A Phone Call From A Friend
In September last year - around the time I launched this blog with a series of posts around the Windows 8 announcements at the Microsoft Build conference - a programming community friend who had worked with me on some presentations to the Silverlight UK User Group and who runs his own training business got in touch with me.
He'd been so impressed with the 'presentation' style and content of the Daily Report material I was producing around Windows 8 he contacted me with a suggestion that maybe we could work together to launch a new subscription-based online training venture oriented around Microsoft technologies.
His on-site business was struggling, and it was clear to him, as it had always been to me, that online training was the future. On the surface it seemed like a timely offer - I was looking for work after a disasterous experience in Switzerland, emigrating for a job that was supposed to last for 2 years but crashed and burned after just 3 months.
I think he was quite surprised when I laughed and said we didn't have a hope of succeeding, and I wasn't interested!
The bulk of my 'negative' arguments against doing something was that there was no way we could possibly hope to compete with a company already excelling in that area. A company that already had a huge back catalogue of excellent courses. A company that was already in partnership with Microsoft and heavily involved with the Microsoft community. A company that had access to people at the highest level to such an extent that excellent new online training courses were being added on an almost weekly basis.
That company was, of course Plurasight, and in the 9 months since we had that conversation they've just got better and better!
How could a couple of guys, already working full time as freelancers in order to pay the bills and put food on the table, possibly hope to compete?
Some Lessons Learnt From A Job as a Full Time Instructor
A few years ago I'd set up a new company, RIA View Mirror (I thought it was a clever name for a company focussed on online training of the 'I show you, now you do it' variety, but admittedly it works better when spoken!) specifically to do what the friend who called me last year was suggesting. It didn't take me long to realise what an impossible task I'd set myself.
I de-registered the company last year!
In a former life (as a mainframe systems programmer, specialising in the IBM CICS TP monitoring system), I'd spent two years working as a full-time instructor for Amdahl's Education Services, having transitioned within the company from a role as a Marketing Systems Engineer (MSE). What I'd liked about my job as an MSE was the technical work and presentation/mentoring work, often to new, extremely sceptical, potential customers. What I hadn't liked about the job, which was essentially to be a 'techie' who supported a mainframe salesman, was I had a couple of large customers where the job mostly seemed to involve schmoozing in the pub listening to managers who seemed oblivious (contemptuous even) of the strengths of the developers and engineers they had working for them. I've never suffered fools gladly, and there seemed to be quite a few fools who'd elevated to the position of 'key purchase decision maker'. Unfortunately I've never been very good at pretending to be best buddies with people I don't have much respect for.
Moving to Education for two years seemed like a good move - embracing the strengths of the MSE role I'd mostly enjoyed, whilst removing the parts of the job I hadn't enjoyed. Win-win!
In those two years as a full-time instructor I mainly taught courses written by other people. These courses were typically delivered just a few days before I had to deliver them because they were purchased from the American parent company, who in turn had commissioned an external third party to write them. We only got the material when we knew we had enough people booked to justify going ahead, and decisions on this always ran very close to the wire.
Delivery of these courses mostly relied on my ability to improvise and fill out what was often weak, dull 'read the slide out loud' material where the length of the course in days was based on the assumption that they were being delivered at an American location near Disney World that could get away with late starts and very early finishes and a lot more coffee breaks than we Brits are used to. When I questioned the amount of material vs the length of the course with an American colleague teaching the same material he explained that the material was thin because course attendees weren't the ones paying for the courses (their bosses were) and in the States the philosophy was much more one of 'give the employee a course as a reward for good work because we can't commit to a salary increase', rather than a requirement for new training per se. Most attendees, my American colleague assured me, just want a good time away from the office, which is easy when DisneyWorld and sunny weather is on your doorstep, but not so easy when you're stuck out at Heathrow with typical British rainy weather and the expectations are rather different!
I survived two years of delivering those courses, partly by telling lots of anecdotes based around more than 10 years of 'real world' experience in a system that hadn't changed much over the years, but mostly by smiling a lot and basically doing a theatrical 'smoke and mirrors' stand-up act that diverted attention from the poor course content and instead screamed 'Like me! Like me!' at the captive audience.
It was an approach that seemed to work. The ratings were invariably excellent, even when I myself knew that the course I'd delivered was sub-par, bordering on poor. In fact my biggest problem was persuading my boss to let me rewrite any of the courses since the student critique marks were skewing much higher than other curriculum delivered by my colleagues.
