Learning SharePoint at USPJA. Part 1: A Change in Learning Paradigms and Why Learning is Hard

Since I began thinking seriously about USPJA back in December 2009, I’ve been struggling to convince people what the idea behind USPJA is. Well, it’s about teaching SharePoint, certainly, but what makes us different from what everyone else does?

I saw a video today, and I’ll show you that in a moment, but before I do, I would just like to attempt to explain the ideas I had.

First of all, I strongly believe that traditional learning methods used in schools and universities around the world are fundamentally wrong. I never attended school myself, or rather, I attended but never completed anything. In fact, I’ve attended cooking school and music school, as well as a programming college-level school (a school who later hired me as teacher), and an online US college on eBusiness management.

None of these schools, I believe, have taught me a considerable amount of practical skills.

I am fairly certain that if diagnosed as a kid today, I’d be put on Ritalin as an ADHD child. I never was, nor have I become in later years, able to concentrate on a single task for very long.

That’s why today, I have two monitors on my workstation in addition to a laptop, and I actively work on at least three different OS’es at any given time; my workstation for browsing, email, and business stuff, my authoring VM set up to host my creative efforts (books, videos, presentations, journals, etc.), plus my ‘social’ VM where I do interaction like Skype, the odd game, and shady stuff where I need to protect my other VMs (testing browser plugins, evaluating system software, and similar stuff is about as shady as I get, though).

Can you imagine, with my attention span, the agony of sitting in a classroom learning for hours about stuff that really doesn’t interest you? To me it was like sitting for a week intensively watching grass grow, only to learn that yes, grass grows, it is green, and in five minutes, I’ll have forgotten all about this.

I have no idea about you, though. You may be the best student at any school you attend and love the stuff I hate. You may also hate the stuff I love. It doesn’t make you or me better than the other, it just makes us different.

So, when I started to think about USPJA, I wanted something that would cater to those differences. I have absolutely no idea how you best learn. You may be like me or you may be the complete opposite. In fact, I believe that if I were to force the students at the academy to learn the way I learn, well, at least half of the students would not learn anything.

The first philosophy of USPJA is to teach on the students’ terms.

I can’t, nor do I believe anyone can, set up a training program that will make you an efficient learner. Personally, I would and do hang around in the library, reading books, watching videos, read lectures, and consume new information at my own pace. Perhaps I’d do the odd self-paced course in a particular subject, but frankly, I don’t have the endurance to sit through an entire course on a single topic. For that, my mind wanders too quickly to how I can utilize this new knowledge which often leads me to completely different areas of SharePoint.

Others, I know, really need the structure and semi-fixed tracks that collaborative classes, lead by a facilitator, provides. Perhaps they need not just that single track even, but a fully planned series of courses that will give them a predictable set of skills at the end. For these people, sitting down and gaining random knowledge leads nowhere, and they quickly lose motivation.

You, or anyone else, may be a combination of these opposites, or you may be your entirely unique type of learner.

If our learning is to be efficient, we need to have content and learning methods for all of these types and any combination thereof.

Let me point out two things I believe are wrong with traditional class room learning.

Traditional class room training forces all students to adopt the same content. It doesn’t matter if it is a ‘Learn SharePoint Development in a week’ courses offered by training centers or if it is traditional schools and colleges.

This uniformity is perfectly OK if you want a set of skills that are similar among all of the attendees. However, especially for SharePoint, creativity and independence is key. SharePoint isn’t suitable for conveyor belt manufacture, so teaching everyone the same skills doesn’t make sense, at least not to me.

Second, and somewhat related, people learn in different ways, as I have elaborated before. For some, learning in a class room setting means they have the predictability they need, but for others, sitting in that class room is boring and uninspiring, regardless of the topic taught. The presenter can be as skilled as Chuck Norris, but the form of learning simply doesn’t fit everyone.

SharePoint isn’t about production, it is about adaptability, and education in SharePoint needs to be modeled after that.

The major problem then is that the training offered caters only to those who prefer that specific knowledge delivered in that particular way.

Try getting a traditional course provider to tell you: Here’s everything you need to learn SharePoint, regardless of how you want to learn, when you want to learn, and what you want to learn, and it will cost you around 500 bucks per month.

I’m going to mention the features of USPJA now, not because I want to promote the academy, but also to show you what I mean about providing training on students’ terms.

First of all, everything at the academy happens asynchronously. There’s no bell that rings students into class. There’s no lunch break, Christmas holiday, Sunday’s closed, or anything like that. As I often say in interviews with students, it’s always 2 a.m. somewhere, so forcing students to be in front of their computers at specific times makes no sense. We do break this rule occasionally, but always make sure recordings are available afterwards, and participation is never required.

