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It's no secret to anyone who works in the technology industry that continous training (and retraining) is required. The only thing that's constant in this business is change, and engineers need to be ahead of the curve on the latest and greatest technologies.

The engineers we work with understand that ongoing training is a fact of life. There are many different ways to get this training, and some of our associates recently shed some light on the benefits and drawbacks of each type.

Frank is a veteran and proponent of vendor-based training seminars, having taken courses offered by such companies as Sun and Microsoft. These on-site courses require time off from his usual assignments, so he tries to fit them in between contracts.

"The biggest advantage to these kinds of courses is that you're going straight to the source," he says. "If the people who built the application aren't the experts, who is? On the other hand, they're also evangelists for the product, so you won't get a critical perspective that you might get from a neutral instructor."

Frank also likes interacting with the other people at the training sessions, as they bring a variety of experiences and perspectives. "I've made some good networking contacts and friends taking these courses," he says. "And most people seem to be at similar skill and experience levels."

There tends to be a lot of lab time in these courses and the chance for interaction with the instructor and other participants can make for an in-depth learning experience. "You just don't get that from a book or a CD-ROM," says Frank.

Mike, a senior engineer, has taken plenty of vendor-sponsored courses, but he's also had good experiences with training that's approved (but not taught) by the vendors. Companies like New Horizons offer classes in major brand-name technologies, "and the instructors can be objective about the products," he says.

"It helps to know the problems with an application or a technology as you're learning how to use it," says Mike. "The instructors can talk about the relative pros and cons of different companies' technologies in this atmosphere."

Most of these courses offer intensive three-to-five day seminars. "You need to stay focused and sharp and take good notes," says Mike. "The intensive schedule is good for me since I'd rather be working on a project than taking days off. But you don't get as much hands-on lab time as you'd get in a longer course.

"If you can get an employer to cover the cost of this kind of training, go for it," says Mike. "The schools know how much training can add to an engineer's hourly rate, so some of the courses can be very expensive."

Julie has a different view of training based on her own learning style. "I just don't learn as effectively in a crash course as I do in a long-term one," she says. Which is why she prefers taking classes at local colleges.

"A night class that meets two or three nights a week works well for me," she says. "I can take them while I'm on a project and it makes a nice break from my daily routine. A long-term course could be a problem for someone who travels a lot, but I don't."

State and community college courses are much more economical than corporate training, and Julie also enjoys interacting with the other students. "Almost everyone in the class has a day job, so we're all in the same boat," she says. "It's a good chance to network.

"I also like the chance to work long term with the instructors," she says. In the past year she's seen an improvement in the quality of instruction at the local college level. "In the past, most instructors had academic backgrounds. But a lot of people have left private industry to teach, so now they have more real-world industry experience."

Tim is an engineer who thrives on multiple contracts and a lot of traveling, so most traditional courses are not an option. "I'm always on the road, so when I need to pick up a class I do it online," he says.

"A lot of them now have live streaming interaction with audio and online chat with the instructors," he says. "For interactive classes I do need to be at my laptop at a certain time, but it's kind of cool to be taking a class while sitting in a hotel room or waiting in an airport."

Tim admits that modem speed and bandwidth issues can be a problem when accessing an interactive course on the road, but in his case, the flexibility outweighs the challenges. "The content of some of these classes is archived so I can go back and review something I might've missed or forgotten the first time around," he says.

"Online training isn't a perfect system yet," says Tim. "But I like how I can complete courses without taking time away from my travel or work."

There are clearly advantages and disadvantages to each type of training, but the most important thing is to choose a course that fits your lifestyle, schedule, and learning style.

Whether you value "from the horse's mouth" vendor training, the objective neutrality of a corporate school, the old-school comfort of a college setting, or the flexibility of an online course, the most important thing is to keep your skills up-to-date and on the cutting edge.

Author Bios
Bill Baloglu is a principal at ObjectFocus (www.ObjectFocus.com), a Java staffing firm in Silicon Valley. Bill has extensive OO experience and has held software development and senior technical management positions at several Silicon Valley firms.

Billy Palmieri is a seasoned staffing industry executive and a principal at ObjectFocus. His prior position was at Renaissance Worldwide, where he held several senior management positions in the firm's Silicon Valley operations. [email protected]

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