Virtual Training Experiment Report: Lessons Learned

Back in August, I called for volunteers to help me experiment with online training. Many folks expressed interest in what I’m trying to do. So I thought I’d write a little status report.

First, let me summarize what I’m trying to accomplish.

Over the years I have received several inquiries asking if I have online versions of my instructor-led testing classes available. I always say “no.” That’s because my classes are interactive, collaborative, and experiential. Participants don’t just do exercises. They take on roles in simulations, play with toys, work in small groups on realistic testing problems, and generate ideas in big group brainstorms. A typical webinar structure doesn’t even come close to supporting that style of training.

But these days virtual collaboration solutions do much more than just let a presenter display slides and talk. So I began to wonder…maybe the technology is finally ready to support the kind of training I do?

I started by defining what I would really need in a virtual classroom, given that I want my online classes to feel as interactive and spontaneous as in real-space. And that means the following:

  • Supports at least 6 and preferably 10 or more people connecting from around the world.
  • Supports Firefox and Mac seamlessly. (IE-only solutions need not apply.)
  • Has integrated VoIP so there’s no phone line needed, and no need to make international phone calls.
  • Has integrated video that allows participants to see each other, all at once, in realtime.
  • Allows for multiple simultaneous speakers so the conversation can flow at least as smoothly as on a telephone call (no “pass the microphone” metaphor).
  • Allows participants to drive a shared browser so they can collaborate on web-based exercises, such as testing a web app.
  • Allows participants to capture their individual insights and contribute ideas in a shared workspace, visible to all, in text and drawings.

And of course the performance and reliability has to be at an acceptable level. I don’t know how to quantify what constitutes “acceptable.” But I do know that every time I have to say “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. The sound dropped out. Could you repeat what you said?” I’m going to get progressively grumpier. Ultimately my intent would be to offer commercial public classes online, and I can’t ask people to pay for classes when they can only hear 50% of the conversation.

So to figure out if the technology was ready for prime time, I held a series experiments. Many were small, involving just me and one other person. Two were larger experiments with six and five people respectively (including me).

The results were mixed. I’m still cautiously optimistic, but not completely convinced the technology is ready for this kind of usage.

In each of the two big experiments – held on two different virtual meeting solutions – the sequence of events was remarkably similar:

  1. Got everyone connected. That involved a lot of rounds of “Can you hear me now?” and “I can’t see you!” and “How do I…?”
  2. Discovered that the VoIP audio was flaking out, and took steps to throttle back on the video bandwidth in an attempt to correct the problem.
  3. Did a round of introductions.
  4. Did an online version of a short exercise that I use in real classroom settings.
  5. Debriefed the exercise.
  6. Debriefed the overall experience.

So far, the lessons I’ve learned include…

Have Two Machines
As the meeting leader, I find it incredibly useful to be logged into the meeting twice, once as Host, and once as a normal participant. This ensures that I see what the participants see. And it gives me a safety net so that if one machine is experiencing technical difficulties, I have another way to connect with participants.

The Webcams Are Important
When I started this process, I wondered if webcams were actually necessary or if they were gold-plating. I discovered that the webcams are essential to create the kind of collaborative atmosphere I want to create. As one of the participants in the first experiment put it: being able to see the other people created a bond. Amazing how a 1″x1″ 1-frame-per-second-stop-motion-animation of a person contributes so much to forging a connection.

Let Participants Type
In the first experiment I ran with other people, I did the same things I do in a classroom setting. So when I shared the web page with the exercise we were going to work through together as a group, I drove, just as I would if I were projecting the exercise onto a screen at the front of the room. And when we debriefed the exercise, I typed. Finally one of the participants said, “Wait a minute…we all have keyboards, so why are you the only one typing?” Doh! Of course! That’s why the whiteboard is a shared resource: so everyone can contribute insights without having me act as a scribe. It’s why I wanted a shared collaborative space to begin with. Silly me! I was too accustomed to the physical constraints of laptops and projectors and pens and flipcharts.