Further, there is no specific amount of time you must spend in a class. Traditionally, a class would last for anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes. Bollocks! I say. If you grasp the material in 30 minutes, why should you be delayed by everyone else? If you need three hours to fully understand a topic, why should we cut you off after one hour?

We have the traditional collaborative classes. Students work as a group, in some cases even sub-groups, towards a common learning goal. They help each other out and thus exposing each other to knowledge that each individual student may not learn individually. A SharePoint expert faculty member oversees the progress and points students in the right directions if they get lost. This is perfect for those students who lean towards the traditional classroom training.

Then there are self-paced courses. These courses allow students to work independently of anyone else and cover only the material they feel are necessary to learn. No assignments to submit, no deadlines to meet, but also no team to back you up. Some people, like me, don’t have the attention span to dedicate myself to a single topic over several weeks, and the self-paced courses caters to those.

We also have an extensive and continuously growing library. Our main challenge there is finding better ways of finding content, but we’re working on it. Students can pick up the books, articles, videos, webcasts, journal issues, and presentations from any class or course from the library to create their own ála carte training menu. In addition, there is a ton of material not covered in courses, but serve as deeper dives into selected topics. This feature allows students to dive deeper into any topic the learn through other means, whether that is through collaborative classes, self-paced courses, or out-of-school activities.

We also invite SharePoint superstars to hold lectures or webinars on their favorite topics. This allows students to gain knowledge from proven experts with field experience. This interaction is not just valuable to students, but also to faculty members, who are frequent attendees in these webinars. We also utilize our own faculty members because, after all, they are also highly skilled experts. All lectures are recorded as well so students can later revisit these lectures to refresh their skills.

Then we have ‘the playground’ where all rules are off. The USPJA Labs allow students to safely experiment and learn without having to invest in costly hardware or spend hours reinstalling their VMs just to test a new piece of software. Students can even share their labs between each other to facilitate even more collaboration.

All of this is possible because we adopt the college or university way of learning; that of primarily doing research rather than being fed the answers to predetermined questions. No, we don’t have individual teachers for each student who can instruct the students individually, at least not all the time. Students are explained what they should learn and given the tools that may help them learn, but we don’t sit down and create recipes for specific tasks that the student should memorize.

Here comes the ‘Hard’ part: This may not be for you. If what you want is a traditional classroom where you can sit for eight hours a day, five days in a row, and learn how to perform the tasks listed in a book, then we may not be the right place for you.

Even if you adopt the way of learning that we provide, it may still take some time getting used to the freedom and responsibility you are offered. If you are used to the class room, force fed approach, then you’ll probably need some time getting used to having to do most of the research on your own. You may find yourself lost at times, or you may be surprised at the amount of work it actually takes. All of these things may make the USPJA model hard for you.

However, I strongly believe that when you’ve embraced the freedom and accepted the responsibility, that you’ll find learning a lot more pleasant than what you may be used to from school, and if nothing else, allows you to learn on your terms and not terms dictated by someone else.

Oh, and I promised you that video. Here it is:

RSA Animate–Changing Education

.b

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Court Update: ErgoGroup Admits I’m Right!

So, I’ve been to court, and thought it would make sense to update everyone on what happened. I’m sure you’ll find the former articles adequate reading if you need to update yourself on the history.

By the way, I really, really, really appreciate all the support I’ve gotten, both on Twitter, in emails, and in comments. Keep it coming!

Our meeting today was in a settlement court, or conciliation board, in which the primary goal is to reach a settlement. As I predicted, the negotiations were short. As I explained earlier, I have tried offering ErgoGroup a ‘get our of jail free’ card, and they didn’t bite. In fact, in their written response to the court, they still claimed they owed me nothing, as per the elusive standard bonus terms.

So, imagine my surprise when ErgoGroup, when given a chance to address the judges, plainly and in no uncertain terms, said that everything I claimed in the lawsuit was correct.

Yeah, there’s still this one single thing they don’t admit, and that’s basically how to add numbers together, but beyond that, they simply said I was right in everything. Despite writing to the court that everything I said was wrong.

Go figure.

The main issue now, according to ErgoGroup, is how to calculate the bonus. So if you’ll please bear with me for a couple of paragraphs, I’ll explain where the matter stands right now. I’ll clearly state where we are in disagreement, so, at least if their testimony today was correct, we agree on anything that’s not explicitly stated as contested.

