Friday, April 10, 2009

How effective are typical IT programming language training classes?


I’ve addressed before the “difficulty” that older mainframe professionals had in “transition” from the structured, procedural paradigm for mainframe business programming (with its emphasis on batch cycles and somewhat circumscribed online environment) to “client server” and “open systems.” Back in the early 1990s, a couple of recessions ago, this was the “hype” – this was what “you had to get” – from a trend that had actually started with DOD and minis like VAX in the 1980s.

The training programs in the 1980s were themselves well structured, with self-paced and self-testing materials, like those courses that I took at Chilton (in Dallas) when starting there in 1981.

In the late 1990s, when I was at ING-ReliaStar, the practice was to send employees to week-long courses in new languages given off-site, usually at training centers in office parks in the suburbs. In February 1999 I took a week long course in java this way, and in March 2000 a week of PowerBuilder. In May 2001, we took BEA-WebLogic.

The courses tend to be very fast-paced. Many times there are students with some experience in the language being taught, whereas others are novices so it is very difficult for the instructor to find an optimal pace. The material seems simple when it starts, but it quickly becomes demanding as students have to learn to use the “Help” to complete assignments on their own, in little time (although typically there are no exams or grades, just certificates). You have to "pay attention" during these classes, when your mind may be precoccupied with more permanent affairs in your daily work paradigm (or your own ideas). You may wonder if you will need the material soon, or even be allowed to practice it back at work when you go back, given workplace rules and security. Some people think that travel for these courses is a good idea, so that you're completely into it when you're there.

After the course, the material will not be retained unless it is needed on the job quickly. Object oriented programming is difficult to grasp at first until it is practiced. One cannot get enough experience to get a Sun certification (and pass their test) without doing some big time development, implementation, and then taking responsibility for what one has developed in support. This was difficult in an environment where java went from academia around 1995 to a production platform by 1998 or 1999 in many companies, particularly for data access layer and end user display. (Actually, PowerBuilder seemed more suited to end-user processing, with java being used to manage the server data access from replicated data, in my experience). Server administration and management (to access the Internet) evolved very quickly in the mid 1990s, with some friends of mine managing their own access from their own homes or apartments and at least one starting an ISP (which I used for four years).

The pace of change, even in basic paradigms, was so quick and demand for specialization so great, after 2000, that a very difficult market evolved for older professionals to keep up in. It required a great deal of natural curiosity.

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