On delivering automation training online

Recently (as in, over the last year and a half or so) I regularly receive questions about providing online training in addition to my in-house, in-person training offerings. Until now, I put those requests on the back burner as I was of the opinion that teaching online (either live or through prerecorded video instructions) would never be a replacement for ‘live’ training.

And then something struck me: why would it have to be an exact replacement? Why not just try it, see how it goes, learn from it and see if it’s a suitable way to conduct training?

So, when I got in touch with a test consultancy firm in the UK that was looking for training for their employees, I decided to give it a try. After some discussion, we agreed that I would deliver the first day of training in house (meaning: in Manchester), while the following modules would be delivered online, saving me a couple of trips back and forth and cutting down on overhead costs for airfare and hotels. And so it was done.

Note: I am aware that having met the students in person before delivering training online to them is a big plus. However, I believe that the lessons and the pros and cons I talk about in this blog post equally apply when you’ve never met the students in real life just as well.

So, what did I learn in the process? Let’s see.

Preparation
I could write a whole separate article about how to properly prepare for a technical training course or workshop. In fact, I’ll be doing just that in the near future, in an article that will be published on another platform.

I won’t go into too many details here, but by far the most important thing to do when you’re about to conduct training online is to make sure that the participants are ready from the start. My preferred way of doing this is by sending detailed preparation instructions (a step-by-step guide, screenshots and all) to them at least a whole week in advance, so the participants have some time to set up their device. Additionally, I make myself available for questions and troubleshooting in case something goes wrong.

I was afraid to do this in the beginning, fearing I’d be overwhelmed with questions, but it turns out that’s not the case. For all the workshops I’ve given in the last few years, I’ve only had a couple (as in: three or four) people asking for help. That doesn’t mean that everybody else is ready to go when the workshop or training starts, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish…

The reason this is extra important when delivering training online is that you cannot just walk over to the participants and look over their shoulder to see what’s going wrong. You can do screen sharing, of course, but that’s not as efficient as taking over the controls for a bit.

So, long story short, overdo it on the preparation instructions. Be very clear in them and make sure they’re unambiguous. Have them tested by somebody else if you’re not sure everything’s clear (heck, do this even if you ARE sure).

Organization
With regards to how the training days should be organized, here are some key lessons I’ve learned from the two days of training I’ve hosted so far:

  • Group size: Where I can take around 12 people for a class that involves programming when they’re in the same room, I am glad I had only 4 participants for my online training. I think I can handle up to 6 people, but no more. Keeping track of how everybody is doing takes more effort when you see them through a webcam only, and there will probably be more questions (also because participants can’t help eachother out), so it’s only fair to limit the number of attendees to make sure everybody gets the attention and the answers they deserve.
  • Type of course: Live online training works well for hands-on automation training, but probably much less so (for obvious reasons) for training courses that involve a lot of group work, discussions and presentations. I wouldn’t even know how to facilitate that online…
  • Location and connection: Make sure the participants (and you yourself as well) are in a room with good lighting and that their webcam is on, because reading facial expressions will tell you a lot about their level of engagement. Also make sure they’re in a location with a good Internet connection. Videoconferencing takes bandwidth, yet you want both video and audio to be of the highest possible quality to make sure the participants can hear and see you well.

Engagement
The hardest part about delivering training online is keeping your audience engaged. Taking training is hard enough on your energy levels when you’re in the same room as the trainer, looking at a webcam and listening to somebody who’s potentially very far away is orders of magnitude harder. Here are some tips that might help you (they worked for me!):

  • Ask the participants how they’re doing often, to the point of being annoying. Don’t lose them, don’t give them a chance to start drifting off. Make sure they are awake and engaged. In the pre-course instructions, point out that they should be well rested, and that taking a training course online is even more demanding than ‘live’ training, for both parties.
  • Consider shortening the training days (for example, teach for 6 hours instead of 8 for a day of training). Chances are high that they won’t take in anything in those last two hours anyway, simply because their energy levels are too low. Additionally, take breaks often. Even just a five minute break for a leg stretch or a bathroom visit can help keep energy levels up. I took breaks every hour, which definitely wasn’t overdoing it.
  • Involve them. Instead of just broadcasting information all day, ask them lots of questions. When you’re doing programming exercises, ask them to share their screen and talk the rest of the audience through their solution and thinking process. Again, this helps keep them engaged. Don’t let them fall asleep!