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When I signed on, I said I would need a salary per year of 1 million NOK (about 150K US dollars). Yeah, that’s high, but I knew I would generate at least three times that in revenue for them, so it would be easy money.

ErgoGroup couldn’t give me that sum in a fixed salary so they gave me approximately 100K US dollars as a fixed salary and I would be given a bonus, which, for the simplicity of calculation, would be approximately 40% of anything above 2,54 times my base salary (let’s call this the bonus base). That may be a bit complex math, so let me illustrate with an example.

I my base salary is 1 million NOK then my bonus base would be 2,54 million NOK. If I billed clients 3 million, I would get 40% of the difference between 2,54 million and 3 million (460K NOK), or approximately 30K, as a bonus in addition to my fixed salary.

If you would like a more accurate calculation for October for example, my billed amount was (or should have been) 310K NOK. My base salary was 55K NOK per month, times 2,54 gives a bonus base of ~140K NOK, meaning I should get 40% of 310K minus 140K, or 68K NOK in bonus. Plus my base salary,I should have gotten 123K NOK for October. As I mentioned, I got no bonus at all, so just the base salary of 55K NOK.

Each month I would send a simple spreadsheet to my boss with my calculations of my bonus for the previous month, along with a request to have a part of that bonus paid out. I based the numbers I sent on the billing amount from the invoicing system, even though I argued that these numbers were lower that the ‘real’ billable numbers. ErgoGroup admitted in court today that when doing their versions of the calculations, they even increased the billable amounts I had used. I think that was a nice gesture, so thank you for that.

So far, we agree on everything. Surprisingly.

However, and this is the contested bit, what ErgoGroup claims now was that this was never intended to be paid or even calculated per month but rather per year. I still haven’t figured out exactly how they do their calculations, but somehow, they end up claiming they owe me roughly 40K NOK. My claim was that when adding the bonus I should have gotten each month, I should have gotten 111K NOK.

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Here’s another curiosity. December contains Christmas here in Norway, and despite the Christmas week being a regular work week, mostly, ErgoGroup forces employees to not work that week. Because we don’t work, we don’t bill clients, and because we don’t bill clients, the bonus we get for December is ridiculously low. In my case, however, I begged one of my clients to allow me to work during Christmas, and they agreed, so I did actually exceed by bonus base, despite the accident my father-in-law had.

Back to today’s court case.

The settlement court can now make one of two decisions. They can say that this matter is too complex for them to rule and defer the case to an upper court, the district court. If they do, the do so within two weeks from now.

The other option is for the court to rule in either party’s favor, in which case they will rule within four weeks.

Regardless of what happens, I strongly suspect that I will need to face ErgoGroup again in the district court. If I lose, I will definitely appeal to the district court. if ErgoGroup loses, I strongly suspect that they will appeal to the district court. If the court defers the case, I need to bring it before the district court.

The only case in which we will not meet in district court now is if ErgoGroup loses and admits defeat. I doubt that will happen, though, considering they had that chance several weeks ago (the offer of ‘get out of jail free, remember), with much better terms than a ruling in court will give them.

So, within two weeks I know if there will be a ruling, and within four weeks I’ll know if I am right in my lawsuit.

Thanks again for all your support.

.b

PS: ErgoGroups lawyer felt the need to ask the judges if they could silence my blogging about what had been said in court, to which the judges said, more or less, ‘what happens in here is public knowledge, or at least will be’, before mentioning that they had read or at least knew about my blog.

At least that part was funny Smile

PPS: As always, I invite and strongly encourage ErgoGroup to post both comments or even extensive statements about their side of the case. Email me your statements and I’ll post them both verbatim and translated. Silence isn’t always golden, you know. It can also be pitch black and lonely.

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Court Today: Why ErgoGroup Will Lose, No Matter What

As I have mentioned earlier in my constant nagging about why ErgoGroup sucks, today is the day when I meet ErgoGroup in court. In case you can’t be bothered to read the entire thing, the short story is that they screwed me for close to 60% of my salary and claimed that if I quit I wasn’t entitled to that money. Of course, they only told me that after I quit.

So, today we face off in a legal battle, facilitated by my insanely skilled lawyer, to once and for all to determine whether they are right in changing the rules of the game after they have lost. I’ll let you in on a secret, though and show you why ErgoGroup will lose that case, no matter what.

You see, the elusive standard terms that ErgoGroup presented to me only after I quit mentions that if ErgoGroup as a company makes less than a certain amount of profit, then no employees get bonuses at all. Let’s look a bit closer at what that means.

