Building a Training Program: Advice From an Employee Turned Teacher

Matthew Slasten
Oct. 5, 2018 by Matthew Slasten

In honor of World Teachers’ Day, we asked Matthew Slasten, our SPARK Training Program Lead to reflect on his experience leading learning and development at SparkPost.

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Three years ago, I remember sitting in an all-company meeting listening to a presentation about a new training program called SPARK.  I thought the training sounded interesting – it was an intensive two-week course split between San Francisco, CA and Columbia, MD, and taught employees all about our then new cloud offering, and required them to answer actual customer cases. Though it sounded interesting, I immediately dismissed the idea of participating. I was in Sales Operations, had no idea how our product even worked, and couldn’t imagine being away from my job for two weeks. Oh, and the whole idea of talking to real live customers…well, that was intimidating.

Fast forward two years and I’m now the SPARK Program Lead!

“Wait”, you’re asking yourself, “I must’ve missed something. Why are you being asked to lead this program?”

Well, simply put, a lot can change in two years. Within those two years, I made the jump from Sales Operations to Technical Support. I became the Team Lead for the west coast, and yes, I got over that fear of talking to real live customers. I also learned that email is so much more complicated than hitting “Send”.

So, back to being asked to take over the SPARK Program. By this point, I was pretty familiar with the format of the program – one employee participates every two weeks, they listen to product training sessions, they shadow the Technical Support team as we answer cases, and then they answer cases for themselves. Easy enough. But, as I continued talking with my manager, I realized that the ask wasn’t to continue the program in its current format; rather, the program needed to be completely revamped. What was once a two-week, relatively slow-paced training, now needed to be condensed into one week! Oh, and it was now going to be mandated by the Executive Management Team for all new hires as a way to introduce them to our product and company.

“Are you up for the challenge?” my manager asked me.

Without hesitation, I replied, “Definitely.”

So, why did I take over this program? Why did I want to add this to my ever-growing list of responsibilities? The answer is simple – I love training people and seeing the light bulb moment where everything makes sense. I’ve loved it since I was a tutor in high school and I still can’t imagine a more fulfilling opportunity.

That said, running a corporate training program turned out to be much more complicated than I originally thought. There is a lot of planning, a lot of “cat herding”, and a lot of change. But, after running this program for over a year and a half, I’ve got some advice for anybody reading this:

Expect the unexpected…or at least have a backup plan

Things will never go as expected and you have to be flexible enough to roll with it. You can plan all you want and have your schedule meticulously worked out, but at the end of the day, things happen. There have been programs where the guest speaker couldn’t make their session, there have been programs where presentations and applications wouldn’t load, and there have been programs where sessions were planned for 30 minutes and the presenter finished after 5. Depending on how you react to these unplanned events can make or break the program. It’s definitely understandable to be a little thrown off when things don’t go as planned, but having the ability to run someone else’s session, move the schedule around, or have a list of backup questions for each presenter really keeps the program flowing.

Allow others to offer constructive criticism and actually listen to it

I cannot tell you how many times I thought I had the schedule perfect or that we  “just had to have this session on webhooks” and then someone else offers their opinion. Just recently, we revamped the program again and I thought the schedule was perfect – we had a great mix of product presentations, hands-on exercises, guest sessions, and case review. I asked for my team’s opinions and the answers were, “Well that looks great, but don’t you think that maybe there’s too much technical information for new hires?” Of course, my first reaction was to dismiss the advice, but then as I reviewed it, I started to realize that I had to remember my audience. So, I updated the schedule, got the “ok” from my team, and could not have been happier with how everything turned out.

Embrace the unknown

As cliché as this sounds, you can’t be afraid of the unknown. If I’m 100% honest, I still get “butterflies” the night before and the morning of every new training program. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a planner and that I like to be in control of things. But at the end of the day, you don’t know what this new group of participants will be like, how they will react to the program, and if there will be any unexpected hiccups. And actually, it is this “unknown” that makes the SPARK program so much fun and so successful. Whether that “unknown” comes in the form of the “student” teaching the “teacher”, one of the participants asking a difficult question, or the participants working together to answer a customer for the first time – those moments are where the magic happens.

Overall, this last year and a half has taught me a lot and has been incredibly rewarding. I never thought I would be in the position of “teacher” and now here I am, the employee who immediately dismissed the idea of participating in a technical training program is talking about running that very same program.

So, to all of you out there who are teachers, trainers, and educators – thank you for all that you do. It is not an easy job, but one that is quite rewarding. And for all of you out there who may be interested in becoming a teacher, trainer, or educator – go for it! As I’ve always said, never shy away from a challenge.

-Matthew Slasten

Cloud Support Manager

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