The Origin of Attitude

Rarely, only very rarely, do I teach a group that is close to if not completely indifferent to the topic at hand.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately depending on how you look at it, I’ve had over the years a small number of classes where this has happened. And although the individuals concerned may have developed their attitudes as a result of different events, when you look deeper there is, I think, a common cause.

I’ll give you an example of such a class and its specific circumstances in an admittedly “anonymous” way.

To set the stage, let me say that people are usually very interested in what we have to teach because it is “dead on” what they need to know. Most of my classes are like that. Students arrive early each day, ask questions throughout the lectures, raise their hands to resolve more questions during the hands-on labs and, through lunch with “time off” expressly provided in the schedule, they eat their employer-provided sandwiches and pizza but continue to dig into the theory and the labs. And almost to a man (and woman), they stay late more days than not.

Of course, I have to work to make it that way. I let my enthusiasm and enjoyment of the product show. Yes, I like working with the software I’m teaching, and I want them to know that. And I work hard to learn their names, their interests, and to draw them out so they feel comfortable interrupting the lecture and calling me over during the labs.

That’s my job.

And most of the time, that’s what happens.

But every now and then things are … well … different.

Cold, wet and foggy - Day 1

To begin, this group was supposed to have seven students but, at the appointed start time of nine AM, only two were present.

Maybe they can’t find the classroom, I speculated. We were, after all, off at the far end of the corporate campus and around the corner of a large building that seemed more for storage and maintenance offices, not engineering. Maybe they’ve never been to this building and are having trouble finding it.

So we chatted a few minutes, waiting. But, after ten minutes of that, it was clear we would have to start regardless.

So I turned on the projector to begin. As it warmed up, I thought of the chill outside. Maybe the weather is to blame. It’s near freezing outside with a strong wind, there’s a mist that turns to ice on windshields and overpasses, and the campus is huge with large blustery expanses between buildings.

When my desktop came into view on the projection screen, we started with two in the class.

To be fair, these two were sincerely interested. I’ll refer to one of them as “Mr. Senior” because, after our informal but on-topic chit-chat, it was clear he’d been in the business for many years. He had what I would term a mature perspective on the world, comprehensive, experienced, and carefully considered. He had some well thought-out conclusions. “Wisdom” was the word that came to mind.

His partner – they worked as a team, they said – will be known here as HereTodayGoneTomorrow, but not because his attention was flighty. On the contrary, he was good. He knew what he was doing and was interested in what was in the course.

The reason for his title will be apparent soon.

Two hours and one lecture chapter later, #3 arrives.

Now, to help me get to know the class as a whole and, in particular to know when any “exceptions” are present, I sometimes hand out a “pre-class survey”. It asks about specific areas of expertise, number of years in the business, computer languages and so forth. Each person fills in a copy and turns it in. I quickly scan them at the beginning of class.

Normally I don’t know who fills in which set of answers but, because this group had arrived in such small numbers or individually, I knew who had written each sheet.

The new arrival was “The Expert.” On the survey, he indicated he had been using our software for several years. I guessed he was probably wondering if his time might be better spent elsewhere.

But I always relish these individuals in class because I know that with their at-work focus on solving their employer’s problems, there are always several areas of our product they haven’t seen, tools they haven’t had the opportunity or free time to explore and that, by the end of class they will almost universally say, “Gee, I wish I’d known all this when I started!”

I knew his time in this class would be well invested. He would almost certainly learn a lot because I go much deeper than the materials suggest. I talk about “why” things work this way, not just “how” or “what”. I give them a couple of key insights that explain huge tracts of concepts. And what they learn will put them in good stead for dozens of environments, not just ours.

So, I looked forward to watching The Expert and what I anticipated would be his growing interest and enthusiasm over the three and a half days that remained.

But participation by this group so far was related to when they arrived: early was good and late was bad. Mr. Senior and HereTodayGoneTomorrow gave good answers to my initial questions as I worked to pull them into the material. And they began initiating new questions on their own. That’s what my initial questions are intended to provoke.

