Bruce Maples talks to Latifa Meena about her job as a freelance technical trainer and gets the scoop on a profession that offers good pay, flexible hours, and no office politics.
Ask almost any technical trainer how they feel about training, and you’ll probably get some fairly positive comments. But few of them are going to be as upbeat about their work as Latifa Meena.
"I’ve got the greatest job in the world,” Meena said emphatically. We’re doing our interview over the phone, since Meena is, of course, traveling. I caught up with her during a two-week training gig where she had a long weekend between classes.
"Why is yours the greatest job," I asked.
“I make good money, keep my own schedule, and don’t have to put up with office politics,” she replied. “My setup is usually done for me—but if it’s not, I get to charge for my time to do it. I get to travel to different places and meet different people, which I love to do. I just think this job is God’s gift to me, and is the result of something else I think God gave me: the ability to take something technical and break it down so people can understand it.”
She pauses, and then says again for emphasis, “It’s the greatest job in the world.”
This interview with a freelance technical trainer is the second in a series by Bruce Maple as he takes a look at the training industry through the eyes of four professionals. Last week, he talked to Don Justice about his role as the manager of a training company. Next week, Bruce will interview a training broker, and finally he’ll talk to a training manager. Perhaps something in one of these interviews will give you a special insight or confirm something you were already thinking. At the very least, you'll get to hear from people who are dealing with many of the same issues you are.
From legal secretary to mega-trainer
Meena didn’t always have the greatest job in the world. In 1993, she was a legal secretary with a two-year paralegal degree, slogging away in a local law firm. One day the printer broke down.
"I had been learning about computers on my own, and I told them exactly what was wrong with the printer. They looked at me and said, ‘You’re just a secretary; what do you know?’ Then they brought in a guy at $85 an hour who told them the same thing I said. I took a look at that and said to myself, ‘Latifa, you’re in the wrong field.’ So I quit.”
She went to work for a local computer firm that was getting into computer training along with its other services. “I walked in and they said, ‘There’s a computer. Whatever you can learn, you can teach.’ That was it. No prep; no teacher training; no team teach. Just learn it and do it. No one would do that now, but remember, this was 1993, and everyone was scrambling for trainers.”
It was her chance, and she took it. She started out teaching WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS (didn’t we all?) and the basic Windows classes. Soon, though, a new challenge presented itself—NetWare.
“We were a big Novell shop, and they needed instructors. So, I started studying. First I got my CNA, then my CNI. It was really the beginning for me, because now I was doing the high-end classes.” She followed the two Novell certs with her MCSE and MCT, and kept adding more upper-end classes like Exchange. Then one day, she decided to go independent. Why?
“I left (the local company) for a number of reasons. For one thing, they weren’t competitive in either pay or benefits. But the money wasn’t the main reason—it was that they didn’t take care of their employees. I was in class five days a week, plus I had to do my own setup for all my classes. There was no prep time, and no downtime. If you weren’t billing, you weren’t valuable to them. The underlying assumption was that everything was about money—for them, not for you.”
The next big move
One day, she simply decided she had had enough.
“I almost had a breakdown,” she said. “I just remember leaving one day and thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not coming here any more.’”
She put together a resume listing her certs and classes, and sent it out to a number of brokers. Then she waited. And waited. And—gulp—waited.
“It was six weeks before I got any work,” she remembers. “I was really beginning to worry. Did I do the right thing? Then, the first call came, and I was on my way.”
That was in October 1997, and she hasn’t stopped since.
TechRepublic : So, what’s it like to be a contract trainer?
Meena: I travel about 70 percent of the time. I like that, because I like to travel and see new places. I’ve gotten to see places and meet people that I never would have otherwise. I’ve even done training overseas. Of course, I’m young and single, so I enjoy it. I could never do this if I was married and had kids. But for me right now, it’s great.
TR: Is there a down side to the travel?
Meena: The worst part is always being alone. Right now, for instance, I’m sitting in my hotel room, alone. I eat by myself; I go to movies by myself. Sometimes all this aloneness bothers me.
TR: Anything else get you down?
Meena: The lack of time for hands-on experience. I wish I had more time to do actual consulting, so I would have more to give my students.
TR: How do you make up for that?
