A costly and ineffective approach to professional staff education

Give Boot Camps the Boot!

by Conrad Weisert, January, 2001
©2001 Information Disciplines, Inc., Chicago
This article may be circulated freely as long as the copyright notice is included.

Junk mail is bringing more and more brochures urging us to attend an "intensive" indoctrination on some programming technology. They propose to engage the participants all day long for a number of consecutive days. They promise to cover a whole semester's material in a week. Some call themselves "bootcamps", a U.S. military term denoting concentrated and arduous training of new recruits.

Such a solicitation may tempt a naive manager into believing that he or she can modernize the skills of the staff quickly and painlessly (but hardly cheaply). Such managers may check off staff upgrade on their list of annual objectives after enrolling their programmers in a Java or Visual Basic bootcamp course. Rarely if ever, however, do their people then become productive and creative practitioners of the new technology.

This approach works well when we need to drill a student to the point where he or she responds automatically. In addition to military training, "immersion" works well for:

Computer programming is altogether different. To become a good programmer a student has to master concepts. He or she needs time to reflect upon and absorb principles, and to practice applying them to solving problems.

When a course schedules every minute of the day for every participant, how does it cater to the range of aptitudes within a group? If we set aside 45 minutes to solve a workshop problem, a few students will get finished in 20 minutes while a few others will still be working in frustration when time is called.

Even without any differences in aptitude, some students will fall behind, due to unplanned interruptions such as illness or a crisis in their regular job. No matter how firmly management pledges to isolate the participants, exceptions get made not only for bona fide emergencies but also for meetings. With no interval between class sessions, a student who falls behind is extremely unlikely to catch up.

A 5- or 10-day bootcamp that focuses on a programming language may well leave the students fluent in:

What happens, however, when those students return to their jobs?

  1. They find themselves unable to apply what they learned to solving problems that differ sharply from the examples they worked on in class.
  2. They quickly forget what they did master unless they're put to work using it immediately.
  3. The new technology itself may become discredited in the organization.

The organization has wasted not only the steep course fee, but also the energy and enthusiasm of the staff and the support of management. Some never recover.

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