Tales from the jar side: The training business, Twitter's main character, My silly marketing plan, and Amusing tweets

Seriously, if you know Lin-Manuel Miranda, hit me up

Welcome to Tales from the jar side, the Kousen IT newsletter, for the week of April 11 - 18, 2021. This week I taught my Basic Android course and my Kotlin and Spring course on the O’Reilly Learning Platform, and my Upgrade to Modern Java and my Spring MVC course as NFJS Virtual Workshops. A busy week.

My NFJS Virtual Workshop on upgrading your Java skills had a much higher enrollment than normal. In most of my workshops there, the number of students enrolled tends to vary from around ten to as many as twenty, with the range 14 to 19 pretty common. On Wednesday, as I was about to start my Java upgrade course, I checked the numbers, mostly out of curiosity.

There were 62 students registered for that course.

Whoa. Numbers like that are not unusual on the O’Reilly Learning Platform, but the NFJS Virtual Workshops are on Zoom and that’s a lot of people on a Zoom call.

The Business of Training

First, in case you’re wondering, the class went fine. As is typical, only a small number of people in the class were active participants, and that’s especially true for remote classes. I had about half a dozen who were willing to leave their cameras on (for which I was very grateful — it’s hard speaking to a screen all day when you can’t see anybody) and a few more than that asked questions in the chat box. If I can’t manage that many people after all my years of teaching, I might as well give it up.

The transition where the number of students becomes a problem tends to happen when around 150 or more. I still teach the Introduction to Gradle training for Gradle, Inc every other month. That course is free and it’s Gradle’s “official” offering, so the numbers tend to be pretty high. When I first started teaching it, it was not unusual to have a few hundred registered. Once you get more than 150 or so in the class, it became very difficult to keep up with the questions, even if (as I always do) I spend all my break time catching up on them. When you go over 200 students, you basically need another instructor just to handle the volume of questions.

On the O’Reilly platform, I’m accustomed to having between 100 and 150 students in a given class, and there students can either use the group chat (which everybody sees) or the Q&A widget (which only I see). Sometimes my Managing Your Manager course winds up with a couple hundred people, and I’ll have to work hard to keep up. Most of the time, unless there is some major setup issue, I can handle the volume without a problem. YMMV, of course. Other instructors with less experience may have other issues.

(Not too many instructors have more experience. I’ve been teaching training classes as my regular day job since May 31, 2000, which is getting to be a long time. Let’s just say it’s hard to surprise me anymore. That wasn’t intended to be a challenge, but what the heck, take your best shot.)

This, by the way, is in direct contrast to in-person events. When you have to set up a room full of machines, arrange people in a classroom so everyone can see, and help with individual questions and labs, the maximum is a lot lower. Most in-person classes tend to limit the number of students to 12 to 15. Allowing twenty students in one class is a big deal. I usually have to give permission for that, and will often charge extra for it.

Getting to the economics, like every other business there are fixed costs and variable costs. In an in-person class, you have the room rental, equipment like projectors or wifi, setup costs for computers, and — oh yeah — the cost of the instructor, including travel and expenses. Those are all fixed (more or less), and the variable cost is the number of students, which includes the cost of any extra training materials, support, and other related issues.

How do training companies make money? Until very recently, courses were sold as either public or private. Public courses are open to everyone and charge by the student. Private courses tend to use a lump sum for up to a certain maximum number of students, with potentially a per student charge after that. Most training courses in IT are funded by businesses, so the company pays the costs rather than the individual students.

In bad times companies see training as a luxury item and tend to cut it,. Another old saying goes:

Question: What if we train our employees and they leave?
Answer: What if we don’t train them and they stay?

Rather than get into the details of public vs private, let me say two things:

  1. It is very, very difficult to make a public training business last.

  2. As with everything else, the Internet changed everything. Now there are videos, both on YouTube and for purchase from sites like Udacity, PluralSight, LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, and others, or remote training with live instructors.

At the beginning of my career, I used to teach a fair number of public Java classes, but that didn’t last. For most of the next 15 years or so, private training was the rule. Sometimes I contracted directly with a company (and I still do that fairly often), but most of the time as I was building my skills and reputation I was a subcontractor to training companies. I spent five years as a full-time employee of the (sadly no longer with us) Golden Consulting Group, which supplied training courses to major companies in and around Hartford, CT. These days most training companies don’t have full-time instructors, just independent contractors (like me) that they use when they sell a training course. I usually refer to those as “friend of the family” relationships, in that I don’t work for any of them as a regular employee, but I represent them in class and the companies that use me do so pretty often.

Subscription-based Training

What’s changed in the past few years has been the rise of subscription services, like that offered by my two primary clients, the O’Reilly Learning Platform and the No Fluff, Just Stuff (NFJS) conference tour. NFJS is primarily in the business of holding weekend conferences, so the training side is a supplement to that. O’Reilly used to run a lot of conferences, but the pandemic did a number on that, though the trend was already away from that. A few years ago (roughly August, 2014), O’Reilly purchased the Safari learning platform, and they’ve been a major training company ever since.

If you’ve been in this industry a while, you recognize O’Reilly Media a major publisher of technical books. They still do that — heck, I have three of them: Kotlin Cookbook, Modern Java Recipes, and Gradle Recipes for Android — but they no longer sell books directly to consumers. (That change happened the same month my Modern Java Recipes book came out (grumble), but so be it.) You can buy their books from Amazon, but what O’Reilly hopes you’ll do is subscribe to their online platform and get everything there. Through the online platform they also offer videos, katacodas (guided, interactive demos), and, most importantly for me, training courses. The courses are either one or two days in length, for a maximum of four hours each day.

