A bunch of years ago, my boss asked me to train some users on a product called Results. Results is an end user reporting tool. It’s roughly analogous to SQL Server Reporting Service or Crystal. At the time, it was designed to run on green tubes (e.g. Wyse 50 terminal) connected to a Unix box via telnet.
My default answer to any question that starts with "Can you … " is "Yes" and that’s where all the trouble started.
The client was a chemical company out in southern California and had just about wrapped up a major ERP implementation based on QAD’s MFG/PRO. The implementation plan now called for training power end users on the Results product.
I wasn’t a big user of this tool and had certainly never trained anyone before. However, I had conducted a number of other training classes and was quick on my feet, so I was not too worried. Dennis, the real full-time Results instructor, had given me his training material. Looking back on it now, it’s really quite absurd. I didn’t know the product well, had never been formally trained on it and had certainly never taught it. What business did I have training anyone on it?
To complicate things logistically, I was asked to go and meet someone in Chicago as part of a pre-sales engagement along the way. The plan was to fly out of New Jersey, go to Chicago, meet for an hour with prospect and then continue on to California.
Well, I got to Chicago and the sales guy on my team had made some mistake and never confirmed the meeting. So, I showed up and the prospect wasn’t there. Awesome. I pack up and leave and continue on to CA. Somewhere during this process, I find out that the client is learning less than 24 hours before my arrival that "Paul Galvin" is teaching the class, not Dennis. The client loves Dennis. They want to know "who is this Paul Galvin person?" "Why should we trust him?" "Why should we pay for him?" Dennis obviously didn’t subscribe to my "give bad news early" philosophy. Awesome.
I arrive at the airport and for some incredibly stupid reason, I had checked my luggage. I made it to LAX but my luggage did not. For me, losing luggage is a lot like going through the seven stages of grief. Eventually I make it to the hotel, with no luggage, tired, hungry and wearing my (by now, very crumpled) business suit. It takes a long time to travel from Newark — to O’Hare — to a client — back to O’Hare — and finally to LAX.
I finally find myself sitting in the hotel room, munching on a snickers bar, exhausted and trying to drum up the energy to scan through the training material again so that I won’t look like a complete ass in front of the class. This was a bit of a low point for me at the time.
I woke up the next day, did my best to smooth out my suit so that I didn’t look like Willy Loman on a bad day and headed on over to the client. As is so often the case, in person she was nice, polite and very pleasant. This stood in stark contrast to her extremely angry emails/voicemails from the previous day. She leads me about 3 miles through building after building to a sectioned off area in a giant chemical warehouse where we will conduct the class for the next three days. The 15 or 20 students slowly assemble, most them still expecting Dennis.
I always start off my training classes by introducing myself, giving some background and writing my contact information on the white board. As I’m saying, "Good morning, my name is Paul Galvin", I write my name, email and phone number up on the white board in big letters so that everyone can see it clearly. I address the fact that I’m replacing Dennis and I assure them that I am a suitable replacement, etc. I have everyone briefly tell me their name and what they want to achieve out of the class so that I can tailor things to their specific requirements as I go along. The usual stuff.
We wrap that up and fire up the projector. I go to erase my contact info and … I had written it in permanent marker. I was so embarrassed. In my mind’s eye, it looked like this: There is this "Paul Galvin" person, last minute replacement for our beloved Dennis. He’s wearing a crumpled up business suit and unshaven. He has just written his name huge letters on our white board in permanent marker. What a sight!
It all ended happily, however. This was a chemical company, after all. A grizzled veteran employee pulled something off the shelf and, probably in violation of EPA regulations, cleared the board. I managed to stay 1/2 day ahead of the class throughout the course and they gave me a good review in the end. This cemented my "pinch hitter" reputation at my company. My luggage arrived the first day, so I was much more presentable days two and three.
As I was taking the red eye back home, I was contemplating "lessons learned". There was plenty to contemplate. Communication is key. Tell clients about changes in plan. Don’t ever check your luggage at the airport if you can possibly avoid it. Bring spare "stuff" in case you do check your luggage and it doens’t make it. I think the most important lesson I learned, however, was this: always test a marker in the lower left-hand corner of a white board before writing, in huge letters, "Paul Galvin".