Training and education are crucial for keeping IT workers effective. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert illustrates why an emotionally disengaged instructor can not only ruin a course, but can also drive students entirely out of a technical field.
Training and education are important for everyone. That being said, training and education are absolutely crucial for technologists and security people. All technical skills atrophy when they go unused, but our particular technical disciplines become obsolete so quickly that we can never catch up once we get too far behind. The sociology, philosophy, maths and military science lessons that I studied in university are all still viable today, whereas the tech skills that I learned while working in the school’s computer labs are almost entirely useless. I haven’t forgotten them necessarily – I still know how to jiggle an AppleTalk networking connector just right in order to get an ImageWriter II dot matrix printer working – but I doubt that I’ll ever get to put that skill into practice again. So it goes.
I ghost-write a lot of original content for cyber security companies that can’t afford a full-time blogger, and about one-third of my work talks about the criticality of technical training. If that seems obsessive, I urge you to remember that the most sophisticated black box on the market is little more than an expensive paperweight if you don’t know how to reboot it once it loses the plot. Training is what separates the successful technologists from the unemployable ones.
I’ve felt this way for a very long time. I got my start in tech as an undergrad when a mate got me hired as an ‘Academic Computing Counsellor’ in the school’s IT department. At first, my only job was to check student ID cards in the labs and make sure that people didn’t bring drink near the CPUs. It was dead-simple work… for about a month. Then mid-terms hit and suddenly all of our users lost their minds. I spent most of my shifts on the phone with the service desk, and most of my off-shift time badgering my CompSci friends about how the lab computers actually worked.
So, yeah. I was one of those students who tried to understand more than just what it took to pass exams. I still am. So, when I evaluate technical trainers for my employees, I specifically look for experts who not only know their subjects back-to-front, but who are also are eager to take a deep dive into their content to really explain why it all works. I can’t stand (and won’t pay for) companies and instructors who simply ‘teach the test’ and/or offer nothing beyond rote recitation.
This is why I invest so much time and effort creating content that goes beyond the basics. I want to explain why a certain thing is the way it is because I figure my audience is as interested in the topic as I am – otherwise, they wouldn’t be reading the article. I expect every professional in his or her respective field to be that way… and I don’t have a whole lot of patience for ‘experts’ who can’t be bothered to meet us half-way. One particularly awful instructor stoked my ire back when I was an undergrad, and I’m still steamed about it. 
At the time, every student in our university needed three semester hours’ worth of ‘art’ in order to complete a degree. I couldn’t get into any of the ‘good’ art courses and didn’t want to take something meaningless like ‘Appreciation of Jazz’. Desperate, I jumped into a course from the theatre department called ‘The Art and Science of Stage Lighting’. I thought that it was going to be an interesting course. I’d done some acting in musical theatre as a kid, and I’d been part of the school’s lighting crew in junior high. I generally knew how got things done backstage, so I figured I could concentrate on the technical instructions and maybe learn a useful skill.
I was wrong. It only took one lecture for me to work out that I was in a blow-off class for students who just wanted their art credit and couldn’t give a damn about the topic. The professor knew this, and invested exactly zero effort into his coursework.
Our class met for an hour and a half at a time twice each week for a total of 40 lecture hours. About half of our time was spent in pseudo-lecture, and the rest was spent in the theatre complex looking at lights, lenses and gels.  We didn’t actually learn anything – I might have been pleased getting some art or science, but would up with 40 hours of neither. I learned more from watching the drama club set up in the background than I ever did from listening to the prof.
What’s worse, the prof and I didn’t exactly get along. Our first ‘exam’ consisted of a few ‘true or false’ questions and a requirement to diagram… the parts of a light bulb. I got my first reprimand from the prof on that exam for sketching a cutaway illustration on my test paper labelled ‘ambient photons (three shown)’. He didn’t like me because he thought I was a snarky malcontent. I didn’t like him because I thought he was a feckless, talentless, unprofessional waste of carbon. We were both right. Fortunately, even though we both intensely disliked one another, we managed to keep things just civil enough to avoid a public drama.
Our final assignment – the one that was to make up 50 per cent of our overall class grade – was to design the entire lighting scheme for a one-act play. The prof assigned us Tennessee Williams’ classic Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton, which was… honestly, a peculiar choice. If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s a dark and violent exploration of terrible people in the Deep South and the horrible things that they do in fits of greed, anger and spite. The play starts with arson and ends with violent sexual assault. It’s unsettling. Our lighting plans were supposed to represent that. Somehow.
