Being an IT trainer is like performing the bullet-catching trick

You’ll like this (but not a lot)

Tintin and Captain Haddock. Pic by Thibaut Démare, licensed under cc 2.0
Tintin and Captain Hipster, er, Haddock. Pic by Thibaut Démare, licensed under CC 2.0

Something for the Weekend, Sir? I’m on stage with a gun pointing at my heart. There is the sound of nervous shuffling as those sitting in the stalls squirm in their seats. Then silence: the audience quickly falls still and holds it breath. The man armed with the musket is raising the muzzle to take better aim before slowly squeezing the trigger…

He pauses. “Hang on,” he mutters, “I’ve got an idea.”

What? He’s ruining my bullet-catching act. It’s supposed to be the climax of an thrilling evening of astounding feats of prestidigitation, not a light-hearted moment of improv.

What’s so frustrating is that I took considerable pains to set all this up, what with the years of rehearsal, hiring all the Chinese acrobats and building a time machine so that I could travel back to 1918 just for this one-off performance. And now my invited member of the audience is cocking it up.

All he had to do was inspect the gun, a fake antique (with the emphasis on “fake”), help load it and fire one shot in front of a full house of paying spectators. All I have to do is stand dramatically at the other side of the stage and pretend to catch the bullet on a china plate. Simples.

Except the fellow coolly hands the old wooden-stocked gun back to one of my assistants, reaches into his coat and pulls out an Uzi sub-machine gun.

“Let’s try this instead,” he says.

Before I can point out to him that the Uzi won’t be invented for another 30 years, he has emptied the magazine in less than three seconds in the general direction of my plate.

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Luckily for me, I had the foresight to take a Swift MOOC a few months ago in which the course project just happened to involve writing a smartphone app to operate a time machine across Bluetooth. Yes, it seemed rather off-the-wall to me too at the time but it just goes to show there is no such thing as coincidence.

Besides, back in 1918, peer-to-peer was really the only way to go.

My quick-thinking in triggering the app just in time was simply the culmination of years of experience on the stage. Of course, what I mean by that is performing in front of other people. And what I mean by that is teaching training courses.

I love my trainees – or “delegates” as we’re supposed to call you, as if you have been somehow delegated to learn new skills on someone else’s behalf – but frequently I have to deal with unexpected turn of events. This can range from being asked to teach something entirely different from what had originally been requested (which can actually be a lot more fun than teaching the same old stuff) to calming down the deranged (which is not fun at all).

I could regale you with stories but won’t. Well, there was that occasion when, in front of a conference room of 30 production staff, a heckler with a broad Glaswegian accent suddenly shouted out: “This is a load of crap!”

Thankfully this was in the pre-LinkedIn era, otherwise I’d have earned Skills & Endorsements in Verbal Diarrhoea, Talking Crap and Spouting Bollocks.

I love them all just the same, not least because every delegate comes out the other end of my courses with new skills and higher earning potential. Even those who were angry and upset at having their professionalism questioned by the very fact of being sent on a training course will always come round in the end. Uncle Tam “what a load of crap” McVitie was particularly apologetic, I remember, and went on to achieve significant promotion at work.

But readers who have not experienced training from the trainer’s point of view may be surprised at how often we face the challenge of deliberate sabotage.

Imagine you are halfway through a morning session and a delegate informs you that the scroll wheel on his mouse is not working. You move across the room to help, only to discover that the delegate in question is inexplicably using a mouse you have never seen before.

You ask the delegate why he is using a different mouse. He tells you that he brought it in from his office because he prefers it. You point out that the reason the scroll wheel is not working is because his mouse does not have a scroll wheel.

Here’s another scenario: a delegate informs you that his mouse is not working at all. Sure enough, you can confirm that it’s not working. This is because it has been unplugged from the PC and the cable has been slung over a corner of the delegate’s monitor.

You ask the delegate why he has unplugged his mouse. He tells you that the cable was getting in the way.

Or there was that time when a senior executive booked a three-hour one-to-one session, delivered remotely across the Pacific via Citrix and video-conferencing, to preview a DAM system that we’d been customising for her company. Considerable effort had been expended in advance of the event, directing local support staff on how to install and test the system on a demo computer.

At the appropriate time – 4am in London – she breezed in to the remote boardroom and insisted that the entire demo be run on her own laptop that she’d brought in from home. Better still, it was a superslim ultra-portable with no Ethernet port, fuck-all memory and a half-arsed processor with less power than a twisted rubber band.

She would not be dissuaded.

The demo eventually began two and a half hours later. To be fair, two hours of that was taken up trying to retrieve her Windows password, with which she’d recently encrypted her hard disk before promptly forgetting what it was.

So you can imagine how unfazed I was that a member of my magic show audience should swap the supplied gaffed musket for his own Uzi. To be honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d decided to throw Bowie knives or use a chainsaw instead.

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Unceremoniously whisked away from a potentially gruesome fate on a post-Edwardian London stage and dumped back in 2016 by my time machine, I am reminded how much the city landscape has changed over the intervening 98 years. It seems the East-End music hall in which I had been performing was destroyed by the Hun long ago, and a rag-trade sweatshop business premises was built in its place.

Indeed, my worst fears are realised. In the present day, I find myself standing – still dressed in a shimmering sequinned mock-mandarin costume and holding a broken plate – in the middle of a distressed-chic startup office of thrusting incubated fintech wankers.

I have been returned to a cacophony of breakout sessions on sofas, the hissing of coffee machines and the smell of t-shirts that have been slept in. Someone is flailing around with a VR headset on. I can hear someone else being Rickrolled. A stray ping-pong ball bounces off my head.

Worst of all, there are beards everywhere. It’s like a Captain Haddock cosplay contest at a Geography teachers’ convention.

I swipe left and return to 1918. I think I’d rather face the bullets.

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He is currently working on an update to his time machine app in order to secure seed funding for commercial deployment. It turns out that Morlocks are all on Android.


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