The increasing speed of technological development means that if your skills stand still, you'll quickly fall behind. Mark Penfold takes a look at how best to keep yourself ahead of the competition.
Professional software training is all about boosting your efficiency quickly and effectively. It can provide you with essential skills to improve your workflow, attract new clients, or even just beef up your CV. But it's an expensive game, so it's only really worthwhile if you know you're going to get the most out of it. That means understanding what's on offer.
How will I know?
Anyone considering this type of training should have identified a skills gap before going on to think about the course itself. George Snow of 3D3 World runs a range of software courses from Maya and Photoshop to Flash, all from his converted Tuscan villa.
"If the student knows what he wants from a course," he explains, "that will inform the teaching staff and ensure that he gets value from the time and money invested."
There are two basic approaches to determining the need for training: reactive and pro-active. Responding to a perceived skills shortfall by reading up on the relevant software will be the most familiar scenario for many. Sandip Bhathal is a marketing executive at Sphinx IT distributors: "I could ask my colleagues for help with programs such as Dreamweaver," she says, "but I knew I could do things a lot better."
Bhathal underwent training at Symbiosis and returned to work with new HTML, Photoshop and Flash skills. She was immediately more comfortable with her work: "You know yourself when you've got the hang of things, because you can just come back to the office and get on with it," she says, adding that, "The little books they gave me to take away have become like my bibles."
This highlights the questions surrounding the quality of course materials and after-sales support.
Meanwhile, the pro-active school believes, like most training firms, that it's best to be prepared before the cracks in your knowledge show up. As Highlander's managing director Andy Gardiner puts it: "The most successful organisations have a strong investment in training." Employers must be aware of technological developments and keep abreast of them, acquiring skills that could improve your work.
Won't books do?
The obvious alternative to expensive training is to pick up a textbook that covers your subject and get stuck in. And indeed for many this is a viable option; particularly as the range and quality of titles dealing with creative software continues to expand. However, not everyone is suited to self-teaching: "I'm a 'show me' type of person," admits Bhatal. Some people need the interaction provided by classroom teaching to learn.
"It's all about people," says Macromedia's Ian Turner. Yes, the quality of instructor will, of course, be of primary concern, but not to be overlooked is the chance to interact with other designers. "Being in a room with a number of like-minded people gives you a chance to interact with other users and learn from them too," says Turner.
"The big problem with learning from books is that you have to follow the instructions to the letter and not miss out a sentence," says Snow, highlighting a need for interactivity. "With a teacher, you analyse the problem together and come up with an alternative."
Once you've established your needs and have decided you can't go it alone, the next thing is to ensure your course ticks all the right boxes; that it covers all the key areas in a way you're happy with. According to Tidalfire's Louise Scott, "Not every company publishes a course outline, but it's essential that you agree with a training provider what the training will be before you confirm. Otherwise, how can you complain if you didn't get what you paid for?"
As Turner points out, "One person's easy could be another's advanced." He also goes on to say that this type of discrepancy is particularly evident among the self-taught, as never using an objective yardstick makes it hard to judge your own level. The message is clear: "Do plenty of research. There's a huge [Macromedia] community out there. All you have to do is ask for advice on a forum."
And this is true for virtually every major software package.
This is the big one, particularly if you're using a course to improve your employment profile. Most courses will supply you with a certificate of attendance, but even the trainers are willing to admit that, in most cases, these prove little more than your ability to turn up.
Tom Jeffs teaches Photoshop skills at Metro New Media: "The problem is that there's no system to distinguish between a £50 evening class and a full-time course in a group of four." This dilemma makes selling these courses on your CV a bit difficult. "My advice is to 'big it up' as much as possible," says Jeffs. Good advice, but this would only be a problem if you haven't already put the skills you learned into practice.
Highlander is an exception. Andy Gardiner describes his courses as good prep for sitting the Adobe and Macromedia-certified user courses: "If a trainer is confident in their courses," he says, "they should bill them as leading to certification."
Gardiner has a point, but only if certification is your reason for attending the course in the first place. For most delegates, the question becomes more one of whether your course and its tutor are sanctioned by the developer itself. This is easy to establish. All the major manufacturers maintain up-to-date lists of their training partners, usually online.
Class of your own
Once you've decided that the school is suitably qualifi ed and your tutor makes the grade, check the facilities and materials. As Tidal Fire's Louise Scott says, "You have to make sure all the equipment is up to date and every student has their own machine."
This advice may seem obvious, but if you're paying £500 for a two-day course, your equipment must be up to scratch. Today's graphics applications are incredibly memory intensive and on a 3D course, for example, your machine's RAM complement could determine the success of your learning experience. So check the standard of equipment, presentation materials and technology.
Class sizes vary from between three and 15, depending on level and institution. Generally, though, the higher the level, the smaller the numbers. As Tom Jeffs of London's Metro New Media says, "Avoid big groups. If you're paying £50 for a course, you might as well buy a multimedia CD as you're not going to get much time with the tutor."
Mind the skills gap
Media Training Northwest (MTNW) was set up primarily as an industry body designed to resolve a perceived skills gap in the broadcast, film and multimedia industries of the North West. "The problem isn't regional," says chief executive Lynne McCadden. "The problem is inherent in the rapidly changing nature of the industry."
With sponsors including the BBC, ITV and Cosgrove Hall Films, MTNW is attempting to give the creative industry the training boost it needs to fulfil its economic potential. "Employers often complain that the students they take on just aren't job ready," says McCadden.
There are many reasons for this, not least the cost of providing cutting-edge hardware and software, which makes this type of training provision difficult, even for universities. But the trouble doesn't stop there. "In terms of training providers, the South East is pretty well catered for, but there just isn't the supply elsewhere," says McCadden. MTNW has sent its trainees, sponsored by up to 70 per cent, to attend courses in London.
So MTNW plans to source funding from the likes of Skillset and use the money, in partnership with industry, to deliver the kind of training that is currently so lacking. Jon Wetherall's games company, Onteca, has been collaborating with MTNW in an attempt to develop a new generation of technically capable games developers. "Some employers are good about training. Codemasters, for example, gives new recruits a six month introduction to bring them up to speed." But, says Wetherall, "The majority of companies just don't have the resources for that, so training needs to happen elsewhere."
Even though the creative industries have an almost insatiable need for new skills, getting access to quality training is difficult and expensive. For those not backed by an employer, the challenge is to hunt down a good but inexpensive school or to get funding from organisations such as Skillset or MTNW. But neither option is particularly straightforward.
Even for the professional, it seems, there's plenty of learning to do before you set foot in the classroom. Clear objectives are obviously a priority. But then you need to find a course that matches your needs exactly - and ensure the reality measures up.