That’s not enough to master much of anything, but it is enough to give you a feel for what’s possible, help you understand the basics, and point you to other resources for whatever you need. That’s why I still offer multi-day training courses directly to clients.

For any training company there are a whole host of business-related questions:

  • Do you sell to individuals, or to companies?

  • Is everything included, or are there tiers of access?

  • How frequently are the courses offered?

  • How often are the updated?

  • How many instructors do you use?

  • Is instructor compensation a flat rate, or based on student count?

  • Do you need separate producers for each course, or can the instructor run everything?

  • How do you handle infrastructure problems and feedback?

For companies that provide a remote-based subscription service, the answers can be very different from companies that offer on-site, private courses. Most everyone uses contract instructors these days. O’Reilly wants to be a one-stop shop for all companies, so they need to offer a lot of courses to justify the annual subscription for each employee. On the other hand, it may not be worth it to offer courses that have very low attendance rates.

My business was already headed online when the pandemic hit last year, which accelerated the process. My challenge as a trainer is to keep updating what courses I offer, learn the latest popular topics, and figure out what works best in an online environment. After a year of exclusively doing online remote training, I have a pretty good idea what I can and cannot do.

What surprised me this week was the sudden jump in the number of students in the NFJS virtual workshop, which was composed almost entirely of subscribers rather than individual, “a la carte” students. It will be very interesting to see if that trend continues, or if it was mostly a case of the right topic at the right time inside a subscription service.

Twitter’s Main Character

I read an interesting article this week from journalist Charlie Warzel, who writes a newsletter called Galaxy Brain. The article was called It’s Not Cancel Culture — It’s a Platform Failure, with the subtitle “Adventures in context collapse.”

The article was about a tweet that asked whether or not horror movies could be based in space. It included a poll, and the tweet said no.

I’m not going to repeat the tweet here — the author has suffered enough. The offending tweet was sent from a pub late on a Saturday night in New Zealand and was meant to be, at most, half serious. The Twitter poll the author posted had over 120,000 votes, and over 6000 people, including many prominent film directors, angrily quote-tweeted her and many demanded she apologize.

Yikes. All this from what was intended to be a half-serious gag used to settle a debate in a bar. The article, however, included this tweet:

Twitter doesn’t just mangle context, it actively removes it. Twitter goes out of its way to remove context in order to make a position seem more extreme, because that increases engagement. Most “trending topics” you see on Twitter started off as a harmless tweet that made sense when seen with several others, but when taken out of context a tweet can trigger massively hostile reactions. As the article says, “Twitter is a game; just one you can’t win.”

Nothing like this has happened to me, at least not yet. I guess I’m too small a fish, or I tend to avoid tweeting on controversial topics, or the random wave a bored, hostile Twitter participants who delight in attacking in bad faith just hasn’t found me yet. I’m sure it also helps that I’m neither a woman nor an underrepresented minority.

A few people I sponsor on Patreon, however, have run into that buzzsaw, and it’s always tragic when it happens. I watched one of my favorite people get ripped to shreds this week (nope, I’m not going to post that either), and the extraordinary level of bad faith in the attacks was unreal.

I added my support for her via a private message on Patreon, but there’s really very little you can do when this happens. After all, extremes drive engagement, and to Twitter engagement is everything.

Marketing Plan for HYBHY, v1.0

This week I really hope to finish a complete draft of my book, Help Your Boss Help You. One of my remaining challenges is that when we go into the publishing process, I’m supposed to put together a marketing plan.

Here’s that plan so far:

  1. Convince Lin-Manuel Miranda to base his next Broadway musical on my book.

I’m kind of stuck at that step. If you have his email address, please let me know.

Seriously, can you imagine being Ron Chernow? Here you are, with a reasonably successful but largely academic biography of Alexander Hamilton to your name, and out of the blue LMM decides to pick it up as a light beach read. The rest, as they say, is history (both literally and figuratively).

I’d be totally okay with that. Heck, he can adapt my book however he wants, even if the result bears about as much resemblance to my text as Hamilton the musical does to Hamilton the actual person.

Seriously, LMM, call me. The book is still in beta, so if you want me to make some changes, the time to ask for them is now.

Funny Tweets

If Twitter is such a cesspool, why keep including humorous tweets? Because it’s not only a cesspool. I actively curate my twitter feed all the time, and the result is generally both entertaining and informative. Maybe it’s more a case of actively working to keep the level of poison low enough that I can tolerate it.

In no particular order, here are some of tweets I liked this week:

I have no idea what triggered that tweet, but I love it.

Yes, that cleared that issue up nicely. Thanks.

The Management Speak twitter feed is pretty hilarious, actually.

On a more topical note:

Okay, yeah. Moving on, this one is the first of a thread, but extremely well done:

Let me at least add the second one:

It goes on just as you’d expect.

On a completely separate topic, the article cited in this tweet is so incredibly wholesome and friendly:

I’m dying to know, however, if the Obamas are familiar with Garfunkel and Oates’s more, shall we say, “colorful” songs. I’m sure that was an entertaining conversation, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Finally, this has been a geeky newsletter this week, so I’ll finish with a joke that will only resonate with a handful of functional programmers:

The Breakfast Club

I mentioned last week I went out to breakfast for the first time in over a year. This week my wife finally passed her waiting period after her second vaccination, so this morning we went out together, back to our favorite local restaurant.

And the Lord saw that it was good. And yummy.

Share Tales from the jar side

As a reminder, you can see all my upcoming training courses on the O’Reilly Learning Platform here and all the upcoming NFJS Virtual Workshops here.

Last week:

  • Basic Android, on the O’Reilly Learning Platform

  • Kotlin and Spring Boot, ditto

  • Upgrade to Modern Java, an NFJS Virtual Workshop

  • The Spring MVC Framework, ditto

This week: