In an earlier post I commented about day 1 of an onsite Microsoft training class here at Illinois Wesleyan. My main complaints at that time had to do with the virtual environment and the obsession with Microsoft troubleshooting dogma. I’ve had some time to reflect on the class so in this post I’ll give a more complete evaluation.
Our instructor was competent and friendly, willing and able to answer questions and diverge from the manual when necessary. She does not work for Microsoft, but this course is part of the Microsoft curriculum (more about that later). The facilities we chose were chilly but worked well enough for an uncontrolled environment. I wouldn’t be so forgiving of little things if the lab weren’t our own. The course content itself was an OK fit for the mix of staff who attended but I can’t imagine there is any way to take a stock class and make it fit perfectly desktop support, sys admins, help desk, service and repair, and the library all at the same time. However there are still some concerns that percolated to the top by the end of the class. In hindsight (and having read all the course evaluations) I think I can safely say that the flaws in this course were at the design level.
I think I can forgive the intense Microsoft indoctrination with regard to troubleshooting methodology. This is a course intended to prepare students for Microsoft certification, part of the track for Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician. They have identified (correctly) that too many certifications in years past have gone to “book” MCSEs and MCPs. These are people who never put anything into practice but were able to read books and websites to learn the material (I have done this myself!). The problem is that there is a lot more to being a functional IT professional than reading the book. Microsoft is trying to establish a clear, concise set of rules for thinking about troubleshooting and problem solving. It is critical to understand “root cause” in the desktop support world, and these modules on methodology will be supremely useful to many support personnel. I found them boring and redundant, and noticed that the Microsoft rules for support may conflict with those from an existing organization (you think State Farm might already have a robust methodology? Better believe it!). It might be best to leave that section as optional. Perhaps if I had known ahead of time I could have worked with the trainer to customize the course a bit. Anyway, I forgive them for this one.
I still don’t know if I’m sold on the virtualized environment for these classes. It makes distribution a zillion times easier, especially for onsite applications. However Microsoft didn’t set up the virtual machines to look anything like the real world. They also didn’t put in place realistic scenarios, and when they tried it was half hearted. Each module of the book would come with a lab portion. The lab would ostensibly place you in a situation as the support person. A user complains of certain broken-computer symptoms. Unfortunately, Microsoft did not prepare the virtual machine for that lab. We had to log into the virtual machine to apply some mysterious patch, then sign out and pretend it never happened. Why couldn’t the virtual machines come already broken? Furthermore, the first module of the book should have been focused on learning how to get around in the Virtual Server software. For each module we had to use a web interface and a separate “remote console” interface to start, stop, and launch remote windows for a variety of virtual machines. This did not work flawlessly on each computer, but once we got a handle on it things were fine. Many of my classmates were still getting hung up on the virtualization interface even at the end of day 3. This tells me there is a usability problem. In the context of a technical training course, why not take care of this from the start with a bit of training?! Finally, there are some Vista features that can’t work in a virtual machine. So remind me again why we are using a virtual machine??
I suppose that focusing on course design isn’t really that important. I’d particularly like to see them improve this class in one respect: immersion. When I took the XP course, you had to install XP from scratch 2 or 3 times. This gave you a casual interaction with the operating system. All those casual interactions add up to familiarity. In the Vista course, you just fire up an existing Vista image without any bumping around or idle time just sitting looking at the OS. Then when you are done you close out and are back to your XP shell.
That said, I did learn a few things about supporting Vista. And I learned a heck of a lot about Virtual Server. It was a positive and cost-effective event – when do we ever get that many IT and Library people together in a room learning stuff? Normally we are putting out fires “just in time” so it was refreshing to be preparing for something in advance. While I suppose that Service and Repair, Help Desk, and the Library will be confronted with it most, we should all be at least a bit more prepared for all those Vista machines that new students will bring in the Fall.