So I made the participants type more in the second experiment, and I think the results were better. (Not perfect, but better.) I will continue to find ways to ensure all participants have the opportunity to drive and type. I think that this is actually one way in which a virtual venue could be MORE effective than a real classroom.

Watch the Momentum
In the real world when I run extended exercises, the participants tend to have a fair amount of momentum. My problem usually isn’t keeping the participants engaged in the work, but getting them to stop. In a virtual context, I have observed that the discussion seems to grind to a halt much more easily. I’m not sure why yet. But it’s something I need to watch and find ways to address.

Keep the Group Small
Initially I thought I might be able to handle groups of up to a dozen people in a virtual setting. Now I’m thinking eight. It takes more effort and attention than I’d originally imagined to ensure that everyone is participating and engaged, to keep track of who’s saying what, and to monitor the technology to make sure all is well. Also, I think there are still issues with scaling the number of participants, and even eight might push the limits of the technology too much. Maybe six is the right number.

Moving forward, I need to:

  • Make the whole experience smoother. That means I need to become much more familiar with all the options and controls so everything is second nature (no more “Now where was that menu option…?”). I think that some of the awkwardness the group felt in the sessions had more to do with my blunders than with real limitations in the technology. So I need to spend more time rehearsing.
  • Hold a separate one-on-one session with each participant to check their audio and visual and practice the mechanics of using the technology in advance of the actual session. And that means developing a set of good and preferably relevant-to-the-topic Getting Started one-on-one exercises.
  • Experiment with different exercise structures to see if some are better for keeping the momentum going than others. Also experiment with overall course structures. My in-person classes have a blend of individual, small group, and big group work, but emphasize working in groups. I suspect the optimal balance for online training is different. So I plan to experiment with incorporating more self-paced individual work done in preparation for the interactive online sessions.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, I have to decide how much (more) time and money I want to invest in this endeavor. To do that, I need two vital pieces of information:

  1. Can the technology really and truly do what I need it to do? My experiments to date have been promising but inconclusive. So in the next few weeks I’ll be running one more big experiment to test performance and audio/video quality with more people. If you’re interested in participating, watch this space for details…
  2. Will anyone pay money for it if I can make it work? So far I’ve been much more focused on the question “Is it possible?” than on the question “Does anyone want it?” But I need to assess interest. And you can help. If you would be interested in seeing my company offer online experiential training as a for-pay service, drop a note in the comments or send me an email. (No obligation. No sales person will call. I will not add you to my mail list unless you ask me to. Your feedback just helps me decide if there’s enough public interest to pursue this.)

Oh, and if you have additional questions or comments, feel free to drop a note in the comments about those too!

New Look (Beta)

I spoke too soon. Last night, I wrote:

I think I’ve tested it. I think I’ve fixed all the (sufficiently important) bugs. But that’s just me wearing my developer hat saying “It works on my machine.” If you happen to notice any problems with the new WordPress theme, I’d be most grateful if you could let me know. Oh, and you can let me know if you like it too. Thanks!

Within minutes of posting that, I realized that the graphics were jaggy and ugly on a PC. Hmph. So I pulled down the new look and the “New Look” post, and went to bed grumbling about ugly PCs vs. beautiful Macs.

Depending on your perspective, I either pulled it down too fast, or not fast enough. By the time I pulled it, Google had already indexed it, and feed readers all over had already gotten the new post via RSS. But when folks went to the site, they got the old look, and no sign of the “New Look (Beta)” post. Confusing to say the least.

But if I’d done things differently, I wouldn’t have gotten Zach’s hilarious email this morning chronicling his adventures trying to find the mysterious “New Look” post.

Anyway…

What I suspect (um, hope) you all don’t know is that I spent a fair amount of time last night fixing functional problems with the site through the tried-and-true, but oh-so-cowboy, process of take-it-live, find-the-fatal-error, take-it-down, fix, and repeat. So by the time I posted the “New Look (Beta)” message I had already solved numerous very real problems and just wanted to be done.

