Spread the Knowledge: Becoming an IT Trainer
BackBy Ken Wagner — July 2008
You wait in a classroom that fills up slowly. Soon there are roughly 30 people of a variety of skill levels seated before you, waiting and chatting. You clear your throat, make introductions and then start the course.
There are a number of questions you may want to ask yourself before becoming an IT trainer. Is leading a classroom something you believe you can do? How would you start your journey? What skills are required? What professional associations are out there in this field and what are their benefits?
Having the technical skills in the subject area that you’re going to deliver is a must; however, it cannot be the only skill in your arsenal. Remember, you’re going to be training people of all stripes, so strong communication is a skill you’ll need. Gone are the days when IT professionals spoke a geeky language that only other IT professionals could understand: Today’s IT professionals, especially those entering the training field, have to speak proper English — or the local language in their part of the world.
It is said that only 10 percent of communication is verbal, and this is especially true when it comes to training. IT trainers stumble in choosing to merely read out of a textbook, not deviating from the courseware and presenting material in a way that is monotone and dry. Or they may have verbal skills, but do not have the background and knowledge when faced with questions outside the realm of the textbook.
IT trainers have to be able to cater to the different skill levels they encounter and find an acceptable medium between each end of the skill level present. An acceptable medium is one that everyone will find useful, interesting and, occasionally, entertaining. You do not want, at the end of the course, the entry-level people saying they couldn’t understand and the seasoned professionals saying they found it uninteresting and boring.
A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, and so will this one. The first step for an IT trainer is to know the subject. This is a broad statement, as it covers experience, research and opportunity, and that’s just to get the background you’ll need to be successful.
Prior experience can provide a wealth of knowledge for students. Not only will you get them asking about materials on the course, but they will also ask why, how and when you would use them in the real world.
In researching your subject, there will be times when you will have to teach with only theory instead of experience, or a combination of the two. No one will have experience with every form of technology in the world. That’s just impossible — there’s too much out there. However, by doing some research, you’ll be able to cover the basics of what’s needed.
Opportunities to do so can come in all shapes and sizes, from your own experience to signing up for newsletters from companies such as Adobe, Microsoft, CompTIA and Cisco, as they will inform you of what e-learning, exams and books are available, as well as beta programs being introduced. Provided you adhere to the nondisclosure agreements of the beta programs, they will give you insight on new material that you can use and pull from when you’re in front of the class.
There are several ways to make that final step in crossing over into the training field. You can approach private training companies, contact local educational institutes or even start up your own independent training company. Generally speaking, you’ll earn more with the private training companies, as they’ll most likely be dealing with a lot of businesses, both private organizations and government agencies. However, if you don’t already have at least two years of experience providing training, private training companies will either not want you or offer you a trainee position at a fraction of the salary that a seasoned trainer would earn.
There is the option of approaching educational institutes — universities, colleges, schools — to be employed as an unqualified lecturer. Educational institutes normally offer better training opportunities, such as recognized trainer certifications, and you can train up to qualified teacher status.
So what are the benefits of working as an IT trainer?
First of all, it’s a way to stay in the IT arena without working directly in IT. Think of it as no more working to improve and maintain the infrastructure, no more working all hours when a critical server goes down and no more dealing with those help-desk calls that are for the PC that would not boot up because the person on the other end of the line hasn’t plugged it in. We’ve all experienced those calls.
You could be a person who wants to top up his or her salary and provide training in the evenings. This is a popular option for IT professionals. Or you may want to move up the career ladder. Providing IT training is useful in this respect. If you have proven experience in providing IT training, it can demonstrate good development in those essential soft skills, primarily sociability, responsibility, participation and the ability to teach and negotiate. It also reinforces your knowledge and skills; after all, you cannot teach what you do not know. And last but not least, it looks good on your CV for that future job or promotion.
Clearly, working as an IT trainer carries benefits. However, working as a trainer and maintaining an ongoing career as an IT professional has its challenges, as well.
Take me for example. I work a full-time job as an IT manager and teach two evenings a week at the local college to supplement my income. The only day I don’t work is Friday evening. During the weekend, I prepare for classes for the week: I have to ensure the course material is correct and up-to-date, as well as go over subjects I may have forgotten or don’t really like. I would like to say that I only have to do this once, but in the past two years I have taught eight different courses, so preparation is different for each course.
The same thing is relatively true if you’re a full-time IT trainer teaching different courses throughout the year. You’ll have to double-check the course material to ensure it’s up-to-date and relevant and check whether or not your course needs virtual machines or PCs set up. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a person doing this for you, you’ll be doing it yourself.
So which professional associations are out there for someone in the IT training field, and what are the benefits? While some people do not believe in or see the value of being a member of a professional association, it does offer certain perks. First of all, there’s the networking side: You can meet a lot of like-minded people or more experienced trainers who can share their successes and failures with you. A lot of associations have search utilities on their sites so companies can find you.
Professional associations also can provide continuing professional development (CPD) assistance and keep you up-to-date with the latest innovations in teaching and training, as well as the subjects you deliver. Some can assist you in your career development and provide you with legal assistance if something goes wrong.
Professional associations that deal primarily with teaching and training would include, but are not limited to, the Computer Science Teachers Association from ACM
(csta.acm.org), the Institute for Learning (www.ifl.ac.uk) and the Institute of IT Training (www.iitt.org.uk). There are other IT professional associations that also deal with IT trainers, such as the British Computer Society (www.bcs.org) and CompTIA’s IT Pro (itpro.comptia.org).
Moving Beyond Training
So what does the future hold for you if you enter the IT training field? Where can you progress to? Just like any other field in IT, you can move up the career ladder. The next stage is to become a learning consultant (Microsoft offers an exam for this: the Microsoft Certified Learning Consultant.) Learning consultants not only deliver training courses, but also tailor IT training to specific clients. They then design a program for the customer to ensure requirements are met. This is followed by developing the course based on the client’s requirements, provided one does not already exist.
Depending on the company, learning consultants then have the option of delivering courses themselves or hiring an IT trainer. The last part of the learning consultant’s job is to assess and evaluate the program.
The consultant’s role is a lot more in-depth and more business-oriented than the trainer’s role, just like when you make the move from a technician, engineer or administrator to an IT manager’s role.
Ken Wagner is an IT network manager and part-time IT lecturer in the United Kingdom. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.