My worst week as an instructor came when I had to deliver a 'new' 5-day course to a group of people that had already had exactly the same course a few weeks earlier - the course writer had just seen fit to give the exact same material two different titles (one titled 'for programmers' the other titled 'design') and not seen fit to explain this until the material arrived a couple of days before I was due to deliver it! I guess it says something for my ability to 'rewrite on the fly' that the attendee critiques for the second 'repeat' version of the course actually came in slightly higher than the first time (and had already been excellent) but it was definitely the longest week of my life!
I did eventually get permission to write a new, rather basic, 2-day introduction course replacement from scratch. I had a week to do it, but in reality took 2 weeks of crazy long days and weekends to write it to the quality I thought was required. The course was different from others in our curriculum in that in the days of overhead projectors it used full-colour acetate 'foils' (Who remembers Corel Draw in the days when the software alone justified the purchase of a CD-ROM drive?!) that mainly consisted of diagrams and pictures, instead of never-ending streams of black and white words on an acetate, and it comprised an additional course manual: an instructor's manual that gave details of those 'ad hoc' white board anecdote 'real world' scenarios I would typically deliver to pad out the old course material. This way the students got some quality reference material in the form of a student manual, while we held back some good stuff and had enough added value to encourage their colleagues to actually pay out to attend the course rather than just photocopy the student manual previous attendees might have received.
The initial feedback on the course from other instructors around the world was phenomenal. They loved the new material and I received nothing but praise for the 'dramatic improvement in quality' over the previous version of the course that had been written by an outside party.
I couldn't wait to personally deliver the course and see the course ratings go through the roof!
When I did deliver the course, the student feedback was very good - but actually turned out to be slightly lower than the previous, poor version of the course had been!
It taught me a valuable lesson about training: quality of the actual material delivered and the course content is actually not what's important. What's more important is that people feel they had a good time and enjoyed themselves.
When delivering the first version of the course, I was on an adrenaline-fuelled mission to hide the 'smoke and mirrors' of the poor course material. When delivering the much improved version of the course I thought the material would carry itself and its brilliance would be automatically recognised. I was probably more relaxed and less frenetic as a result. The improvement in quality was recognised by my peers - but not by the students themselves.
These days I rarely pay for onsite training. Invariably when I do I find it extremely poor value for money, presumably because instructors face the same issues I did when I was an instructor: poor material delivered just days before it has to be delivered, insufficient time to prepare, with an audience who for the most part have no idea how much money this training is costing their employer and a 'rating' process that has to be completed long before they can possibly know if what they were taught was correct or not. And, to be quite frank, the vast majority of instructors I've seen don't have the experience to 'fill out' the material with real world experience and 'off the cuff' examples the way I was able to when teaching was my full-time job and I had 10 years of experience to back it up.
Why Online Training Is Even More Difficult
Online training is a very different proposition from onsite training. The material can be viewed and reviewed multiple times in great detail.
If I thought it was tough writing a two day course to be delivered in person to a room full of 20 people, it's a whole different ball game writing material that can be scrutinised multiple times by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people.
Writing good online material is a time-consuming, and prohibitively expensive proposition unless you can cash in on the whole 'Me! Me! Me!' 'rock star' culture where good people will produce good material for free (or as near to free as makes no difference) just for the recognition it gets them. I don't have the contacts, or willpower, to try that 'cash in' approach, even assuming it can be made to work.
Which is why I laughed at the idea my friend had that we could simply produce a mass of courses that people would pay good money for, when we had a competitor who already had many courses, that were, from what I'd seen, top notch. The only way I could see us being able to compete was perhaps on quality of the presentation collateral itself. I felt this could be improved in two areas: the slides themselves: where most Pluralsight training courses comprise slides of the tedious Powerpoint 'read the bullet-point out aloud' format that seem to dominate the whole of the Microsoft ecosphere; and by providing a transcript of the video material because nobody has time to go and revisit a 40 hour video course a few months later when they're trying to remember what they thought they'd learnt.
On balance, with such slim potential advantages, I told my friend that there was no way we could compete with Pluralsight.
Why We Couldn't Have Competed with Pluralsight
Collateral issues aside (which they've since improved - eg they now provide transcripts for many of their courses), there was no way a new startup without significant venture capital funding could possibly compete with a company that had such high quality offerings, and at such a ridiculously low price, and with such high visibility in the world of Microsoft community through their partnership deals and user group sponsorships. It would be like Microsoft and Windows 8 trying to play catch up with Apple and the iPad. Much too little, much too late.
