What makes you think you can teach computer classes?

Brain surgeon wanted. No experience necessary. To Jeff Davis, that makes about as much sense as hiring a non-technical person to teach computer courses.

I’ve always made a habit of reading the classified employment ads. I like seeing what kinds of jobs are available, even if I’m not looking. Recently I saw an ad that caught my attention for all the wrong reasons.

It was an ad placed by a company looking for computer instructors. The bold headline was “Can you teach?” The body of the ad contained the sentence “No computer experience necessary.” Puh-leeze. I read that, and it made me absolutely ill. With those kinds of recruiting techniques, it’s no wonder so many computer training companies fail.

If you haven’t done it, how can you teach it?
Here’s the dilemma. Say I’m in charge of training end users in my company. I can tell you now, I’m not going to do business with the company that hires computer trainers under the “no computer experience necessary” banner. I’m sorry.

Let’s imagine how the first contact would go. I call and say, “What kind of background do your instructors have?” The company says, “Well, they have great personalities, plenty of patience, and lots of experience teaching.”

“Do they have hands-on experience using computers in the workplace?”

“Well, no, but they’ve completed our extensive in-house training for computer instructors, so they know the programs.”

Uh huh. Is that the sound of pig wings flapping I hear?

You have to start somewhere
I realize that no one is born a computer expert. Furthermore, if you’re an expert in any field, that doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to make a great teacher. No one would deny that many of the people who are technology experts (the gifted geeks) don’t have the most refined interpersonal skills in the world. But there’s got to be some happy middle ground.

If you’re a good teacher but you don’t know anything about computers, why on earth would you want to take a training job as your first job in the computer industry? Why not first take several computer classes and then get your feet wet with an entry-level job in an IT or tech support department?

If you’re running a computer training company, how can you reasonably expect a non-technical person—no matter what their teaching credentials—to do an adequate job teaching technical material? Why wouldn’t you pursue someone who’s been in the industry and who knows firsthand how to use software and hardware?

Some of you will say that computer professionals want too much money; you can’t afford to hire computer professionals as trainers. Well, guess what? You won’t be able to afford to pay your light bill if you try to sell training provided by underqualified instructors.

Some of you might also say, “If the class is full of people who know zilch about computers, a good teacher with a little bit of technical skill will do fine.” And you’re right. But what happens when those students graduate to the next level? Who’s going to teach the advanced classes?

Train the trainers
There are several ways successful training companies can answer complaints like mine. First, they can hire trainers who have “real world” experience working as IT professionals. Second, they can train the trainers. They can require certifications and mandate that the trainers upgrade their skill sets on a routine basis by sending them to classes. Trainers can get their hands dirty by performing in-house IT functions for the training company itself.
In interviewing and hiring technical writers over the years, I’ve often had to make a tough choice. Do we hire a skilled computer person and teach them to write, or do we hire experienced writers and teach them computer skills? You have to start somewhere. If you’d like to share your thoughts on this topic, please post a comment below. To read more about this topic, check out these TechRepublic articles: “So You Want to be an IT Trainer” by Bruce Maples; “The Ethical Training Manager ” by Schoun Regan; and “The Tool You Need to Build Your Skills Inventory ” by Kevin Eikenberry.Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. To get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door, subscribe to Jeff's View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you'll get a bonus of Jeff's picks for the best Web stuff-exclusively for our TechMail subscribers.

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