job. Instead of just a “core dump” of manuals and online training courses, technical employees should also get “hands on” simulations, boot camps and courses led by advanced robo-instructors to fully hit the ground running.

It’s generally accepted there are two types of knowledge; theoretical knowledge learned via reading books, whitepapers, and other types of documents (also known as classroom knowledge) and experiential knowledge (learning by doing a specific task or involvement in daily activities).

All too often, technology employees coming onto the job on day one, are either handed a tome or two to assimilate, or given a long list of pre-recorded webinars to understand the company’s technology, competitive positioning and go-to-market strategies. In best case scenarios, technology employees are given a week of instructor led training and possibly some role-playing exercises.  However, there is a better way.

A Financial Times article titled “Do it Like a Software Developer” explores new approaches in terms of training and learning for technology companies of all sizes.  Facebook, for example, offers application development new hires 1-2 days of coursework and then turns them loose on adding new features to a new or existing software program.  In teams of 30-60, new hires are encouraged to work together to add features and present results to business sponsors at the end of the first week of employment. New hires get hands-on and “real life” experience of how to work in teams to achieve specific business results.

Even better, Netflix has a rogue program called “Chaos Monkey” that keeps new and existing application developers on their toes. This program’s purpose is to intentionally and randomly disable systems that keep Netflix’s streaming system running. Employees then scramble to discover what’s going wrong and make necessary adjustments. According to the FT article, Chaos Monkey is only let loose on weekdays when lots of developers are around and there is relatively light streaming traffic. Netflix believes if left alone, the streaming service will break-down anyway, so isn’t it better to keep it optimized by having armies of employees scouring for trouble-spots?

Simulations, fire-drills, and real life boot camps should supplement book knowledge for technology companies looking to make new-hires fully productive. But of course, such events are often considered a luxury for companies with limited training budgets, or a need to get employees on the job as soon as possible. All too often, however, employees will learn one-way or another. And mistakes are then made on the customer’s dime. Is it not better to have new employees learn in a safe, controlled “non-production” environment where mistakes can be monitored and quickly corrected by mentors and instructors?”

“Hands-on” training and learning activities are not only for application developers. With available and coming Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, it’s feasible for “robo-instructors” to guide technology sales employees through customer sales calls via an online interface (with more than canned responses based on rudimentary decision trees).  Or new-hire technology marketing professionals could design a campaign along with a feasible budget for a new product line and present results to business sponsors or be graded by an advanced algorithm. The possibilities for a more robust and experiential training program for technology associates are endless.

At my first job in Silicon Valley—working for a cable modem company—I was handed five thick and heavy technical manuals on day-one. No instructor led, online training or mentoring. It was sink or swim, and many employees (me included) sank to the bottom of the ocean floor.  

While these types of lackluster training events at tech companies might be more exception than rule, there’s an opportunity for increased new-hire productivity and job satisfaction. What’s required is a different mindset towards additional training investment and more focus on ingrained learning through experience and daily immersion of activities rather than a book knowledge cram course.