The Expert, however, was distant, more so than I expected. Although he may have felt he was going to be in a class beneath his needs, I had made sure to “deep dive” a couple of topics from the very beginning to engage his attention and curiosity.

But it didn’t seem to be working.

In the lectures, he rarely looked up at the projected slide, preferring the book to any gestures I might make to emphasize or illustrate the points. And for the occasional “chalk talk” on the white board, he barely glanced up to see the drawing. He seemed to prefer looking at the keys of the computer in front of him, not touching them, just looking.

Of course during the labs, The Expert’s experience showed, and in spades. Indeed, he was more than half-way through all the labs by the end of the first day. That’s almost unheard of and far, far ahead of the others who were “on pace” in the labs with the lecture content.

Clearly, The Expert knows what he’s doing.

But he asks no questions.

And he makes only the rarest of comments, and those often border on wise-cracks, but more about the other individuals in the class, not the software I’m there to teach. That software is sometimes the target of some gentle knife stabs but his focus wasn’t there. Instead, his comments are what you hear when good friends kid each other about their shortcomings, but those were the only comments he was making and, after a couple in a row, I started to get the feeling that his associates didn’t particularly appreciate them. They laughed them off, but the laughter was less and less sincere each time.

And the others said nothing in return. The back and forth of good-natured ribbing wasn’t there. It was all one way.

I guess he finally sensed the one-sided-ness because he stopped and fell silent.

This group of three, Mr. Senior, HereTodayGoneTomorrow and The Expert, had all used the software to varying degrees but with a perhaps limited understanding of what the system is doing deep down. More significantly, although they’d probably solved complex problems, they may have only done so “the hard way.” Sometimes you can put in a screw with a hammer, but it’s not going to stay put. Ignorance of the different tools for different situations is going to hurt them in the long run. So, showing them which tool does what best and in which situation is an important part of what we teach in class.

Students like The Expert and Mr. Senior often benefit the most from the class because we’re talking about things they’ve seen and used but, through the content of the class, they get to see what’s really happening inside the system and, with the tools, how best to make use of everything, and in a way that benefits their work the most.

Just before lunch, #4 arrives.

His title (here) isn’t a negative indicator. I’ll call him “RealTime Novice” not for his age or any lack of professional experience, but rather because in the specific niche in which we are focused, he is a relative newcomer. He has been a software engineer for several years but in a different area. Accordingly, there will be a lot we will talk about that will be new to him.

Through passing comments in the initial chit-chat and during breaks, it is also apparent that several have unused vacation time that must be used up this calendar year. Indeed, two of the four have stated they won’t be in class on the last day. And The expert has indicated that if we go beyond the middle of that last day, he’ll be annoyed, very annoyed.

As is probably obvious, it’s not my job to require them to give up vacation days to attend class. So, there’s not much I can do. We have a quantity of lecture and lab material that, for the great majority of classes, take all of the available four days to complete, and even at that some students say they would have preferred another, a fifth day.

There’s a lot to cover.

But this week, well, I’ll have to give them a taste of all of Friday’s content so, if nothing else, they’ll be aware of what’s possible. They’ll still have to get it on their own but at least they’ll have an idea. I wouldn’t feel right without doing at least that much.

Like it or not, and lecture content and lab material or not, Friday will be a short day.

Warmer Weather - Day 2

The temperature was not as cold this morning and all four students arrived early.


The Expert was actually the first to the classroom, ahead of me. His tall cup of Starbucks was on the table when I arrived fifteen minutes before class was scheduled to begin. And I was pleased when, later in the labs, he asked for help when something didn’t make sense. I explained what was happening in the three cases he demonstrated as “mysterious” and I could see when the light bulb came on in his head and he “got it”.

Indeed, all four were more involved today asking questions, relating experiences from work and asking how to go about attacking different kinds of problems.

This was how class should go.

