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Anatomy of a Software Development Role: Trainer

  • July 27, 2005
  • By Robert Bogue
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Wrapping up the software development lifecycle and turning over the completed product to the users is the training role. The training professional is the last one in the process since they are the ones who get the mass of users to use the software that has been created. Their purpose is to help the users understand how to use the software that's been created. (If you've not been following the series, you should read Cracking the Code: Breaking Down the Software Development Roles.)

What's the Training role?

The training professional first and foremost creates the materials necessary to train users how to use software. For that reason, training professionals are often tapped to create user documentation and help files in smaller organizations.

The training professional is ideally someone who has an instructional design background and therefore understands how to create materials that are effective in helping adults learn. They are also, ideally, someone who can approach the problems that the software solves in a way which makes sense to the users. Click here to see how the Deployment role fits within the full organizational chart.

Training materials range from slide decks to handouts for training sessions to self-study guides. No matter what the material type the focus is on creating a situation where the user will find it easy to use the software - even if the user interface isn't perfect. The trainer needs to find a way to communicate what the product does and how it does it. Whether the medium is a standard printed manual or an interactive video the goal is still the same - efficiently convey how the user can best use the solution. The trainer's role is often the role of the super user. Because they must instruct on the software's use, they need to have a detailed understanding of the software across nearly every feature.

In addition to the creation of training materials the training role also often delivers training. The training can be instructor lead training like the traditional classroom, an Web cast, or one-on-one sessions with key users. Performing the actual training sessions often provides invaluable feedback to the continuing development training materials themselves. It helps to expose the kinds of questions that are in the minds of the users - the kinds of questions the trainer must be prepared to answer. The author teaches most materials at least once.

In some cases a special form of a trainer may evolve in the software development process. The special form is an evangelist. An evangelist is a passionate, charismatic individual who evangelizes the product in the market. Evangelists are almost universally someone capable of filling the training role but whose passion and charisma make them stand out as advocates for the product. While they can and often do perform roles similar to the rest of the professionals filling the training role, they often side step or short circuit detailed training and answers in favor of engaging the user in the vision of the solution.

Getting Started as a Training Professional

Getting started as a training professional is often easier than other software development lifecycle roles because the primary ingredient to success is communications skills. The ability to communicate complex topics with precision and understanding separates the mediocre training professional from the stellar. The beauty of this is that everyone has experience with communicating. The powerful communicators that are successful training professionals can write as well as speak and have learn how to really connect with the people that they speak with. Getting started doesn't take the awe inspiring communications skills it relies on a strong desire to help others learn about the solutions being created and an enthusiasm for the process that students can feel. The mechanical skill of how to engage the audience comes with experience and coaching. They require as a raw ingredient a passion for learning.

While the role may be about training users in a classroom style setting or more focused on the creation of materials, it's the enthusiasm for helping others learn that will make the next training professional stand out.

Although an understanding of instructional design is greatly appreciated in the training industry it is usually not a prerequisite. If the role is primarily focused on delivering content that has already been created then the ability to speak comfortably in front of a group is often the only requirement. These are roles are often entry roles in an organization. More advanced candidates will have the ability to anticipate what the group of students will need and have the ability to "think on their feet." The training role is filled with twists and turns as students ask sometimes blindly simple questions and other times ask the most arcane trivia. Learning how to control the students is yet another skill that develops for most professionals over time.

What's in their Toolbox?

The training professional's toolbox is a bit more organized than the toolboxes of other members of the software development process. In fact, they often subdivide their tools into content creation tools and tools for instructor lead training.

In the content creation category the toolbox contains:

  • Word Processing - the same word processing program that was being used by other members of the software development team but perhaps with a deeper understanding.
  • A layout or publishing program - this type of program may also be handy if the type of solution lends itself to quick guides, keyboard shortcut sheets, or other kinds of highly formatted handouts.
  • Presentation software program - Presentation programs, such as Microsoft PowerPoint, create the ability to generate slides for teaching the material.
  • Virtualization technology - Although all training professionals do not use this technology, virtualization technology can be immensely powerful. This technology allows for the program being trained can remain unaffected by changes on the core system that they use. VMWare and Microsoft's Virtual PC are good examples of virtualization technology that can be valuable in creating a repeatable environment for training.

In the instructor lead training side of the tool bag there are a completely different set of tools. They are:

  • Presentation Software - This may include software such as Microsoft Power Point for creating slides to use for live presentations. It can also include Web casting software as well as video recording and editing software.
  • Telecommunications software - If the presentation is being done remotely either completely or where some of the parties are not local, then telecommunications software may be an essential part of the toolkit. Whether the favorite software is Microsoft LiveMeeting, WebX, or another one of the presentation and conferencing software getting virtually connected to the audience is essential. Of course, these presentation and video conferencing programs are bandwidth hungry so plenty of Internet bandwidth will also be required. If a face-to-face interaction is required a video camera, which can be attached to the computer, may also be required.
  • Hardware devices - Trainers are known for their toys. Little gadgets can make their job easier. Here are just a few of the devices that may be found in a trainer's toolbox.
    • Remote Clicker - Good instructors don't want to be separated from their audience by a computer. Remote slide advance and mouse movement devices are available to allow a presentation to be run remotely. These devices occasionally have built-in laser pointers that allow the training professional to point out or highlight important information.
    • LCD Projector - Whether the room has the LCD projector or if it's brought into the room, the training professional who's leading a class will need a way to display the content. Understanding how to setup LCD projectors is essential if instruction is a part of the training professional's role.
    • Thumb Drive - An instructor never knows what's going to happen. It could be that the instructor's notebook fails or the materials that were supposed to be loaded on to a computer in the room aren't available. Carrying a USB thumb/flash drive can get the training professional out of a jam.

Where's the position heading anyway?

There are more training materials today than there has ever been in the history of computers and yet there is still a need for more and better training. Because of the increasing complexity of software the need for good training is becoming substantially more important. Because of this the need for future training professionals is well assured. Add to this the proliferation of different mediums for training including various electronic learning formats and it's easy to see that there's plenty of work to be done.

Training is also a part of the process that will always be personal and therefore often face-to-face. Learning is a sensitive process. We like to learn from instructors that we can trust. In many people trusting in an instructor requires seeing them. In a globally oriented economy the trend is to source talent from the most inexpensive location. However, because training is so focused on conveying information it's often difficult to relocate. In other words, it's unlikely that the positions will be transferred to areas where cheaper labor is available.





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