Evaluate your options and choose the training organization that meets your needs

If you're like most people, once you get involved with Windows NT, you quickly realize there's always something more to learn about it. So you buy books and magazines and talk to friends or colleagues who are more experienced with NT than you are. However, what you might really need is the opportunity to fiddle with NT in an environment that gives you access to an expert who can answer your questions and point out how you can leverage NT's range and power. What you might need is training.

How do you select the training center that addresses your needs? What separates one training company from another? In the back of this magazine you'll find advertisements for several independent training companies, each of which wants you to believe it's just right for you. In addition, Microsoft certifies training companies as Authorized Technical Education Centers (ATECs). If you live in a midsized or large metropolitan area, several ATECs may be available. How do you choose among them?

I've taught more than a thousand training seminars over the past 7 years. I've contracted to teach for five training companies, worked as an employee for another, and managed yet another training company that has offices worldwide. Through my experiences, I've learned a few things about the training business, its strengths and weaknesses, and the expectations of the people who attend the classes. In this article, I'll outline the most important things to look for when you evaluate a training center and the trainers it employs. I won't tell you what kind of center to choose, because that depends on your preferences, learning style, and goals. However, I will share some of the observations I've made over the years that might help you choose among your options.

ATEC or Independent?
Make your choice between an ATEC or independent organization based on the type of training you want. In general, independent training organizations tend to offer intermediate to advanced topics, whereas the hands-on, methodical approach that ATEC classes take is better suited to building strong basic skills. (For an overview of training costs, see Ryan Maley, "The Dollars and Sense of Certification," page 130.)

The requirements for ATEC certification are strict, and they're designed to help ensure a uniform level of training quality. ATECs must use official Microsoft curricula, have two Microsoft certified trainers on staff, and publish their class schedules. In addition, an ATEC must be a Microsoft Solution Provider (MSP), which means, among other things, that it must maintain at least two MCSEs on its staff. Does this requirement mean that an ATEC will give you the kind of training you're looking for? That depends on what you want from the course. ATEC training tends to emphasize the basics, even in difficult subject areas such as Exchange Server 5.0 Multisite and Internet environments. You won't be a pro when you finish an ATEC course, but you will have a solid foundation for further learning.

Independent training organizations have their strengths and weaknesses, too. At their best, independent training companies can offer a creative approach to teaching, comprehensive course curricula, and in-depth advanced training. However, because independents don't carry an official Microsoft stamp of approval the way ATECs do, you might have trouble determining whether a particular independent will give you a high-quality training experience. I'm not saying that every ATEC offers top-notch training, or that you don't need to evaluate an ATEC before you sign up for one of its courses. Nor am I saying that deciding to enroll with an independent training company is a crapshoot. You need to evaluate any training company you're interested in, ATEC or independent.

Let's look at two sets of factors you can weigh when you evaluate a training facility. The first set pertains to the training company--whether it's an ATEC or an independent. The second set applies to the trainers who deliver the information.

Evaluating a Training Company
A simple way to begin your evaluation of a training company is to look at the treatment you receive when you make contact to gather general information. Do the company's staff members take an interest in you and your plans? Do they make sure the classes you ask about meet your needs and goals, explain the prerequisites for each class, and answer any questions you have about required materials and classroom facilities? If you're impressed with the treatment you receive from the company's staff and want to expand your investigation, ask the following questions.

How much experience does the company have? Experience counts in the training business. Being around a long time doesn't make a training company good, and being new doesn't automatically make it bad. If you're interested in a new company--one that's been in business for less than a year--find out what kind of experience its staff has. If the company is an independent, is it affiliated with another training company that's been around a while? If the company is a new ATEC, how long did it offer training before it received its certification?

How many trainers are on staff? Does the company maintain a training staff, or does it rely on contract trainers to deliver its courses? Using contract trainers isn't necessarily bad: Contractors can bring rich experience to the classroom and superior ability to tackle real-world challenges. But a company that cannot maintain a core of experienced trainers might lack direction and focus--and the chances are good that it won't consistently deliver high-quality training.

