5 Tips for the De Facto Technical Trainer
Training can take many forms: self-paced videos, instructor-led classes, lab work, reading. It's challenging to create an engaging learning environment for many organizations and it can be difficult to create material that people want to consume. As a technical lead, I was responsible for the overall success of my teams and upskilling was always on my mind. In this article, I will share some of the strategies I have used that were successful in helping my team grow and learn.
Use Existing Knowledge to Teach
When training anyone, try to relate new information to something they already know. This speeds up understanding and improves recall. This also is a natural way of talking with someone as opposed to talking at someone, which greatly increases engagement.
Whenever I explain the concept of ARP, MAC addresses, and IP addressing to people I try to relate it to GPS coordinates and mailing addresses respectively. It allows people to bridge concepts together and tie them to something they are already familiar with.
To do this, it's important to understand our audience and their background. If I am training new hires, one of the first things I do is ask about their professional experience and what they think their technical strengths are. I may not be extremely well-versed in their history, but often this allows me to relate key topics to something they may already know.
When we are presented with new information, we naturally try to put it in the context of something we have previously learned. This is reinforced time and time again when I'm explaining a new concept to people. Sometimes you will get comments like "Oh, so this is kinda like…" Or people will often simply think aloud when they make that sort of connection. Use these queues from your audience to relate to them and create a more engaging environment.
Train People to Think, Not Memorize
It is important to not only teach people information, but also teach them to think so that in the future they can teach themselves. Studies have shown that teaching people to understand information as opposed to simply memorizing it greatly improves their ability to apply that knowledge to other situations. This is incredibly important as we regularly encounter new situations that require an ability to critically analyze and apply previous learning.
"Give me people who can think, not just people that know." This was the summary of a conversation I had with a recruiter responsible for creating a stream of candidates for me to interview.
My interview consisted of a troubleshooting scenario that was intentionally vague so I could steer the scenario depending on the answers I was given. If someone immediately gave me the initial answer to the problem I had created, I could shift it to something else. This allowed me to gauge their ability to think their way through a problem and weed out the people who simply knew a solution because they had seen a problem before. I believed the "thinkers" were the gems, and I was consistently proven correct.
Often people are obsessed with learning things. Much of the training I did day-to-day was to try to encourage and train people to think.
I had shared this image in an informal training document I had created and it is the frame of many of the conversations I have daily. People generally want a quick answer but this doesn't develop people into the self-sufficient thinkers we want.
Whenever someone brought me a problem, like "the user isn't getting our email alert," I would start by confirming that the person understands the basics of how email works and then continue asking them questions to demonstrate how to think their way through an issue.
Me: "How does our appliance know where to send the email?"
Me: "Okay, what record in DNS is it going to look up? Have you checked that it can resolve that?"
Me: "Okay, so then it creates a connection to SMTP on the far end, what was the result of that?"
And it goes on from there. This allows your staff to solve their own issues and learn something at the same time.
Make Training Interesting with Media
Utilizing many different types of materials allows you to appeal to all different learning styles and create engaging and effective training.
There are anywhere between four and eight different types of learners. The types mostly can get summarized as visual learners, auditory learners, reading/writing learners and kinesthetic learners (the do-ers). This is important because often as trainers, or teachers or leads, we get in a rut of using the same format repeatedly. This can lead to people disengaging from your content and dreading the next mandatory training session.
Using a mix of videos, lab scenarios, podcasts, and writing you can keep things fresh and hopefully people will actually want to consume your content.
Find Teaching Moments Often
Treat every question as a training opportunity. Train in small bursts more often. Regular reinforcement is crucial for remembering information.
As a technical team lead, every time I was consulted in a case and I found myself taking over, I took note of what piece of understanding was missing. Then, I regularly went back to my notes and prioritized the topics that I thought would have the most impact on the day-to-day of my team. Ultimately, I wanted to make my team better, and give them the knowledge and tools to make their daily lives easier.
This approach resulted in short, 10 to 15-minute training sessions tailored to the needs of my team. Sometimes these were videos, sometimes they were Word documents, sometimes they were a "sabotaged" lab. I frequently received great feedback, not only from my managers, but from the learners themselves. More importantly, I could see people then resolving cases themselves as time went on.
Often called "microlearning," this approach can solve multiple different training challenges.
- It's faster to produce.
- It's faster to consume. It is often very difficult to fit even an hour-long training session into some people's day.
- It's been shown to increase retention and engagement.
Statistics say that most learners will forget about 70% of new information after 24 hours. Anyone who has done training has to know this feeling. You stand in a room with a class of people for six hours in a day, return the next day and ask everyone what they remember from the previous day. Crickets. You battle this by creating small bits of training about the same topic, perhaps in a different form or from a different viewpoint to create the repetition that is key to retainment.
Train people to keep them
One of the key components mentioned when discussing employee retainment is training. As we've reviewed, training doesn't have to be formal classes, hour-long seminars or manuals hundreds of pages long. Effective training is so often the training that simply happens. Pulling an employee aside for a five-minute whiteboard session, providing access to self-paced material, Q&A sessions with a subject matter expert can all be effective and engaging ways to train people. It is estimated that companies lose about 25% of their new hires within the first year. Training has repeatedly been shown to reduce that number and while the cost of attracting and onboarding new staff is high, organizations cannot afford NOT to train, so let's try to do it right.