Three keys to becoming a highly effective technical trainer
This feature first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
My daughter Zoey and I like discussing philosophical questions. One topic we both enjoy is the old chestnut “Is the ability to keep musical time (or sing, or play an instrument competently) a skill people are ‘born with,’ or can it be taught?”
I wish I had a definitive answer to that question, because it applies to today’s subject matter: What does it take to be a technical trainer? In my career, a “technical trainer” is a person who teaches others how to make the best use of computer and networking technology.
My 20-year career as an IT professional and technical trainer has been both happy and fruitful. When I was a boy, my Grandpa Cook told me, “Timmy, if you can find work that you enjoy so much you’d do it even if you weren’t getting paid for it, then you know you’ve found your professional passion.”
For me, technical training — specifically the blending of information technology (IT) with education — is indeed my professional passion, and it shows. Let me share with you three core skills that, to me, anyway, are required of any effective technical trainer.
1) The ability to see the Big Picture in your subject matter
If you skimmed this article, you may have noticed that I don’t have “subject matter mastery” as a core skill. In my experience, the acquisition of subject matter knowledge has many levels:
● You overcome your initial barrier(s)/learning curve with the material.
● You develop a baseline understanding.
● You understand the material deeply enough to teach it to someone else.
● After teaching it a few times, you develop deep understanding.
Let’s say I’m tasked with teaching Windows Server installation to a group of IT newcomers. Unless I’m working from “canned,” or pre-made materials, it’s up to me to decide which concepts are most important, and in which order I should deliver them for maximum learner gain.
This means that studying to teach is fundamentally different from studying to learn. The “big picture” in subject matter refers to the presentation of potentially complex subject matter in an easy-to-digest (or at least easier-to-digest) way. To me, the most effective educators are those who work from a student-centered orientation. If I get up in front of that group of IT newcomers to stroke my ego and spout profundities, then I’m sunk — any knowledge transfer is likely to be minimal.
Instead, it’s incumbent on me to think about the subject matter from the learner’s point of view, and ensure that I organize the material in a logical, stepwise manner that mirror’s the student’s own concept discovery process.
2) The ability to explain concepts clearly, in the learner’s language
Whereas seeking the “big picture” in the subject matter refers to organization and presentation, you need to be able to actually explain the concepts — deliver the goods — to be a quality technical trainer.
This is where Zoey and I get a bit intense in our philosophical musings. For example, you can probably think of people in your life who create more confusion than clarity with their instructions. On the other hand, other people may deliver instructions in a way that a 5-year-old can understand immediately.
Looking back over my life, I’ve been an educator since I was a preadolescent. In fact, I can remember teaching most of the neighborhood kids how to play a guitar. At 10, I discovered I had natural aptitude for the instrument, and of course this attracted the attention of my peers.
Before long, I was conducting informal seminars at my home, their homes, on the street. I’ve had the ability to explain concepts clearly since my earliest days of life; this is one of the confirmations that I am in the best possible career for my natural skill set.
I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating: An effective technical trainer speaks his or her student’s language, not their own. The way I would present, say, performing a mail merge in Microsoft Word to an audience of information workers, versus how I would explain it to an audience of programmers, is quite different indeed.
The information workers care about the “click click next” procedures, so I would emphasize the under-the-hood mechanics less. By contrast, most programmers want to understand the underlying algorithms first, and then how those algorithms are manifested in the user interface.
I cringe every time I see a technical trainer pontificate on their subject matter and seem so pleased with themselves, while the audiences sits with glazed eyes and befuddled facial expressions. This isn’t meaningful knowledge exchange — it’s a waste of the leaners’ valuable time!
3) The ability to adapt your teaching to the environment
Whoa — I cannot overstate the importance flexibility plays in becoming an effective technical trainer. You are familiar with good ol’ Murphy of Murphy’s Law, correct? Let me tell you, Murphy WILL show up at the majority of your training engagements to perform hijinks like:
● Your audience isn’t who you expected. Their skills are either too high or too low for your subject matter.
● Multimedia failures abound. There’s no projector, or there is one, but it uses a video adapter port you don’t have on your laptop.
● The previous speaker runs overtime and encroaches on your session time.
● You must compete with environmental noise, possibly from HVAC, or from a boisterous nearby conference session, etc.
In my opinion, your success as a technical trainer hinges on your ability to pivot your presentation at a moment’s notice. This is one reason why I liken technical training to improvisational comedy, or acting. Teaching truly is performance art, more often than not.
The role of degrees and certifications
My mentor and friend Don Jones, who is one of the world’s foremost technical trainers, is a high school graduate who never attended college. You might call Don an exception — he is, indeed, an exceptional person — but I want to stress that you may not need to go back to school to become an engaging and effective technical trainer.
I hold a master’s degree in education from Cornell University. While it was a stellar education, the most important lesson I received from that training was the necessity of teaching from a student-centered perspective. And I already told you all about that earlier in this article. See, I just saved you tens of thousands of dollars!
That said, CompTIA offers a vendor neutral instructional credential called Certified Technical Trainer (CTT+) that can validate your teaching skills, and even help you up your game. Indeed, studying for this certification instills some good “nuts and bolts” educational theory and curriculum design best practices.
The CTT+ certification presents a sort of “chicken and egg” conundrum, however, for technical training newcomers: part of the certification requirements involve documentation of your teaching skills! In other words you can’t just jump in without ever having attempted to teach or train before.
Along those lines, here are some vendor-specific technical training credentials that may be of interest:
● Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT)
● Certified Cisco Systems Instructor (CCSI)
● Apple Certified Trainer (ACT)
Perform an ‘acid test’
People often approach me at tech conferences or other training engagements and ask, “How can I find out whether I have the right aptitude to be a successful trainer?” My answer is quite simple, actually: Find a local technology user group that matches your skill set, and pitch session topics to the group’s organizers.
Figuratively, an “acid test” is any definitive test for some attribute of a person’s character. In my experience, the only way you can determine whether you have teaching aptitude is to try teaching, followed by soliciting honest feedback from your audience.
I want to stress there is no shame in thinking that you have natural teaching ability, but then discovering that teaching may not be the best fit for you. I myself spent four years in undergraduate studies thinking I had a strong aptitude for medical science, only to learn in my senior year that I do not. That was an expensive lesson, but one I’m grateful for in hindsight.
If, after all this to and fro, you find that you do have the aptitude, interest, and time to invest in technical training, then prepare for a lucrative and fruitful career. In information technology, we have a lot of people who “know their stuff,” but not very many people at all who know how to transfer that knowledge to others efficiently.