When I first looked at Pluralsight training a few years ago, I recall that the premium membership that included downloadable exercise code cost between 2000 and 3000 UKP a year, and the company had a much smaller range of courses than they have today. We could maybe have competed with them back then.
Why Pluralsight is a bargain
But today, could we compete with them? No way! Here's why:
- They have a plethora of 'rock star' instructors, seemingly recruited through their innate ability (unlike Microsoft with their MVP program) to weed out the poseurs from those who really know their stuff and how to teach it.
- They produce new courses on a seemingly endless basis (weekly!)
- Their customer support is superlative, and it's not the 'lip service' that you get from other organisations (After I tweeted about a bad experience with Microsoft online training for WPF a couple of years ago I was mobbed by Microsoft employees wanting to help. Impressive, you might think. So I spent a weekend putting together a detailed critique of why the material was so bad and not 'fit for purpose'. Six months later I still hadn't had any feedback, and when I pointed out that 'support' appeard to be just 'lip service' was told 'The course was done by an outside partner - they haven't responded' which says all you need to know about what Microsoft understand about customer service vs what Pluralsight understand by it. Needless to say when I had some problems with iPad offline downloading of some courses, the Pluralsight approach was VERY different from Microsoft's and they dealt with the problem quickly and efficiently. They made me feel that I wasn't 'whinging' but had genuinely helped them and were thankful for raising the issue).
- They offer their entire online training catalogue at a price point that means it's a complete steal. About 300 UKP a year for far more training than you could possibly hope to consume. It's a bargain, trust me on this!
- Their material is individually optimised for all the different bits of hardware that are out there. PC, you'd expect, but you want to run offline with an iPad or iPhone or an Android device? They can deal with that too.
Yes, the company's offering is that good, and the only real problem with Pluralsight is that there just aren't enough hours in the day to consume everything they make available to their subscribers.
OK, so is there any alternative to Pluralsight?
If you're interested in Microsoft technlogy-focussed training, I'd say if there is I haven't found it. Pluralsight is a company that doesn't sit on its laurels and say 'We're the best'. Its seemingly one that continually asks itself 'How can we improve this?' and then actions the answers it receives. Whenever I've contacted support I've always had a timely response, usually followed by a fix that shows my issue has been taken seriously and dealt with as a matter of urgency. That's impressive!
In some areas, notably the more 'open source' areas around basic HTML, CSS and jQuery, there are some better online courses out there (I'll be covering a company specialising in the Adobe space in next blog post later this week). I recently took advantage of the Code School 'free weekend' where it was clear their material was far less dry and more involving, including interactive testing at the end of each course module to make sure you'd fully absorbed the material presented. But the number of courses offered is infinitely smaller for a fee that is essentially the same, and the focus is a LOT narrower than that of Pluralsight.
Some Specific Course Recommendations
I should probably wrap up this 'way too long' post with some specific courses that for me have been highlights of the whole Pluralsight curriculum.
When learning LINQ I must have purchased every available book on the subject. I found almost all of them dry and uninvolving, clearly written by people who weren't natural teachers. To be brutally honest I didn't really 'get' LINQ (I'm old with a failing memory, sue me!) Pluralsight's course on the same subject from Scott Allen was like a breath of fresh air compared to these books. So many light bulbs lit up I became a strong advocate overnight. I can't recommend his course highly enough. I was so impressed with it I wasted weekends transcribing it so I had a handy reference guide I could use - it was that good!
More recently I've completed Billy Hollis' 'User Experience' course and Shawn Wildermuth's 'LESS and SASS for CSS' courses. Both are solid courses, aimed squarely at the Microsoft developer, which are fun, involving and for me also included several 'lightbulb' moments. They more than warrant the time spent on taking them and the cost of a Pluralsight subscription.
Yesterday I started on Scott Allen's 'Mobile jQuery' course, and the introduction alone did more to enthuse me than any number of books and long, dull blog posts on the same subject. It's another course written by someone with a deep undersanding of the technology, who knows how to condense and compress it into the essentials for developers who are time-pressed and struggling to stay up-to-date.
Bottom line: If you're a professional developer working in the Microsoft ecosystem, you really owe it to yourself to take out a Pluralsight subscription. There really is no excuse for not doing so!