Pros and cons
As I said earlier, online training isn’t a replacement for in-person training, at least not on a 1-on-1 basis. It’s a whole different ball game. Both have their pros and cons. Some of the benefits of delivering training online for me are:

  • It allows me to work from home. Big plus. I like driving my car, but I hate wasting time commuting. With online training, I can teach from the comfort of my own home.
  • My potential client base is many times larger. I am quite limited in the amount of travel I can do in a year, and the Netherlands is a small country, which means my client base isn’t all that large. With the possibilities of online training, though, I can deliver my courses to the entire world, potentially. Added bonus: meeting and talking to people from other countries and cultures, plus it does wonders for my English.

Sure, there are some downsides as well:

  • Not being able to walk up to people and see how they’re doing. I do this a lot when teaching in-person, but that’s not an option when online. Even with a webcam, people can hide behind their screen easier and pretend all is well. Their loss, of course, but I take pride in keeping everybody engaged.
  • It isn’t suited for every course I offer. I do more and more courses where people work in groups and have discussions, and as I said earlier, that’s not really an option when teaching online.

Having said all of this, I will definitely start offering live online training more often in the future, probably starting after the summer holidays. It’s definitely a valuable addition to the services I can offer. If you’re interested in taking one of my online courses, keep an eye out on this site for future announcements.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: so far I didn’t need any dedicated virtual classroom software to conduct the training. I used the pro version of appear.in, which requires no software to be installed at all on the client side, is a breeze to work with, allows everybody to share their screen effortlessly, has a chat to share links and stuff, basically everything I need.

An experiment in creating better tool-centered automation training

Last week, I delivered the second part of a two-evening API testing training at my former employer. They contacted me a while ago to see if I could help them in offering test automation training for their employees, as well as for their clients and other contacts. When I was still working with them, I used to deliver automation training as well, and it felt really great to be asked back, even though I have left them almost three years ago now.

But that’s not what this post is about.

This API testing training was in some ways an experiment I have wanted to conduct for a while now. I see a lot of individuals and organizations offering automation training, and most of it is specific to one single tool. In itself, this isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I’ve got one big problem with a lot of these tool-centered courses: instead of teaching you how to create a sound automation approach around one or more tools, they simply go through the most important features of a single tool and teach the participants some (sometimes useful) tricks. I know. I’ve delivered those courses in the past as well. If you’re a tool vendor / creator, I can understand why you would want to do that. But I think there’s more to good automation education than teaching you all the ins and outs of a specific tool. Let’s call them the 3 C’s:

  • Context – A tool is often only useful in a specific context. This context includes the skills of the people that will use the tool, the development and delivery process that the tool is to be made part of, and much more. Without context, it’s very hard to decide if a specific tool is the right one for the job.
  • Competition – For nearly all tools out there, there’s at least one competitor on the market (but often much more) that can be used to complete the same task. It is therefore essential for good training to introduce more than one option, have the participants get some hands on experience with all of them and let them decide what would work best for their tasks and team.
  • Cutting the crap – Tool-specific training might give the idea that the tool the participants are being trained in is the best thing since sliced bread. Which in turn leads people to try and automate anything and everything with a single tool. Which in turn all too often leads to crap. In other words: what’s the point in knowing all different types of waits available in Selenium if you don’t know how to decide what is a good scenario to automate using Selenium in the first place?

So, instead of delivering my API testing training around REST Assured alone (which I’ve done a number of times in the past), I decided to introduce three different tools to the participants: REST Assured, the open source version of SmartBear SoapUI and Parasoft SOAtest. After an introduction into what constitutes API testing, why it is useful and what you can test using APIs, I let the participants create a number of basic API tests with each of these tools (pretty much the same tests three times over), so they could experience firsthand how the features provided by each of the tools compare. Moreover, since I chose tools that are at opposite ends of the API test tool spectrum (REST Assured is a Java library for RESTful APIs, SOAtest is a commercially licensed enterprise-grade tool that supports a wide variety of protocols and message types, with SoapUI somewhere in between), participants get a much broader view of API testing than they’d get by learning REST Assured alone.

The feedback I received afterwards confirmed what I hoped to achieve with my experiment: all the attendees thought it was great to see more than a single tool, and since I gave them pointers to material for further exploration, they could decide for themselves in which direction their further education will take them.

I recently launched another course in which I try to do something similar, although in another fashion: instead of teaching people how to use Selenium WebDriver (i.e., teaching them the API and some useful Selenium-only tricks), I explain what types of tests should be created using Selenium, and I teach them how I would approach creating readable, maintainable and reliable tests with Selenium, Cucumber/SpecFlow, JUnit/NUnit and ExtentReports. Again: providing context and cutting the crap (you can argue about whether or not I’m covering ‘competition’ in this one) instead of teaching people all of the methods and features of a single tool.

I hope to deliver this type of automation training much more often in the future, and I’d love to see other automation training providers follow suit. For those of you who’d like some more details on the training objectives and subjects covered in this API testing training, please click here.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What to you constitutes good automation training?