Michelle Malay Carter over at Mission Minded Management recently wrote a post asking “Is Training Anything More Than Putting Lipstick on a Pig?” She raises some good points there’s more to the problem than she admits. Although the solution may be similar. Training class content matters. As does the student body.
You gotta make sure you don’t mix your hogs with your pigs.
A few years ago, I worked with America’s largest P&C company to help them create a more effective way of retraining their large (over 3,000) staff of mainframe COBOL programmers to object-oriented programming (OOP) in Java. The problem was that they could not put people into different courses, so the person who programmed in his spare time was in the same room with someone who did simple program corrections. They had people capable at work levels 1-4 in the same class.
If they wanted to help their students, they needed to separate people into different courses based on their capabilities. Which they couldn’t do because the legal department had forbidden it.
Of course, what this really shows is this company’s inability to manage its technical staff properly. All of these people were officially at the same level: the bottom.
Technical work often starts higher anyway. (Warren Kinston has an unpublished paper on this that is brilliant in its analysis, and would rank as one of the most important articles for the management of software development.) But that may make it even more important to separate out work levels in training. The questions that a level 4 developer (designer or architect level capable) needs to ask are boring for the level 2 developer.
Management often denigrates the work of technical staff — whether engineers, developers or lawyers — partly because these folks don’t manage anyone (and in some companies, the insurer included, that’s the only way to be seen as doing higher level work). But it’s also because the staff participate in a discipline and contrary to lots of people’s perceptions, most managers don’t. (I owe this insight to Kinston, but the use of it is my own fault.)
When you have too many work levels in one room, no training can be adequate. Good developers talk about the need for places to get together and talk, but also emphasize the need to keep “certain people out”. It’s not racial or ethnic: these are propeller heads for whom the only thing that matters is the hack. They mean, although they don’t have the language for it,
So, when you design your next training class, concentrate on what work level you are training. And try and keep the wrong work levels out, whether too small or too big. If you don’t, you will be wasting everyone’s time.
Which is too bad, since the killer app is us.