What is the training format? A hands-on teaching approach is best for detailed, keystroke-driven training, such as basic training and programming. Training geared toward conceptual learning and intermediate to advanced topics is more effective when it's delivered with a hands-off approach. Active demonstrations aid learning better than PowerPoint slide shows and printed material. Ask to see a syllabus and a list of the course materials for the class you're interested in. When you request this information, inquire about class size. If 14 or more students are in a hands-on laboratory class, one trainer won't be able to provide individual attention to everyone who needs it.

A relatively new training option is online training. If you choose online training, is it live or prerecorded? Do you have access to a qualified trainer and live discussion sessions? (For a more thorough look at the pros and cons of online training, see Robert McIntosh, "The Online Alternative," page 152.)

What training materials are used? Long after you've forgotten what the trainer told you, you'll have your course materials to fall back on. Are the materials thorough and helpful? Are they organized and easy to follow? How often are they updated? Training materials must be updated frequently to keep pace with constantly changing computer technology. If a company's training material is outdated, you'll have to write down a lot of extra information in class, and the company might not be keeping up with new developments.

Is the training facility comfortable and equipped for the state of the art? A company in the business of training needs to offer comfortable, well-lighted classrooms with enough space and equipment to accommodate each student. Training equipment must be up-to-date and in good working order.

Some training centers let prospective students sit in the back of an in-session class for an hour or so. If you take advantage of this option, observe how the computers are set up: Does each computer have enough space for the keyboard and mouse? Are the desks pushed so close together that the students are cramped and can't move freely?

Some companies do seminar training on the road, using hotels and convention centers to conduct seminars. These companies often hold classes in a physical environment that is not conducive to learning. If you're investigating such a seminar, inquire about the facility that will host the class and the amenities the facility will provide.

How does the company handle problems? How flexible is the company with regard to cancellations and refunds? Does the company's informational literature outline its policies on cancelled classes, trainer substitutions, required materials?

Does the company see training as a sales opportunity? Many training companies make extra materials available to their students. When extra material is appropriate, helpful, and reasonably priced, it can add to the quality of training. But the tuition you pay should cover the cost of all the materials you need to complete a training course, unless you're informed otherwise when you register. A training company that pressures students to buy extra training materials or equipment, or that surprises students after registration with a requirement that they purchase extra materials as a condition of completing a course, is not running an ethical operation.

Evaluating Trainers
Evaluating trainers without sitting through a few classes is difficult. Teaching is no less an art when it focuses on technical skill, and just because trainers know a lot about NT doesn't mean they can impart that knowledge effectively. Nevertheless, before you commit to taking a class with a particular trainer, here are three areas you can investigate. The information you gather won't establish absolutely that the trainer is a good teacher, but it will let you weed out the obviously unsuitable individuals.

What kind of experience does the trainer have? In teaching NT, real-life experience is just as crucial as teaching experience. Has the trainer worked with NT in a business or as a consultant? Has the trainer published articles or books about using NT that you can find and read? A trainer's teaching experience must be related to the subject the trainer is teaching: Having taught 200 seminars on financial planning doesn't qualify a trainer to teach a course titled "TCP/IP and Interconnectivity with UNIX and Windows NT." Don't be afraid to ask a training center for professional references for the instructors it employs.

Can the trainer provide evaluations from former students? At your request, some ATECs will supply you with copies of student evaluations of the ATEC's trainers (with the names of the students removed). Whether the trainer you're interested in works for an ATEC or an independent, ask for student evaluations. You can also call the customer support line at the training company and ask whether the company will give you the names of five students who have completed a course with a particular trainer during the past 3 months. Be sure to ask for student evaluations of a trainer--promotional literature is not a reliable source of information on which to base an evaluation of a trainer.

What certification does the trainer have? Certification establishes that an instructor has advanced training in a certain area. Although certification alone doesn't confirm a trainer's depth of knowledge or teaching ability, it does signify competence and a high level of professional expertise. (To get the pros and cons of certification, see Sean Daily, "Value of the MCSE Credential," page 134, and "Experience Is What Counts," page 136.)

Knowledge Is Power
You will increase your chances of choosing a training company that meets your needs if you take the time to gather the information that will help you make an informed decision. Spending a little time and effort before you attend the first class will boost the odds that the training center you choose meets, and maybe even exceeds, your expectations.