Bugs showing up in production that didn’t show up in the development and test configuration? How could that be?

In trying to create a development and test environment on my local network, I downloaded WordPress and installed it on my Mac. And I then used the Default theme as a starting place. You see, I don’t actually know PHP, and am relatively unskilled at WordPress theme creation. So starting with something that works well, then tweaking it until I got the look I wanted, seemed like a good way to go. (Some of you may be thinking, “Wow, this site looks nothing like the default.” Behold the power of CSS. That, and I learned an awful lot over the last couple of days about how WordPress works. But I digress.)

When I took the new theme live for the first time last night, I discovered my fatal error. The version of WordPress on my local machine is 2.3.1. The version of WordPress installed by my host, GoDaddy, is 2.0.4. And the new theme was incompatible with the version 2.0.4 of WordPress. I got fatal errors all over the place.

So at this point (about 10PM my time), I decided to do something that I would never do if this had been a real software project with real consequences. I decided the fastest way to get from broken to working would be to:

  1. Look at the live site to get the error message.
  2. Change back to the old theme while I worked to fix the bug.
  3. Grep the local files to figure out where the offending code was coming from.
  4. Fix each instance of offending code and test locally.
  5. Upload the fixes.
  6. Change the presentation to the new theme and go back to step 1. Repeat till done.

Cowboy, yes. But it worked. Within 15 minutes I’d fixed all the fatal errors and the site was actually functioning. Like I said: not recommended for real projects, but this is my blog, not a mission critical web app. And it would have taken me at least an hour to downgrade my local WordPress instance and do this the proper way. I didn’t have an hour.

After all that, I was so proud that it worked, I overconfidently posted the “New Look (Beta)” message. And only then did I finally got around to looking at the new site on a PC. In retrospect, that was the wrong order to do those things in. In any case, looking at the new design on a PC was just depressing, and I’d had enough for one night.

This morning, I figured out that although Macs make scaled-down images look nice in a browser, PCs don’t. I’d taken a shortcut and rather than resizing the images properly as I tweaked the design, I just used the WIDTH and HEIGHT attributes in the IMG tag to change their size. The result was that the images looked oh-so-1985 jaggy on a PC.

This whole experience underscores the importance of cross-browser and cross-functional testing before taking a site live. I knew that. Really I did. But I ignored it because my local network just isn’t set up to make this kind of thing easy. I knew it would be a little bit of a hassle to get a PC to surf to WordPress hosted on my Mac, and I couldn’t be bothered. I was overconfident about my ability to create designs that work cross-browser and cross-platform. And I was willing to take the risk if I was wrong. Mostly, I was just being impatient. I wanted to get the new look live before I went to bed, and I was tired and wanted to sleep.

These are all really bad reasons not to test. But then this is why I develop my own websites instead of outsourcing the effort. I need these reminders of how easy it is to choose to do the wrong thing for bad – but legitimate sounding at the time – reasons.

You see, I hear “we can’t do that kind of testing because it’s too hard” from my clients on a regular basis. And it would be too easy for me to become all judgmental and say “it’s not that hard; you’re just lazy.” But I can’t say that because I make the same dang mistakes in my own development. So instead of grumbling about lazy developers, I say “I know it’s hard. But it’s important. So instead of telling me that it can’t be done, please tell me what it would take to make it more feasible, and we’ll work on that.”

Oh, and for the record I’ve now set up my Mac and PC so I can surf to the test site running on the Mac from the PC easily. (Mostly that involved adding entries to the hosts file on the PC.) Still haven’t downgraded my local WordPress instance, but I will before I do any more serious theme development. Next time will be different. But since I tend to do these big site redesigns about once a year, next time is also a long way off.

