Unpleasant Flashbacks: Bad Employers Edition

By | May 6, 2022


I had a random flashback just now to an unpleasant memory.

From late 1995 to May of 1998, I worked for a franchised computer software training firm in the Triangle region of North Carolina (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill). We offered the kind of instructor-led classroom instruction that you sent your office staff to in order to learn how to do mail merges in Word or learn Excel fundamentals or what have you.

We also had Microsoft certified training courses for higher-end technical people — Windows NT 3.51 and 4.0 stuff, mainly. Each of these courses had an exam that participants could take and if they passed enough of them and in the right combinations they could earn various certifications, MCSE (“Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer”) and so on. The irksome thing, though, is that some of the Microsoft server products we offered certified training on simply didn’t work. They had either been rushed to market, or insufficiently tested, or both.

I once spent the better part of a weekend working from the office, trying to get a Microsoft Systems Management Server install to actually function properly and push software out to workstations on the network. Try as I might, it just didn’t work. I even wiped the server and workstations, reinstalled NT 4.0 from scratch on the server and Windows 95 on the workstations, installed SMS, went through the configuration steps very very very carefully, and … zilch.

This was before the ubiquity of the Internet. Nowadays if a software company pushed out a piece of crap like that, the Internet would light up with technical articles saying “don’t waste your money on SMS, it doesn’t work.” But back then, we had no such place to look to — and Microsoft, of course, swore up and down that the software worked when they installed it.

So there I was that following Monday trying to teach SMS installation and configuration to five or six IT staff from various local companies, sweating bullets, praying like crazy that when we did the setup exercises in class that it would miraculously work. It didn’t. I looked like a complete fool.

Why didn’t I cancel or reschedule? Why did I wait until the weekend before the training to play around with the software?

My firm was all about the money. Rescheduling was just not done. Giving instructors adequate lead time to prepare for a class? Completely unnecessary. Employing salespeople who would say and do anything to make a buck, even if we couldn’t deliver on what they sold? Par for the course.

Our salespeople would sell ‘season tickets’ to allow a customer to take any and all of our classes for a set period of time for one overall price, a good deal in theory… but they would sell them to people WHO DID NOT OWN COMPUTERS. When the students turned in terrible ratings for the instructors because they (the students) literally had no idea what was going on and could not comprehend what the software was doing, we trainers were the ones held responsible.

The closest I came to being fired was when one of our salespeople sold one of those season passes to his computer-less mother, who, after a day of taking Intermediate PowerPoint (without ever having had Basic PowerPoint, Windows Fundamentals, or ANYTHING), went to him and told him she’d learned nothing.

On another occasion, I was told (on a ‘prep’ day where I wasn’t scheduled to teach) that I had to go into a room full of students RIGHT THEN and train them on QuarkXPress for the Mac. I knew QuarkXPress for the PC and would in any event have just worked my way through the student participant guide one exercise at a time, but that turned out to be irrelevant. Turns out that we had never paid for copies of QuarkXPress for the Mac and it had not been installed on the computers in the classroom. (I had to apologize profusely to the participants and tell them we would refund their money.)

This nonsense was somehow, again, my fault. I finally got through to our owners what had happened and they did a facepalm, but they did not turn around and discipline the training manager for that location, the guy who had so utterly failed to have his act together, scheduling a class we could not actually deliver and allowing the salespeople to sell seats in it. Unfortunately, this sort of idiocy happened much more often than you would expect.

So as for that SMS class — I’d been notified on a Tuesday that I would be teaching it the following Monday. Naively, I assumed that the software would work if I just carefully followed setup instructions and that I would hide my relative unfamiliarity with the product with my usual mix of confidence and BS. (This got me through a lot of nightmares over the years.)

Uh, nope. None of the participants could get theirs to work. Neither could I.

So why did I stay at that company?

Well, I was one of the very few people who could actually cope with the craziness without just running out of the building screaming; I was a good trainer and students did give me high ratings and I actually could go in and deliver classes on software I’d actually never prepped on or used. It helped that I am a very fast reader and could take in the gist of a topic and the exercise steps in the participant guide in a few seconds before turning to the students and saying “Okay, our next topic is…” People never knew I was seeing the software for the first time.

Also, I was paid pretty well. The owner knew I could do things that no one else could do and would do my best to be professional even in the craziest circumstances, and my reimbursement reflected that.

I managed to survive there for almost two and a half years before moving to Vermont and getting a job with a real, actual, professional software firm that wasn’t staffed by a bunch of former used car salesmen. Only one other trainer had lasted as long; with the exception of the two of us, no one else ever lasted more than five or six months.

Dénouement: A couple of years after moving to Vermont — sometime around the year 2000 — I got a voice mail message from the owners of that terrible computer training firm. Either they were looking to open a Vermont branch or they knew some other franchiser who was (it was not entirely clear which), and in any event, they wanted me to come work for them.

That was one phone call I did not return.

Leave a comment!