Meena: I still do some consulting work, which helps. The biggest thing, though, is that I’m constantly learning from my students. Every class, it seems, I learn something new from someone in the class. I never walk into a class thinking I know it all.
TR: What’s it like to be a female in a male-dominated field?
Meena: Harder, in most cases. I get challenged a lot, usually by someone who thinks that because I’m a woman I simply can’t understand technical things. Occasionally, I get someone who tells the training center, “No way I’m taking this class from a woman.” They’ll come in and start drilling me, asking me questions that it’s obvious they know the answer to.
TR: How do you deal with it?
Meena: Instead of flouting my credentials, I simply try to answer their questions calmly, knowledgeably, and kindly, which works much better. I try to help them understand I’m there for them. What’s funny is that often the guys who are drilling me at the beginning of class will get stuck somewhere down the line and they have to ask for help. When I answer their question—without any sense of ‘gotcha’—then they usually wind up saying something like, “Well, she may be a woman, but she knows her stuff.” It’s interesting; I’ve had quite a few students tell me they prefer female trainers, because the males get too technical, simply to show what they know.
TR: What things drive you crazy as a contract trainer?
Meena: Trainers who think they are God.
Shops that don’t plan ahead—order the materials on Friday for a Monday class, and then it’s the wrong material.
Shops that don’t do setups right. I always call ahead to check my setups, but even so, sometimes they are messed up. I had one shop that tried to ghost the server images for a particular class, even though I told them it wouldn’t work. I showed up for class, and of course it didn’t work. I wound up doing lecture-only for two days while they tried to fix it.
Students who don’t want to be in class. They’re there because their boss told them to come, so they sit in the back and are, like, “Whatever.” I try to get them engaged, but I won’t hold the class back for them.
TR: What do you do with students who shouldn’t be in the class?
Meena: I talk to them, try to find out what it is they really need. Then I’ll talk to the training center and try to get them into a different class. Even though I’m a contractor, I always try to represent the center to the students, try to come up with a good solution for everyone.
TR: What gives you joy?
Meena: When my students learn—when they get it—that’s what gives me satisfaction.
Where it’s going
TR: Have you noticed any trends in your classes?
Meena: There are more students wanting training; the demand seems to be increasing. I’m seeing a lot more career-changers, too.
TR: How’s your workload?
Meena: I stay booked for two to three months at a time. I basically can stay as busy as I want to be.
TR: What does the future hold for technical trainers?
Meena: I really believe that there are only a handful of MCTs that are both talented enough and patient enough to teach. You’ve got to be enthusiastic, and I see so many that aren’t. I mean, you’ve really got to care that these guys get it.
I think the new certs are going to weed out the trainers who don’t want to keep up, and I think that’s a good thing.
TR: What about the training market in general?
Meena: I think we’re in for a period of sustained growth. This year is weird. Lots of people were waiting to get through their Y2K efforts, and waiting on Windows 2000 and the next version of Exchange. I think that as people move to 2000, and implement lots of the other new technologies, we’re going to see five to seven years of full-time training work for anyone who wants to do it.
TR: What about you? Where do you see yourself in a few years?
Meena: I’ve got really mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I’d like to come off the road and settle down some. At some point, I’m going to want to start a family and stay local. But on the other hand, I hate to think of what I’d have to give up to go back to working for a local company.
TR: Like what?
Meena: Freedom and money. My free time is so valuable to me. Right now, I’ve got control of my schedule. Sure, sometimes I work eight weeks straight—but then I can take a week, or two, and no one says a thing. It’s my decision.
And, there’s the loss of money. I make really good money working about three-quarter time. I’d make half as much as an employee, working full-time. And then I’ve got to put up with the political BS of an office on top of that? Tough to get excited about that.
It was time to wrap up our interview, so I tried to pin her down on her plans. She said, “Well, unless the right offer comes along, I’m probably going to try to ride this wave for the next five to 10 years. Oh, and I want to add some Cisco certs, too.” She laughed and said, “Got to keep up, you know.”
It sounds like Latifa Meena doesn’t have to worry about keeping up—she’s already way ahead.
Bruce Maples is an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant living in Louisville.What did you think of this interview? What trends do you see in the training field? Where do you think the profession is going? Send Bruce an e-mail and share your thoughts with him.