Garth Gilmour: How Instil's training has survived in 2020

  • Photo: Garth teaching at KotlinConf 2018

    Sync NI spoke with Garth Gilmour, Head of Learning at Belfast-based tech firm Instil, which delivers transformational software products and learning experiences.

    We spoke to Garth about Instil’s training transition into a virtual service as a result of adjusting to the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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    Can you tell us about yourself, Instil and what you were doing before the lockdown?

    I manage the training and services team at Instil. We provide custom training courses and workshops, present at conferences, consult on emerging technologies and help organise local developer events. Prior to the lockdown it was looking to be a good year for us, with several ongoing engagements agreed and six conference bookings spread out over the year.

    It must have been quite a shock then to be thrown out of the classroom?

    Absolutely. Many years ago, I was advised that a consultant is never scared, only intrigued. So I will admit that the Instil training team was very, very intrigued in March. We had spent over a decade building up a reputation for on-site, classroom based, bespoke training. But suddenly the rug was pulled from underneath us.

    Was the rest of the company as affected?

    The development side of the business was very aware they were facing a period of deep uncertainty. But as many of the teams were already working for remote clients and/or as part of larger distributed projects there was a sense of confidence that the business could adapt. They were facing a crisis but not an existential one. This disparity did not go unnoticed. The developers in general and our CEO in particular made it clear they had our back for as long as the disruption lasted. Which I will always be grateful for.

    Where did the inspiration come from to ‘go virtual’?

    From a number of sources. Partially from looking at what the development teams were doing, partially from looking at experiments we ourselves had done over the years, but mostly from accepting the new reality instead of fighting it. We sat down and asked ourselves how we would best mitigate the negative effects of going remote and came up with a three-pronged approach. This was firstly to have two instructors on each delivery (one as a trainer as one as a coach), secondly to modularise the courseware into ever smaller increments and thirdly to take advantage of emerging tools for distributed coding like JetBrains Space.

    Garth with fellow Instil trainer, Eamonn Boyle

    Has the experience made you a believer in Virtual Training?

    I’m certainly less sceptical than I used to be. At the end of the day nothing replaces a fellow human being sitting down beside you, working through the problem in ten different ways till the topic makes sense. Tooling can mitigate the psychological distance but never remove it. That being said, virtual events have some unique advantages. For example, a big barrier to successful training has always been issues with scheduling and logistics. A thousand inconveniences can prevent the right people assembling in the classroom at the right time to receive the training. With virtual deliveries it’s much easier for the organisers to bring everyone together and for students to fit focused study time into their days. That's a win for everyone.

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    Have other training providers followed your example?

    Some seem to be embarked on a process of parallel evolution. Others have decided to move solely into e-learning. A few have given up on services work altogether and gone back into development for the foreseeable future.

    Were you tempted to go down the e-learning route?

    Assuming you mean online training without any active participation by an instructor, then not at all. It’s not for what we do, especially at the level at which we do it. I’ve always believed in two core principles when it comes to training. Firstly training is about the instructor finding the explanation that makes sense to you, even if that would never work for anyone else. Secondly the job of the trainer is not to be the ultimate authority on everything, but to be a guide who leads you down the path faster than you could go yourself. Ultimately I don’t think e-learning by itself can ever fill these needs. But it has its uses, and there are sweet spots where it excels. We’re certainly discussing ways in which we can better offer disconnected learning, i.e. allow students to explore a limited domain on their own whilst retaining the ability to jump in whenever required.

    You mentioned JetBrains Space. What’s that?

    Space is an umbrella tool for software projects. It provides the ability to manage chat channels, blogs, code reviews and standard Git repositories. All within a single integrated web-based user interface. Fortuitously it was announced in late 2019 at KotlinConf, and we were there to talk to the original developers. As we were a JetBrains Education partner we were able to reach an agreement where we could create an instance on behalf of the client for each delivery, ensuring all the benefits with no privacy concerns. This has proved tremendously helpful.

    Going back to March, was your new approach an immediate success?

    Not quite. We had worked out what we wanted to do by early April, and had started to modularise our courseware. But we still had to get the word out and then convince our customer base that the approach would work. In many ways it was like starting in business from scratch all over again. Unsurprisingly clients were dubious that virtual training would remain effective and that the money was being well spent. It took about three months to prove our worth and bring business back to where it had been before.

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    So, you are back to normal again?

    Very much so. In fact, in some ways even better. The software industry is very aware that their usual processes for coaching and mentoring are under a lot of strain, especially when onboarding new staff or retraining existing teams. So we’ve seen an increased volume of work there. Plus we can now compete worldwide for business, with distance no longer the disqualification it would have been before.

    Do you have any advice for anyone in the same position?

    I wouldn’t be that presumptuous. Every situation is unique and we were far luckier than most, even if that wasn’t immediately apparent. What I personally have found helpful is always to bear in mind the Zen aphorism that ‘the obstacle is the path’ - don’t try to deny the reality of the situation but instead survey how the landscape has shifted and where the new opportunities are. Far easier said than done of course. The most important thing is to remember that you’re working through a pandemic and can only do what you can while you can. It’s more important to take care of yourself and each other than to beat yourself up over lost opportunities. Work within the limits of the possible and then go play with your kids.

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    Garth gave up full time development back in 1999 to first teach C++ to C coders, then Java to C++ coders, then C# to Java coders and now teaches everything to everybody, but prefers to work in Kotlin. He is the author of over 20 courses, speaks frequently at meet-ups, presents at conferences both National and International and co-organises the Belfast BASH series of developer events and the recently formed Kotlin Belfast User Group.

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