I was still disappointed that the customer had paid for seven when only four had shown up but at least these four were starting to get involved in the material, albeit a bit later than I would have otherwise preferred.

Then at lunch, HereTodayGoneTomorrow said, “Thank you. My vacation starts now and I won’t be back.” Dumbstruck, I shook his offered hand before he picked up his books and headed for the door.

Well, I can’t fault him for honoring his vacation time. Indeed, if I were in his shoes I have to admit I’d feel the conflict between career and family. But since I’m not in his shoes and therefore can’t appreciate his situation, I can only accept his decision and wish him well.

“Bye,” he said and was gone.

A few hours later, late in the afternoon, a new face arrived.

“Sorry I couldn’t be here before. What’d I miss?”

I think to myself, “A lot,” but don’t say it.

Instead I say, “We’re about halfway through chapter five of thirteen in lecture and labs. The labs will let you jump in anywhere so you might want to start where we are now and review the earlier material. Let me know if you have any questions or problems.” (And yes, I’ll keep an eye on him in lab time so he doesn’t get stuck.)

Unfortunately, this means he’s missing the background material that each lab inadvertently builds upon so he may need extra hand-holding that might take time away from the others.

RealTime Novice tells me the new guy is his Co-Op.

So be it, he now has a name I can use here – Co-Op.

Co-Op starts working the labs and, only a time or two, needs help with what he’s missed. He’s good but quiet, very quiet, but different from The Expert. Co-Op is working the labs, pondering what he reads, and occasionally trying something not in the instructions. Good.

And he seems to be good using the software and ferreting out the sometimes obscure instructions so maybe his late arrival won’t be as much of a problem as I initially feared.

Still, there’s a lot of good information he has missed.

And he’s wearing flip-flops on his otherwise bare feet. The weather is grey with temperatures in the mid 40s. Not the sunniest of classes.

In the Fog - Day 3

(8:30AM) “Oh, we have a meeting at 9:00AM today,” RealTime Novice tells me.

“We all have to go except for [The Expert].” (The Expert is from a different site.)

The planned lecture would take an hour but won’t work if split in the middle.

“OK uhm,” I say shooting from the hip, “let’s use the next 30 minutes for lab time.”

Even so, only fifteen minutes later the three depart for the meeting on the other side of the corporate campus.

It’s me and The Expert. He explains he is from a different site in another town. He says there has been a reorganization within the company at its top levels but not so as it affects him directly. This meeting, he speculates, is to tell the local group pretty much the same.

And then I’m amazed to learn that The Expert has, at this point, completed all the labs. He’s the first student in three years to have done so in only a little over one day.

“Well, I worked late and then came in early. I like to do that,” he explains.

I suggest he use the time now and in the remaining lab segments to experiment and explore, maybe with tools not included in this course but still part of the product and that I’d help him do so but he says he’d prefer to read the hunting magazines he brought.

Again, I’m taken aback and, an instant later, a quotation flits across my mind but I don’t say it; “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”

So, I prepare the software for the next demonstration, he reads, and we fill the time in our own ways.

An hour later, the meeting is over and the three trickle back over a ten minute span.

“We’ve been re-organized but don’t know how that’s going to affect us.”

Two hours late, we start chapter 6.

Doing a mental calculation between explaining concepts on the slides I figure a half-day has been lost with late arrivals, the meeting, and such. We now need to finish a four day class in three.

Well, I think to myself, maybe it’s good they’re not asking too many questions.

“Oh, by the way,” Mr. Senior announces, “I’m leaving at three today when my vacation starts.”

Ground Fog - Day 4

RealTime Novice is pushing buttons when I arrive. Mr. Senior is, of course, gone as of three o’clock yesterday and HereTodayGoneTomorrow was, well, here on day one but pretty much gone thereafter. And The Expert and Co-Op have yet to appear this morning. I wonder if they’re going to show up at all.

“I’m almost finished with the labs,” RealTime Novice reports. “These are cool!”

“Glad you think so,” I say. “Seeing how things work and being able to explore like this is a great way to figure things out.”