Unless y’all absolutely hate the new look. So tell me what you think…

Normal is in the Eye of the Beholder

SomeSt. Stephens Basiclica in Budapest months ago, I was sitting at a table in Budapest at an outdoor cafe staring at this beautiful building, St. Stephen’s Basilica, enjoying a morning cappuccino in peace. I liked the view so much, I preserved it in this photo.

My quiet contemplation was interrupted by a herd of British travelers arriving at the cafe.

I understand that Americans have a world-wide reputation for being loud tourists. I try not to perpetuate the stereotype. (I probably fail by local standards wherever I go. We’re loud here. I’m sorry.) In any case, this particular group of Brits proved that Americans don’t have an exclusive lock on the loud thing.

One of the Brits cornered the waitress. “Excuse me!” he shouted. “Do you have NORMAL coffee?”

The waitress looked puzzled. She was the same waitress who had taken my order so I knew that her English was very good. I suspected that her puzzled expression was not due to a language comprehension problem.

“You know. NORMAL!” he shouted even louder, as though increased volume would lead to increased comprehension. “None of that FOAMY stuff. NORMAL BREWED COFFEE. DO YOU HAVE IT?”

The waitress nodded her assent and made a note. She continued on to the next person in the group. I tuned them out and returned to studying the basilica.

A few minutes later, my thoughts were interrupted again by Mr. Loud Guy shouting, “THAT’S NOT NORMAL! I ASKED YOU IF YOU HAD NORMAL COFFEE! AND THAT’S NOT NORMAL!” He stood up and threw his napkin down in disgust, then stormed off hollering over his shoulder “DON’T YOU GUYS PAY FOR THAT! THAT’S NOT WHAT I ORDERED!”

Silence descended as the remaining Brits swiveled their heads in unison to watch their compatriot’s dramatic exit. After a few moments, one commented to another: “Why didn’t he just order an Americano?” (For those who aren’t coffee addicts like me, an Americano is an espresso with added hot water and is the closest thing you’ll find to brewed coffee at an espresso bar that doesn’t have a drip coffee maker.) The others laughed a little at Mr. Loud Guy’s expense. Then conversation resumed at the usual volume.

Apparently, the waitress and Mr. Loud Guy had two different definitions of “normal.” I suspect that the waitress brought coffee that was “normal” for her frame of reference. I didn’t see what was inside the cup, but I’ll bet it was an espresso.

But to Mr. Loud Guy, “normal” meant something entirely different.

While I don’t really know what’s “normal” coffee in England, in the US “normal” coffee is weak stuff. It’s colored water with a little coffee flavoring. It’s dreadful. I learned back in 2001 that one of the great things about Europe is that even the bad coffee is good. The coffee in hotel lobbies in the US is tastes like burnt dish water. By contrast, the coffee in hotel lobbies in Europe is actually pretty good. The coffee in cafes is even better. So, different frame of reference; different interpretations of “normal.”

The whole interchange left me thinking: how often do we have similar miscommunications in software development? (“Excuse me! Don’t you have a NORMAL API? None of this WEB SERVICES stuff. You know, a NORMAL API?!?”)

Hmmm…

Why I Love Scrivener

So I’ve been a little stuck in my writing lately. And that’s a problem. After all, I’ve got like 4 books worth of material stewing around in my brain, and I’d really like to get all those random thoughts down in words and sections and chapters and bound into actual books. It’s about time. Seriously. I can’t go to a conference without someone asking me “How’s that book coming? The one you were working on like 7 years ago?”

(For those who are keeping track: the book Bug Hunting will never see the light of day – it had a couple good chapters and the rest was cr*p; the book I was writing with Jerry Weinberg on testing is now Jerry’s book; any other books I may have mentioned in passing are pure speculation. While I have failed utterly at authoring or co-authoring any books, I have succeeded at contributing to other people’s books. You’ll find my words in Roundtable on Project Management edited by James Bullock and Jerry Weinberg, Visual Basic for Testers by Mary Sweeney, Windows Development Power Tools by James Avery and Jim Holmes, and most recently The Art of Agile Development by Jim Shore and Shane Warden. So it’s about time for me to figure out how to produce a book of my own. But I digress.)

