True grit

By Joseph Bernard

How can CIOs make sure that their IT employees keep up with the furious pace of technology? Traditional training options might provide the solution, but sometimes bolder action is called for.

Enter the boot camp – also known as accelerated training. Boot camps are intensive instruction sessions where participants are taken offsite – often for two weeks or more – to learn new technologies and prepare for certification exams. The concept began in the U.S. in the early nineties, and has now migrated to Canada.

“Due to the accelerated nature of technology you need a quick infusion of knowledge,” said James Carrion, President of Mountain View Systems, a boot camp training company located in Colorado. “Only accelerated training can do that.”

Proponents regard it as a training approach that is faster, more cost-effective and more efficient than traditional training. Participants usually find it a rigorous but rewarding experience.

“It was certainly the most intense training activity I have ever done,” said Ken Sutcliffe an IT Liaison and Deployment Manager with the Ontario government. “It took 16 days. Breakfast was at 7:30 and we were done at 9:45 at night, with a lunch break and a bit of a supper break.”

Sutcliffe, who leads teams that provide the technical infrastructure and expertise that connect Ontario’s healthcare programs to its communities, achieved his Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified Systems Adminstrator (MCSA) accreditations at True North, the first Canadian company to offer boot camp IT training in Canada.

“The course is a full 16 days,” said Jules Siddiqui, the company’s President. “We work through the weekends and most evenings. The students do get a few nights to themselves, but otherwise it’s pretty intense.”

Boot camp participants are taken offsite and lodged in accommodations that range from hotels to resorts.

Serge Adam, IT Manager at dental product manufacturer Dentsply, trained with True North at Blue Mountain Resort in Collingwood, Ont. He described the setting as “gorgeous”, but when asked if it was a mini-vacation of sorts, he laughed and said, “I certainly wouldn’t go that far. It was gruelling. But it’s two weeks away from your phone. And there’s a lot of time to learn and study.”

Cutting down training time

Traditionally, and depending on the product, certification is achieved by attending multiple courses and writing the requisite certification exams. With MCSE certification, for instance, there are six different courses, each about one week long.

“We’re taking six weeks worth of material and consolidating it down to the two,” Carrion said. “[With the traditional model] those six weeks are going to be staggered and there’s a loss of retention of knowledge if they space it out.”

For Adam, it’s simply a matter of time and efficiency. “I’ve taken those standard, one week, nine-to-five courses in other subjects,” he said. “If you want to do your MCSE the traditional way, you’re looking at seven weeks.”

Laura Murphy, an Integration Manager with RBC, has attended two boot camps put on by Mountain View Systems. When RBC purchases new companies it’s her job to integrate the new organization’s systems within RBC’s infrastructure. Last year, her job kept her on the road for almost six months, so finding time to do training is important. But for her, boot camps offer more than just scheduling advantages. It’s the pace and the calibre of people she trained with that she enjoyed.

“You have to call the training intensive because the boot camp is so fast-paced it doesn’t allow you that period where you zone out,” Murphy said. “You cover a lot in one day. You’re kept well motivated. You can’t fall asleep on Wednesday because most likely on Thursday you’re writing a test. The test is a carrot in front of you to stay in the game.”

Knowledge Transfer

Due to the density of material being covered in a relatively short, intense period is there real learning happening or are boot camps training vehicles meant to zoom the participant past the certification tests?

“People complain that we give students an unfair advantage, testing them during the course,” said Susan Thayer-Yates, president of ACREW, a boot camp trainer based in Evergreen, Colorado.

“I recently received an evaluation from a Cisco CCNA/CCDA camp where there were problems with the computer-based testing, not allowing them to test on their last day,” she added. “One man called to say he took the exam and passed with a score of 860 out of 1000. Since several days went by before he tested, he sang our praises for teaching the information in a way that stayed with him.”

Experience Required

Boot camp isn’t for everyone. You’ve got to have the appropriate background to make it pay off.

“It’s certainly not for someone off the street,” warned Sutcliffe. “It’s not a course to go into if you haven’t done any IT stuff.”

Students are interviewed in order to gain an understanding of their experience and knowledge. Due to the fact that class sizes are small – usually six to ten participants – it’s important that everyone is on the same knowledge plane.

“There’s little point in accepting an individual who isn’t prepared for the instruction,” said Siddiqui. “We routinely discourage anyone without a minimum amount of networking background or experience from taking the MCSE boot camp, for example.”

Need for the right stuff

There are also drawbacks to the boot camp experience. For one thing it can be hard on the nerves.

“You’re here for two weeks and it’s stressful,” noted Carrion. “Also, if you’re not a good test taker [it can be a problem]. We have folks that come in who definitely know their stuff, but they sit in front of a computer-based exam and they freeze.”

Often, it’s more a matter of confidence than expertise.

“If a student fails an exam we take a very active role in helping them,” said Siddiqui. “We spend extra time getting them ready to re-attempt that exam, if they want to. We encourage students to get over the initial hesitation to write their exams because becoming certified is part of the reason they come to us in the first place.”

Despite the stress that the pace and continual examinations can induce, the atmosphere is upbeat.

Intensity, camaraderie, teamwork – those are the words that Sutcliffe used when asked about the atmosphere. “Everyone working together to get through it,” he said.

“That’s why we call it a boot camp,” added Carrion. “That’s what military boot camp is like. You’re in a stressful situation and you draw on support from each other rather than competition.”

Instructors play a key role in any classroom, and in the boot camp environment that role is intensified. Due to the calibre of professionals attending the sessions, it’s important that the instructor be on par with the pupils.

“The key to getting through it is the instructor,” said Sutcliffe. “It’s just amazing how our instructor could stay focused and keep us motivated for such a long period

of time.”

Cost and accommodations.

The cost of a boot camp compares favourably with the traditional model. Typically, tuition includes training, books, exam vouchers, accommodations, as well as breakfast and lunch.

“The boot camp does work out cheaper,” said Adam. “It’s about the same [cost] as taking the courses individually, but there are about five weeks where you’re back in your office as opposed to out on courses.” That makes a difference.

For most people, the experience of attending boot camp is one that pleasantly lingers. But to get the full experience, you have to be willing to make sacrifices.

“Put the cell phone away,” Sutcliffe advised. “Don’t talk to family other than late at night. You have to commit; be prepared for the intensity; give up your life. I don’t know how you’d do it any differently.”

Joseph Bernard is a Toronto-based freelance writer specializing in IT and financial-services related articles.