Training in a pandemic, one year in and going strong.

A remote class in 2020

Most of our business is in training the IT Staffs of large organizations to enable them to better prepare and deliver applications to their (mostly) internal users, specifically around the Microsoft App-V and MSIX technologies.  We also do some consulting in the Citrix and End-User-Computing space, and sell some tools. And the bulk of our efforts are gifts to the technical communities we serve, through free tools, seminars, and speaking at public events.  But it is the training revenue that makes that possible.

Our training is the most advanced out there in our area.  It is deep.  It is hands-on.  It is adapted to the needs of each and every student and delivered by the leading expert in the world.  It is pretty much the opposite of what you normally get in a training class where the curriculum is designed to bring all students to a given level.  We bring each student up to their own maximum level. This requires building personal connections to individual students and we have always insisted it be in-person this to work.

Then came the pandemic.

In so many ways, we were better prepared for the technical challenges of remote work, because that is so much of what we do.  The ability to remotely connect over video, use cloud and virtualization technologies is what we do all the time anyway.  The challenge was in how to build that level of personalization while being remote.

Classes in Packaging for App-V (the technology you can use today) and MSIX (the one for the future) are currently scheduled remotely for June/July and we have openings. We had hoped to be back in person on those classes, but it is clearly too early.  Maybe in the fall.

I depend on seeing physical reactions when I am speaking. Our students arrive diverse, with different types and levels of skills and patterns of how they learn. Being able to walk around the room to observe students screens and watch their progress helps me adjust what comes next.  Chatting over coffee, during breaks, and over meals helps us to get to know each and every student and to make connections in the 40 hour class. We have always had requests to do the training remotely, but we refused to drop the training quality and did not think it would be possible. But the pandemic!

I spent 4 months to get it figured out, including a small trial class to work out some of the logistics.  We made adjustments. 

The first adjustment was with the training equipment.  In the past, we would show up with our own network and equipment with virtual machines prepared for the students and they would simply connect in.  Sometimes we would run a private class on-site and they would use their own equipment, which was usually already in place.  Putting our lab up in the cloud was an option, but we had a better idea.

We actually lengthened the class.  Instead of 5 eight hour days we run 10 four hour days.  But now there are additional pre-class activities.  We have each student build their own lab before the class starts.  We give them complete instructions, including scripts to install the common software that they’ll need.  So they arrive at class having learned the first very important lesson — how to build those systems the right way.

The four-hour cap per day on the training was mostly a reality due to time-zones.  If I travel 6 time-zones away and run a class, I run it on their work-day.  But remotely, that would mean I start at 3AM.  But we were also concerned about something that didn’t even yet have a name, now called “Zoom fatigue”.  I felt that with four hour days we could keep the concentration levels up, and probably have a reasonable schedule for everyone.  I’ll work mornings for the European scheduled classes, afternoons for the Americas.  There isn’t a good solution for Asia but we’ve made it work for them too (thank goodness they are flexible).

Students actually love the 4-hour format.  They don’t have to “be in training” for a week, either letting things slip or being hounded by the boss to work late at night.  Students that might struggle normally, also have a chance to use that time to go back and re-enforce their training between sessions, re-running the labs to better understand all of the nuances packed into each lesson.

Shipping the printed training guides to people working at home all around the world turned out to be a big challenge. PDFs just don’t work because then the student needs three monitors! We’re glad when they have two (and almost all do). Our publisher uses printers from all over the world, so getting it printed and shipped isn’t an issue. It’s those crazy home addresses that we get from their companies. “Apartment 1c behind Kumar’s gas station” might work for a local postal mail to send to the employee, but DHL or FedEx isn’t going to accept it and it gets returned to the printer.

Even though I’m usually flexible with students and rarely insist on doing things my way, I had to learn new skills.  Cameras on folks! With so many working from home I understand that sometimes they need to turn it off so they can get the bandwidth they need for quality audio, but otherwise we want it on.  Mary Jane is very helpful with me that way.  Just as for the in-person classes, she is always there in the background taking care of the students and helping things to run smoothly.

We also introduced an attitude.  We make it clear that we love problems.  A big part of the training is about improving troubleshooting skills and so we actively look for issues and praise students for having them.  We have them share their desktop, and we troubleshoot as a group.  Especially after we have done the problem solving lecture diving into how to use those tools. Pulling out procmon for a pre-canned issue is nice.  Using it to solve a real problem is what you need to experience.  So we practice as we go and make sure that the environment is a sharing and caring one so the student doesn’t feel like they did wrong.  

After 9 months of classes, I can say that the quality of the class is equal to that of the in-person class.  Being remote, it has also allowed customers that could never have afforded the class due to high travel expenses.  We trained people from 11 different time-zones and 15 different countries this way.  And since not traveling I’ve had more time to spend on building new tools.

We will go back to in-person, when it is safe to do so, but we will also continue to offer remote as it is very clear that there are needs out there that we cannot address any other way.

By Tim Mangan

Tim is a Microsoft MVP, and a Citrix CTP Fellow. He is an expert in App-V and MSIX.