Teams will often tell me how much better my training classes are than what they’ve had before. They go on to tell me how the training they’ve attended previously were useless. My students are surprised that I can answer programming questions, no matter how difficult they are.

I want to share some of the behind the scenes decisions that turns bad training into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It all starts with cheaping out on your training.

For this post, I’m going to focus on “grey market” training. This is training on a subject where there is a company commercializing the technology and they provide training. Instead of going with that company’s training, you go with another company’s training that promises to be just as good.

Budgeting

Most training starts out with some kind of budgeting phase. This phase is rather arbitrary. The manager chooses an arbitrary amount that the training should cost.

Many times, this cost decision is made in a vacuum. Other times, it’s based on how much a training class cost previously. For example, if their Java language training class cost $10,000, a Big Data training class would cost $10,000 too. It isn’t based on data, market price, or value. Let’s say our hypothetical manager says the training should cost $15,000. Let’s say the going market rate is $25,000.

There’s an interesting predicament that a $10,000 difference puts you in. If the $25,000 class was a 5/5 the $15,000 classes are a 0/5 or maybe a 1/5, not a 2.5/5. That monetary difference takes you into territory where the class is useless or almost useless.

Choosing a Provider

The manager is faced with a difficult decision. They’ve arbitrarily budgeted their training at 40% under market. They’re faced with two options: pay the market rate or focus on cost and go with a lower price.

In training, there are a variety of price points. These price points seem rather arbitrary to the outsider. It seems as if the training company just chose to be priced above market or that company chose to be below market. A big reason for this post is to show those differences and how they manifest on the team.

In our example, let’s say the manager decides to go low market. They start to spend their time getting quotes from low-end, grey market companies.

Low-End Grey Market

The manager’s call comes into the training company’s sales person. That sales person’s job is to price the class to meet your budget. The salesperson will often work with a training coordinator. The training coordinator’s job is to source the two main parts of a training class: the curriculum and the instructor.

The Curriculum

The curriculum is what the student sees and does. This would include the slides for the class. These slides are what the instructor shows and covers during the lecture.

The other crucial part of curriculum are the exercises. These exercises are where the student applies what they’ve learned during the lecture. Poorly written exercises mean that whatever the instructor covered goes in one ear and out the other. Another example is where the exercises are so simple, the student is never pushed to generalize what they’ve learned.

Aside: Generalize is an instructional design term. Generalize means can you take what you’ve just learned in the abstract and apply it to something concrete? Good curriculum teaches you to generalize and poor curriculum only teaches one way of applying the knowledge.

There is a gamut of prices for curriculum. These range from free, but terrible, to expensive, but well done. The free and cheap curriculum is full of errors. It teaches the students the incorrect ways of doing things or gives a deeply flawed way of learning the technology. In short, bad curriculum can do more harm than good.

It’s more difficult for a lay person to identify good curriculum. Paying under market will almost certainly give you poor curriculum. Likewise, look at the fit and finish of the course materials. If the training company didn’t put the effort into making their materials look good, they probably didn’t put the effort into the materials themselves.

Since our hypothetical class is so far under market, the company will have to find the lowest priced curriculum. The class might even use free materials. The exercises won’t reinforce the concepts and the students won’t really be any better off after the class.

You’ll notice I used the word find. In order to keep the costs low, the training company doesn’t write their own curriculum; they will just license it from someone else. They may have some core curriculum that they’ve licensed, but if the class is covering something niche (like Big Data), they’re licensing that curriculum.

Aside: I made the mistake of working with a training company. To keep their curriculum costs down, they literally copied and pasted sections of the Apache documentation into the slides. I have a policy of not working with companies unless I use my own curriculum or vet their curriculum.

The Instructor

The instructor is the one who teaches the class and answers the students’ questions. The instructor is one of the most important parts of the class. A great instructor can overcome some of the curriculum’s crappiness, but can’t vanquish it completely. Likewise, a terrible instructor can make the best curriculum unintelligible and the class be a total waste of time.

The curriculum and instructor really go hand in hand for class success.

The instructor’s subject matter expertise really makes or breaks a class. If you’re looking at the list of classes that instructor teaches and it looks something like:

  • Router Administration
  • Hardware Troubleshooting
  • Network Operations
  • Big Data Development

Chances are that the instructor has no programming skills and the Big Data class will be a recitation of slides. The instructor is operations-focused and should really be teaching an operations-focused class.

Oddly enough, the gamut for instructors is wide. These range from cheap instructors who can get through a class by reading the slides and not answer questions, to expensive instructors who truly are subject matter experts. They can answer most questions of the top of their head and can go as deep into a subject as the student wants to go. A part of an instructor’s value is to know how deep to go. When an experienced instructor answers a question from a junior person, they will give a different answer than they’d give a senior person.

For our hypothetical class, we’re so far under market we’ll have to get an instructor that reads the slides to us. If the students ask any questions, the instructor won’t know the answer. The students will be left to fend for themselves and look on Google or Stack Overflow. If it’s a programming class, the students will have to solve all of their programming problems themselves and the instructor will be more a babysitter during the exercises.

The Class

Once it’s time to run the class, you’ll start to hear from the students. They’ll say that the class is a waste of time. Or the instructor doesn’t know anything and can’t answer the questions. The students will say I knew that training would be a waste of time.

And there you have a self-fulfilling prophecy. You cheaped out on your training budget which made you choose a low-end, grey market company which gave you cheap and ineffective curriculum that was taught by someone who could only read the slides.

Had you started with a sane training, or better yet, a top-end training budget, you could have a high-end, grey market company who gave you tested and excellent curriculum that was taught by a recognized subject matter expert who went as deep into the subject as the students could handle.

The Project

And that is the beginning to end of the cycle. More than likely your training was in support of a project. As a direct result of cheaping out on training, the project will take just as long, if not longer. The low-end curriculum and instructor may have led the students in the wrong direction. You don’t pay for the mistake that week of the training; you keep paying for it for the life of the project.

If you paid for excellent training, you’ll be so much better off. My students often tell me that my training classes saved them 1-2 months of time. That an excellent ROI . This excellent training continues paying dividends for the rest of the project; you may find your team saving even more time over the course of the project.

There you have it. Spending an extra $10,000 – $15,000 on a class could be some of the best ROI you’ll get. Stop cheaping out on your training so you can get this ROI.

High End Grey Market

Although this piece focused on the specific issues of low-end, grey market, there are high-end, grey market training providers that are top notch. My training company Big Data Institute is a high-end, grey market company that specializes in Big Data training.

High-end, grey market companies like mine offer an alternative to the vendor’s training. Usually, a vendor’s training focuses on just their product and with their marketing narrative. Our training focuses on how all of the software in a stack or data pipeline fits together. This aligns more closely with what companies need for Big Data; they need 10-20 different product all working together to create a data pipeline.

A deeper dive into the high-end grey market would require it’s own post. Suffice it to say, we dominate on the value we provide and not price.

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