I’m encouraged by his enthusiasm.

The Expert arrives at our scheduled start time but there’s no Co-Op yet. Again, we engage in small talk for a few minutes before Co-Op arrives.

We start our last day with lecture scheduled for the morning and labs, for those who wish to stay, in the afternoon.

At mid-morning, RealTime Novice gets a cell phone call and has to leave. There’s a problem at the day-care center and it has to be handled now.

“I won’t be back,” he says and is gone.

We carry on and, just before lunch as they had hoped, we finish the lecture material but only by agreeing to move all remaining labs to the afternoon.

The Expert leaves immediately with, “Thanks!”

It’s just me and Co-Op who is continuing the labs.

He’s wearing socks today.

I look over his shoulder. He’s about two-thirds of the way through the lab book but, then again, because the labs can be done in any order, it’s hard to say what he has finished.

Regardless, he’s making things work and seeing the system behave accordingly.

OK, I think, let him work.

I go back to my computer to do an experiment suggested in an earlier class.

Fifteen minutes later … no kidding, just fifteen minutes later, Co-Op bails.

“Have a Merry Christmas,” he says and is gone.

The classroom is empty.

I sit for a moment trying to put all the facts together to figure out what had happened. It’s been years since I’ve finished this class early much less early by a half day.

Really small classes do go faster than mid-sized ones. Bigger groups of eight to twelve are ideal and usually take the longest. In still larger classes, people hide in the crowd and don’t get out of their shells. But in really small classes of a handful or less, each person feels very exposed. So they hunker down hard to hide and avoid notice. We try to draw them out but, with that small a group, it’s just hard to get through the shells sometimes. At some point you just have to accept what you get and move on to the next page in the lecture. There’s only so many hours, you know, and all those pages have to be projected and talked about.

This class was unusually small. No more than four were present at any one time. And with the changing faces, my “drawing out” efforts came at the wrong time for some, or were diluted by all the changes.

And even though late in the first day and then especially on the second my efforts had started to pay off, when “vacation time” hit and Mr. Senior abandoned the class, it was jarring. Those left behind pulled back into their personal thoughts and feelings. When that happened, I worked to bring them back into the material and get them thinking and asking questions again.

Still, Mr. Senior was gone and they weren’t. They were there and he wasn’t. It had to gnaw at them.

And then another “vacation time” abandonment hit. And then the “day care” preemption struck. Expert’s indifference of reading magazines during lab time didn’t help to inspire his juniors.

I had done my part. The equipment was ready and everything worked. The lectures were spot-on, the extra examples, special lecture content and demonstrations I added drilled deeply into the system and showed the key concepts. And I answered all their (few) questions. Nothing went lacking.

All in all, I could see that each of their individual decisions when faced with “sacrifice your personal time but not company time for training” had been the same.

They had been scheduled for training at a time that seemed to force them to sacrifice personal vacation, to give up family time.

The schedule that had been thrust upon them by the company seemed to be saying, “Company first!”

And to a man they had said, through their actions, just what they thought of that attitude.

Remember when the Personnel department in American companies was repurposed as Human Resources? I guess the company had thought that’s who they had sent to class this week, some of those “human resources.”

Well, those resources this week unanimously said that company-provided training that costs them their vacations isn’t valued. They’d rather keep their family time.

Companies rise and fall for a lot of reasons. Keeping good talent happy and productive is but one factor for succcess, but it is essential. And scheduling training in conflict with vacation time that cannot be rescheduled isn’t going to be appreciated. This is not how you keep good people.

Instead, this is how you breed negative and resentful attitudes.

A company can only live on its past successes for so long. When the talent goes, so does the future.

“Good luck, guys,” I said to the empty room.

Coming back to the here and how, it was time to pack the equipment for shipment to the next class. On the way out I would turn in the temporary badge and drive out the customer’s gate.

Maybe I can get an earlier flight home.

The break for Christmas and New Years will be nice.

Tomorrow is, indeed, another day.

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