Road to MCSE: The Career Changers Guide to IT Training

Thomas Shinder

When I'm not writing for www.swynk.com, www.syngress.com or running down some insoluble problem on a client's network, I teach at a local community college. Community colleges have a demographic that includes a large number of people wanting to enter into the Information Technology field. These novitiates have a lot of reasons for wanting to get into the business. Some are looking for the big "fortuna" and many have been long time computer hobbyists looking for a way to turn a passionate hobby into a vocation.

When I'm not writing for www.swynk.com , www.syngress.com or running down some insoluble problem on a clients network, I teach at a local community college. Community colleges have a demographic that includes a large number of people wanting to enter into the Information Technology field. These novitiates have a lot of reasons for wanting to get into the business. Some are looking for the big 'fortuna' and many have been long time computer hobbyists looking for a way to turn a passionate hobby into a vocation.

Seasoned IT professionals can take a 40 hour Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) course over 5 days and get some benefit from it. The experienced IT Pro already has a large knowledge base on which they can hang the new concepts and ideas they're exposed to. However, the same course of study leaves the new IT entrant dazed and confused, wondering what in the world hit them.

"A Book, a LAN and a Prayer"

The career changing student needs more than a book, a two computer network, and a prayer to get started. Concepts such as "shares", "segments" and "packet headers" are second nature to us, but seem like something from outer space for the majority of people just beginning their IT trek. Because of this, the career changer greatly benefits from taking a take a couple of classes with a knowledgeable and competent instructor.

How does the prospective student tell a "knowledgeable and competent instructor"? That's a tough question to answer, because good  instructors come in all shapes and sizes. In addition, some appear to be effective, but are not on closer examination.

Since I know more than about half the people around me, and I just meet the requirements for competency, I'll provide you some guidelines from my own teaching methods. The career changing student might use these as a benchmark to compare instructors they encounter.

"We Go by the Book Around here"

When I outline my lectures, I am sure to cover all the topics in the book, although I typically change the order so that each topic fits sequentially into a logical whole. This is very important for the career changing student, who doesn't have a large knowledge base in which to place the inexorably hanging concepts presented by MOC or Microsoft Press study guides.

"Slides are Us?"

I never use slides. This is a personal preference, because slides present a barrier between the instructor and the student. It is far too easy to lecture to the slides, and let the slides dictate the lecture.

Have you ever seen an instructor begin pointing to the slides? They do it occasionally at first, and then as the subject matter gets more complex, their hands remain riveted to the bullets as they speak. Soon, they begin talking at the slide. As far as that instructor is concerned, the students are gone until the slide show is over.

Slides distract attention away from the instructor and away from what is written on the board. The instructor should be able to communicate important and difficult concepts using words and body language. He should move around the room, focused on the mood of the students, and ask pointed questions that call out the "critical distinctions" which bring the material into sharp focus.

Slides distract the instructor's attention from the students. Only about 33% of the material should be coming out of the instructor's mouth, with the rest coming from the students. If the instructor is spending time clicking to move the slide show along, he isn't paying attention to the audience's level of awareness and connection to the material.

"White Boards Should Not Remain So"

I liberally use the white board. When drawing diagram, the more colors the better. People pay more attention to the nuances when they are highlighted in different colors. Its important that I get things wrong from time to time, so the students can point it out to me. In this way, I can measure their level of understanding and attention. Its important that the mistake ties into the subject as hand, or a subject that's about to come up.

"Reading Minds"

An instructor should always anticipate where the student is going to find inconsistency or incongruity. Unfortunately, there is a lot of that in MOC and Microsoft Press books. As an instructor, I can recognize when the author of the study guide has gotten lazy and decided that the subject doesn't need to be discussed coherently. The students are sure to be unclear about the issue, and therefore I can anticipate their questions. This creates the impression that I'm reading their minds, which helps build the relationship between the class and me.

"Is it TV Time Yet?"

Breaks must be often enough to insure they are consistent with the modern attention span, which is about 50 minutes. If I go on for an hour and a half, the last 30 minutes are completely wasted. The students are shifting attention between what I'm talking about, what's on TV tonight, the issues with spouses/girl/boyfriends, the bathroom, my hair, etc.

Television and the web have done a wonderful job at ruining people's ability to attend to a subject for an extended period. Even though I could easily stand up and yak for two hours, its a lot more difficult for the students to try and take in all the information coming at them for that long.

"Eject the 'Page Turners'"

It must be clear that I am not there to read the book. Seasoned students have invariably been subjected to the "page turner". The page turner instructor has the gall to stand in front of a group of people and read the book to them. Why these instructors enter the field is a mystery, but they are universally reviled by the student population. Students do not pay big money for me to read the book to them.

Students are expected and required to read the assigned chapters in advance. Since only a very tiny fraction of the human population can grasp new concepts fully the first time they are exposed to them, they must read the book before class if they expect to get any value from the classroom experience.

After establishing that they have read the book, I go on to explain the salient and difficult topics. I don't go and recite each factoid. What I do is introduce the topic, and provide a number of examples to clarify important and difficult concepts. Humans memorize "facts", but they learn by example. The most desultory aspect of the MOC or Microsoft Press material is their lack of concrete examples and context. It's the instructor's job to make up for that oversight.

People who learn from the book get isolated and unrelated facts. When I liberally sprinkle examples that provide context and meaning, the student's eyes consistently light up, and they are able to understand material they thought was impossible! Even more important, they are then able to apply concepts they just learned about in ways I never even thought of.

"Question Asking = Problem Solving"

My students are required to ask questions about the material they read in the book. If they don't ask questions, they haven't thought about the material enough to learn anything. People learn by asking questions, either to themselves or to others. More importantly, all problems are solved via a process of disciplined question asking and answering. I tell them that if they don't get into the habit of asking questions now, they won't be able to solve the problems they will encounter on the job. Class is the perfect environment to ask questions!

So What?

What's so is that you all that are looking into getting your break in the field need some strong guidance early on. Make sure that you sit in on a class or two before committing months and thousands of dollars on a training program. It doesn't matter where you take the training, or how new and pretty the center and the machines are; what matters is the quality of the instruction and the dedication that both you and the instructor put into the work. When both sides meet the ends of the deal, then you will be ready to start your road to the big fortuna!

For More Information

If all this sounds like fun and you live in the Dallas area, you can check out our classes here.

This article was originally published on Aug 27, 2000
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