First of all, the payment that an employee gets depends on ErgoGroup not screwing up. For many employees, like myself, the bonus is a large part of our salary, so basically, we’re betting that ErgoGroup doesn’t fumble something up. If they do, we can kiss our payment goodbye, at least a large portion of it.

This is called risk. It is a risk that employees with the bonus model are forced to accept.

However, there is no upside to taking this risk. There’s no clause that says that if ErgoGroup makes a truckload of money, then all employees get an added bonus.

The only possible outcomes is that you either get what they promise you or you get nothing.

Did I mention that you have no choice about whether to accept this risk?

This closely resembles what political discourse calls “privatizing profits and socializing losses”. If the company earns billions, the owners get the benefit while the employees only get what they’ve been promised, but if the company doesn’t (or in this case only makes millions) then the employees bears the burden and loses their salaries.

The second thing is what I wrote in parenthesis above. If ErgoGroup only makes a few million dollars each year, the employees still doesn’t get their full salaries. The profits of the company needs to exceed a certain number of millions dollars, not just be profitable.

If I were a business owner with these terms, I’d make damn sure the company was profitable only by just enough so that I didn’t need to pay the employees.

It should be good news, to employees at least, that ErgoGroup reported increased earnings in Q2 of 2010. I would be happy too, were I an employee, at least as long as the millions kept rolling in past the magic ‘no pay’ barrier. I was a bit surprised to read then that despite reporting increased profits, their real reported numbers showed a loss in ErgoGroup for Q2 (Norwegian only, but check out page 10, I’m sure you can understand that numbers in parenthesis are losses, not profits).

The explanation is that ErgoGroup is merging with another IT giant in Norway, and there are additional expenses in Q2 related to that merger, and actually for the rest of the year, that are one-time effects, expected to generate increased profit margins in the future.

Of course, that doesn’t help the employees who risks losing their entire bonus this year. It does, however, make sense from ErgoGroup’s perspective. After all, tuning their results to end up just below the no-pay barrier means saving millions and millions in bonus payments. Please note that I don’t think ErgoGroup would do such a thing on purpose, but it does show the ridiculous terms they force employees to accept, taking all the risk without any possible upside.

Because I am a gentle and loving soul, I’ll explain to you, and ErgoGroup, why this entire idea is completely bonkers. Also, it should show potential investors why the company would go into a death spiral if profits approach the magic no-pay barrier.

People like me love work. I work my ass off, rarely working less than 15 hours each day, including weekends. That would mean, if I still worked for ErgoGroup, that I’d be bringing in a ton of money. Heck, in October of the year I worked for them, I clocked in 310 hours of work, which, if billed properly, would give the company over 60,000.00 US dollars.

Note: By the terms on which I accepted the job, I would get 40% of that, or 24K US dollars. I ended up getting roughly 8K, or 33% of what I was promised.

Now, if the company is not doing so well, and who is these days, then there is a huge risk that the company as a whole won’t make the famous number of million dollars in profit, aka the magic no-pay barrier. For me, that means that I won’t get paid for the additional time I put into the company. I love work, but I also love my wife, and if forced to chose between funding my job or staying at home with my wife, well, all other things being equal, I have to admit, I don’t love work that much.

The effect is that, when the company goes badly, employees may feel that the reward for working long hours and helping out is not worth it. Considering there is no reward or even basic salary, I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

Thus, the company loses further valuable income, worsening the situation even more.

Back to the risk and why ErgoGroup will lose no matter the outcome of the court case.

If, by chance, the court rules that presenting the terms of an agreement after the agreement has ended is the right way to conduct business, well, two things will happen. First, the entire legal system of Norway will collapse, and second, I will be forced to accept the standard terms.

You may think that’s bad. I don’t. At least not the second part.

You see, in Norway, there’s an established precedence that taking risks should come with a chance of reward. It is even codified in several laws, including our vacation laws. In the terms that ErgoGroup presented, there is no such reward, but by the deities, there is the risk.

I plan to challenge that if I’m held to the terms. Not just that, but if the ‘forced risk, forgo reward’ terms are found illegal, it affects not just me, but every employee in ErgoGroup that are subject to these terms. In effect, that means that thousands of contracts in ErgoGroup have been illegal all along, and I’m sure you can imagine the legal nightmare that may cause.

Even worse, they may need to renegotiate all their contracts and perhaps end up having to settle with all employees and compensate them for the risk they have been taking for many years, without any chance of reward.

So, if I win, ErgoGroup must pay me. If I lose, ErgoGroup must pay everyone. Or at least risk it.

Did I mention I have an insanely skilled lawyer?

Good luck today, ErgoGroup. You have already lost, so you’ll need it.

.b

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