Choosing a technical trainer

Many people attend technical training classes each year, learning everything from Microsoft Word to the latest, greatest programming language. These courses can be either extremely valuable or a complete waste of time, but in any case they are almost always expensive. Wouldn’t it be nice to know you’re getting your money’s worth?

The good news is that choosing a technical trainer is like choosing any other service provider. A little due diligence up front can greatly increase your chances of having a good experience. Being a trainer myself, I was curious to see if there were any good articles I could recommend to guide potential clients through this process. Unfortunately my searches led me to sites for either personal trainers or dog trainers. Definitely not what I was looking for!

So here are my thoughts on choosing a technical trainer. I should say up front that I have an ulterior motive in writing this article. I want to see the quality of technical training improve, and the best way for that to happen is to demand more of trainers. If we all exercise more due diligence in selecting technical trainers, training providers will be forced to improve their offerings.

Creating the short-list

checklistThe first step in a trainer search is obviously to create a list of potential candidates. Most likely this will involve an internet search that will result in a short-list of trainers. So what should you be looking for when browsing websites at this stage of the process?

  • Does the site have a professional look and feel? This is kind of a no-brainer in any search, but its especially important for trainers. At its core, training is about organizing and communicating information. If a trainer’s website is confusing, hard to navigate, or just plain ugly, it’s likely that the training materials will be as well.
  • Does the site reflect a core competency in the area in which you need training? If a trainer provides courses in everything from C++ to Microsoft Word, you might want to look somewhere else. Oftentimes these one-stop-shops are really just brokers who will try to find an actual trainer once you’ve indicated some interest. It may take a bit more effort to make a direct connection with a trainer, but you’ll probably have a better experience if you do.
  • Does the site contain articles or blog posts relevant to the training area? Many do not and I wouldn’t exclude a trainer for that reason. But if articles do exist, they can be a good window into the trainer’s mind. If articles do exist, examine them for clarity and thoughtful presentation. This can be especially useful when you’re considering hiring a “guru” to do training. While it’s always tempting to hire an acknowledged expert in the field, some gurus make good trainers and some do not.

Getting to know the trainers – asking the right questions

question-markOnce you have a short list of trainers at hand, it’s time to get to know each of them. What should you be looking for? Well, the value of the training you receive will depend on the quality of the trainer and the training materials. You should try to find out as much as possible about both.

First, the trainer. You may have noticed that I’ve been consistently referring to trainers as opposed to training providers. It’s important to understand that even if you’re talking to a large training provider, what you are really selecting is a specific trainer. Ask up front who the trainer will be, and if that does not go over well you may want to look elsewhere.

If on the other hand you are presented with a specific trainer, ask if you can interview this person. If you have a technical expert available, you may want to have them sit in on the interview to assess the trainer’s knowledge. In any case, though, you should be looking for communication skills. Does the trainer speak simply and clearly? Is he or she eager to explain things in a way you can understand? Would you want to listen to this person talk for days at a time?

And the training materials? These are critical to the success of the training course, and you should ask for samples that you can evaluate – some slides and a few pages of the manual and labs if relevant. Examine these samples for clarity and visual interest. Are they filled with text that the trainer will probably read verbatim or do they present visually interesting explanations? Text-heavy slides can lead very quickly to student fatigue and make the training less effective. Are the text and images presented in a professional manner and would they be easy to look at when projected? Again, would you want to look at these slides for a few days straight?

You’ll obviously receive other information about the training course, such as pricing and availability. But one thing you should always request is a list of recent references. This is such an important topic, I’ve saved if for last.

Calling the references

phoneReferences should be an important part of your selection process. When you are provided with a list of references, call them. Please, please call them. There is no better way to get an accurate picture of what a trainer is really like.

I’ve found that many people do not call references either because they don’t want to impose or they think the process does not provide good information. If you feel this way, I urge you to reconsider. Most clients are happy to talk and the process can be extremely valuable if you approach it correctly.

The first suggestion I’d make is to talk to people who were actually in the course. Many references you receive will be for a manager who arranged the training, and that’s fine. These references can provide great high-level information about the course, students reactions, and the success of subsequent projects. But it’s a good idea to ask for a few student references as well. There’s no substitute for talking to someone who was in the room.

Second, make sure that the references you’re talking to were taught by the specific instructor that will be teaching your students. Talking to references who had other trainers is of little value.

Finally, go beyond the “were you happy with the trainer” questions. A good approach to references is to get them talking about their experiences in very concrete ways. The best way to go about this is to ask specific questions. Here are some examples:

  • Do you think the course materials were well designed and easy to follow?
  • Were there students in the course who felt things were moving too fast or too slow?
  • Did the trainer make any changes to the course to better meet your needs?
  • Were there labs? If so, were they helpful and did most of the students finish them successfully? One thing to look for here is if the trainer fell back to doing the labs on behalf of the students, while everyone simply looked on.
  • Was the trainer able to go beyond the material to talk about advanced topics?
  • If the trainer did not have the answer to a question, did he or she promptly follow up with the answer?
  • Has the trainer been responsive to follow up questions after the course completed?

It’s all about the students

In the end, the quality of a training course can only be measured by the effect it has on students’ life and work. When selecting a technical trainer, it’s important to always think about the needs of the students and to do whatever it takes to make sure they will benefit from the training.

Expect more from your technical trainers and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.