Now I don’t think my problem is laziness or busy-ness or even classic writers block. Rather, every time I sat down to write anything of substance – anything longer than an email or a blog post – I felt the insistent tug of excessive friction. My writing tools were not working for me. They were working against me. And I found myself fighting them too much. So I decided that what I really needed was a new and better writing tool. Something that would work the way I work and think. Something that wouldn’t get in my way. Something that was not Microsoft Word.

Now I’ve tried a lot of editors over the years. I’ve tried plain old text editors and fancy WYSIWYG editors and mind mapping tools and even Google’s online editors. Of all of them, Google’s stuff fit my style best. I like it’s simplicity, the ease with which I can share drafts with reviewers and collaborators, and the tagging mechanism for documents. I used that last feature for organizing snippets of prose. But the biggest downside is that it doesn’t work so well for me on an airplane (given that it’s a web-based editor and all). And even if it did, it has some annoying glitchy-ness in simple editing functions (like weirdness with Undo) that just gets in the way.

For writing prose, my needs are simple. I don’t need a whole lot of formatting options just for getting words out. I need to be able to organize snippets of prose (as in Jerry Weinberg’s fieldstone writing method), I need to be able to look at all my related text in one place, and the solution has to scale to book size. The need for both organizing bite-sized bits and seeing the whole thing is why Google Docs came closest to my needs. Other solutions excelled at one side of the equation and failed utterly at the other. Mind Manager is great for dealing with little nuggets, but doesn’t let me see everything all together easily. So the result is highly fragmented writing. By contrast, Word lets me see all my prose in one place, but its outliner is just awful and let’s not even talk about scaling up to book size with the whole Master Document feature. Ugh!

So my latest find, the thing I’m trying now, is Scrivener. I’m not sure yet if it will really fit my style. And I haven’t tested it to see if it scales. So it’s too early to tell if I’ve found my writing tool of choice. But even though I had 29 days left on the evaluation, and even though I don’t yet know if it will really work for me, I bought it anyway. Why? Because the company that makes it took extra pains to make it work with subversion.

Yup, taking extra care to make sure a writing tool works with a source control system is enough reason for me to proclaim my love for them on the Internet and give the company money.

Those of you who caught my recent posting about my ability to make Keynote melt down know how annoyed I was that Keynote did not work with subversion. And another consultant I told about the experience commented “Well, that’s a non-starter isn’t it? Not working with subversion. Hmph. <snort>.”

Well Scrivener got it right. Even though Scrivener uses a similar Mac-trick to Keynote by making their “file” actually be a directory, Scrivener does not blow away the crucial .svn files needed for subversion to work. I know because I tested it. In short, Literature and Latte, Scrivener’s publisher, understood that version control is a crucial part of a professional’s workflow. They paid attention. And I love them for that.

Now – will the rest of the features help me write more? The storyboard feature looks really cool. The whole screen editing feature is great at removing distractions. But only time will tell if Scrivener and I can achieve a productive mind meld. I’ll let you know when I have a book draft done. And no, I won’t tell you what book I’m working on. I have an amazing track record of not delivering on pre-announced book titles, so the only thing I’ll admit to is that I have a book in the works. And I’ll talk about it after I’ve managed to write a whole first draft.

I'm baaaack…

After almost a month on the road, I’m back in my office for a little while. This week I’ll be catching up on paperwork. (I’m really behind in my invoicing – and yes, that is a very bad thing for a business owner to get behind in. So if you’re expecting an invoice from me, you’ll be getting it this week.)

And, perhaps of greater interest to those who follow this blog, this week I’ll also be working on that virtual training project. And also working on an Agile transformations class with Dale Emery.

I also plan to blog a bit. I took some fun pictures in China that I plan to share.

More news soon.