Technical training is often created by people with technical expertise but little knowledge of teaching and adult learning. At times it seems as if it is put together for the convenience of scheduling and management with little regard for how successful it might be at imparting useful knowledge to the student.  Checking off the “training” milestone in Microsoft Project based on mere attendance doesn’t mean anyone will be more productive because they’ve learned something useful. For example, training for a large and complex tool suite, such as an RTL-to-GDSII system, might be delivered in one long marathon week-long or two-week long “boot camp,” as was until recently the case at Magma Design Automation. Magma’s Boot Camp started out as a means of getting new employees up to speed on the overall system, but since no other training was available, there was quite naturally pressure from the sales force to immediately satisfy customer demands for training by putting customers into the same class. This system persisted for almost ten years. There’s nothing inherently wrong with combined training for customers and new employees, but a two week marathon is not a good model for training ASIC customer engineers, even though it may be acceptable for new applications engineers. One reason is the saturation factor. There’s a marvelous “Far Side” cartoon showing a classroom of children, and one little boy with a small head raises his hand and declares, “Mr. Jones, my brain is full!” This is what will happen to most adults by the third or fourth day of sitting in a classroom all day. Any further lecture is likely to go in one ear and out the other. Also, even if one were able to absorb two consecutive weeks worth of material, and any one person were given responsibility for the entire design flow, design cycles are so long that by the time the end of the cycle rolled around the material from the end of the class would be long forgotten. The best way to deliver this training is in small modules, available as needed during the design flow. Of course, this goes against all possibility of scheduling such classes to satisfy everyone, which is why EDA training needs to go on-line.

There are various forms of on-line training, from e-learning (material posted on-line, often including multimedia content) to virtual (led by a remote instructor using a product such as WebEx) with other options in between, such as e-learning with chat, IM, or e-mail support from an instructor. Surprisingly, technical training in the EDA world is behind the curve in transitioning from instructor-led classroom training to on-line. One reason for this may be up-front costs for the development of training material that has an inherently short shelf-life in that much of the material is rendered obsolete by the next release. There is also the fact that the volume of students is rather low from the perspective of amortizing the cost of servers and software to support an e-learning infrastructure.

One solution to the short shelf-life issue is to make the material highly modular. The smaller each module, the less likely it is to be rendered obsolete by any given update, and the easier it is to update when it does become obsolete.

One solution to the infrastructure expense is to reduce features to a minimum, and do it yourself. Another solution is to find other corporate departments that can benefit from a commercially purchased Learning Management System (LMS).

The most successful on-line EDA training venture I’ve been involved with was at LSI Logic. With a two engineer training department, we not only translated the instructor-led material to on-line, I created the infrastructure almost by myself. It was based on a large Perl script controlled by CSV files that directed the selection of standardized files. The files were formatted by other subroutines in the Perl script to construct standard-format web pages that included lab instructions as well as links to recorded  lectures associated with PowerPoint slides using an inexpensive commercial program. Creating or updating a module consisted of recording the lecture from the PowerPoint files (which could be done extemporaneously by one of the two of us or another SME), editing simple HTML files, and creating or updating a spreadsheet entry and saving the file as CSV.

Another barrier to e-learning in any industry is the perception that management will be sufficiently short-sighted to believe that once the material is available over the web, the training department becomes superfluous, forgetting that the material still has to be maintained and updated, not to mention the fact that a poorly designed curriculum will inhibit learning no matter what the delivery system. Other than educating management, I have no solution to this dilemma.