One of the major challenges that we had was to work out how to ‘simulate’ the sun setting just offstage and behind the main characters so they had a sort of blood-tinged look to them. We also had to light the scene with enough shadow to let the audience believe that one character couldn’t properly read the other’s facial expression even though the audience could make out both of their facial expressions. Admittedly, it was a decent challenge. My classmates tried doubling-up different gel colours. I took a… slightly different path.
While my colour selections were just as terrible as everyone else’s, my ‘sunset’ effect beat everyone else’s by about a thousand degrees. Possibly more than that, depending on how far back you were sitting. Instead of using one massive lamp on the furthest-back hanging rail like everyone else, I diagrammed suspending a 55-gallon drum horizontally behind the backdrop. Facing the audience was a one-foot-thick sheet of purple gel. The inside of the drum was to be full of military-grade thermite. Once ignited, the powdered metal mixture would quickly become molten, throwing off massive amounts of light and heat just like the actual sun. Sure, it would eventually melt through the block of gel (thereby changing the colour of the ‘sunlight’) until the audience could actually ‘feel’ the ‘warmth’ of the ‘summer sun’ on their faces… and possibly through a wall of sandbags. Hopefully, the actors would be able to finish their lines before the blob of violently superheated liquid metal ate through the bottom of the drum and the sun ‘set’ dramatically by eating through the relatively thin wooden stage floor.
When he read my grand design, the professor was… let’s be charitable… a bit upset with it. He was even more upset when I pointed out that everything I’d designed was technically allowed by the parameters he’d placed on us for the exam. Health and safety weren’t considerations, and neither the actors nor the audience members were required to actually survive the play. Further, I’d only used materials that were readily available within (or within easy walking distance) of the campus theatre… which was just across the quad from the chemistry building. From a purely physical sciences perspective, the effect would work, and it would look exactly like a sunset… although, technically, a very short sunset. And it would, sure-as-blazes, feel real to the audience… 
As you might expect, my overall class grade dropped from a low (but respectable) A to the lowest C that I could go and still technically pass. I was satisfied with that. I’d nearly given the professor a stroke and I managed to get away with my arts credit. Mission accomplished!
Please understand that I’m not telling this story because I want to encourage anyone to light theatres on fire with barrels of molten metal. Not at all! That would be uncouth (not to mention possibly illegal anywhere but off-off-off-Broadway). No, what I’m trying to express is that a lazy instructor is often far worse for students’ learning than not having an instructor at all.
Our theatre arts professor wasn’t just emotionally absent from his class, he was also just as bitter and spiteful towards us students as Tennessee Williams’ characters usually are towards each other. The man resented being forced to run a blow-off class for students who didn’t appreciate theatre. I can empathize with that. I can’t, however, sympathize with how he comported himself as our instructor. For most of the class, the professor was disdainful towards us when he wasn’t being openly hostile. His attitude, in turn, poisoned us students against taking any more courses in his department.
I’ve seen this exact dynamic happen in IT courses, too, ranging from Advanced Features of Microsoft Outlook to Security+ Boot Camp. Whenever an instructor gets emotionally disengaged from his or her topic and/or from the audience, the amount of usable information being imparted drops to near zero. When an instructor decides to teach the absolute minimum that he or she can get away with, the audience gets frustrated and tunes out. When the instructor becomes hostile towards the students (for whatever reason), the students return the instructor’s hate with interest.
Technology professionals in general (and security practitioners in particular) desperately need constant access to training and education. We’re voracious consumers of new information. We have to be – our field is constantly changing, and our accumulated knowledge spoils faster than we can refresh it. To that end, it’s critical to our professional development that we partner with capable, qualified and passionate instructors who will not only convey the new information that we need, but will also engage with us to ensure that we’ve mastered the core concepts.
Conversely, a poor instructor isn’t just a waste of precious time and training funds. They also have a souring effect on morale, poisoning not just the botched topic, but also large swathes of the industry that the topic pertains to as well. Bad instructors drive good students away from the technical specializations where we’re already hurting for people. No leader can tolerate that.
In that respect, tech training really is like theatre: in order to resonate with your audience, you have to know your material, demonstrate your passion for the topic, directly inspire the audience… and avoid, if at all possible, igniting a giant drum of incendiary materials in the space above where you’re working. Even if that would be pretty freaking cool…
 I have been known to nurse a grudge for people that condescend to me. I appreciate that this can be a character flaw, and am earnestly striving to overcome it. I am not, however, succeeding.
 Gel = sheets of transparent coloured plastic that are placed on the end of a light to change its colour to something besides painfully white.
 Honestly, if he didn’t want a heavy metal solution, then he should have said so from the outset.
Title Allusion: Tennessee Williams, Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton (1946 Play)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.