Boot camps: Helping developers get in shape

Being a Visual Basic developer is somewhat akin to serving in the armed forces. While few developers have written code dangerous enough to put them in the line of fire, both careers require dedication, perseverance and an ongoing commitment to training.

To that end, intensive training seminars, or boot camps, have become popular over the past several years among developers looking to either catch up quickly on the latest VB release or cram for a comprehensive certification exam.

According to renowned Visual Basic developer and instructor Carl Franklin, boot camps caught on because the few books and magazines on the market during the early 1990s could not provide developers with the help they needed.

"There's so much information out there, so many different ways to approach a problem, that it's intimidating when you buy stacks and stacks of books," said Franklin. "Where do you know how to get the watered down version?"

THE FIRST "BOOT CAMP"

Franklin and others began teaching VB1 courses as early as 1991, but the first "boot camp" to gain notoriety was taught by Dan Mezick, CEO and founder of New Technology Solutions, Inc. in North Haven, Conn.

In 1993, Mezick was working as a consultant for another company and getting up to speed on the new features available in Visual Basic 3.

"VB3 had a report writer and an Access run-time database built in, data access objects, and it also had the programmatic access layer. It was pretty cool; the product took a huge quantum leap forward," said Mezick.

The company he was then working for offered a multiple day training class on VB3, but Mezick thought it could be taught more cheaply and quickly. He soon struck out on his own, labeling his classes "boot camps" - even patenting the name - because of their fast and furious nature.

"It was like a fire hose approach to content, very structured, ordered, but a very rapid pace," Mezick said. As newer versions of Visual Basic offered more features, the courses naturally grew longer.

"When VB4 came along, it had to be moved to two days because going from three to four was like going from a tricycle to a ten-speed," said Mezick. "It was very different. It had classes, and you could build DLLs."

He said Visual Basic was becoming widely popular among developers at that time, but the speed with which new versions were released was causing problems for developers who wanted to catch up.

"So basically when my seminar came along, we were getting calls from people who hadn't even seen our brochure. They were calling because their friends were telling them about it," Mezick said.

BOOT CAMPS TODAY

Most of today's boot camps take place over a week's worth of eight-hour days. Developers train with a master instructor who provides a combination of fast-paced instructions along with individual exercises and personal assistance to teach developers the fundamentals needed to meet their goals.

While some boot camps are designed specifically around certifications, others take a different approach. Franklin, who teaches a VB6 master class and also starting next month a VB.Net class, said his courses teach specific tasks and show developers how to learn on their own.

Jonathan Smith, president of TileScape LLC, an Easton, Conn.-based maker of graphics software for the tile and stone industries, had never had any formal Visual Basic instruction before he enrolled in one of Franklin's classes.

He said a few highlights included learning pointers on object-oriented programming, converting an EXE program to an ActiveX DLL, and applying that knowledge to a Web-based application. Smith said boot camp stimulated him to try to learn more on his own.

MAKING THE GRADE

Wave Technologies International, Inc. of Saint Louis, Mo. offers VB6 boot camps that are designed to help developers pass MCSD core exams.

Several weeks prior to attending the class, Wave's students are assigned an individual course of study to prepare them for the boot camp. Developers are also paired up with one of Wave's mentors or coaches who can offer assistance along the way.

According to Mike Smith, Wave's director of product marketing, the pre-training exercises ensure everyone has the same basic knowledge before they even arrive for class.

"People come from different backgrounds and experiences, so to start the program you're hooked up with someone that can offer extra help," said Smith. "On the first day of the boot camp, the instructor is ready to rock and roll."

During the five-day class, instructors prepare students for the certification exams with detailed lessons and practice problems. At the end of the week, students take both the 70-175 and 70-176 Microsoft Visual Basic exams and ideally go home certified, but Smith said the regimen is not recommended for everyone.

"We only let you in if you're ready," Smith said. "An ideal candidate has at least about six months of experience with Visual Basic. They're going to have a better leg up if they've dealt with COM on the job."

Mezick said the best candidates for his company's boot camp are professional developers, not necessarily VB developers, who are committed to life-long learning and are excited by the opportunities provided by software revisions.

BOOT CAMP & .NET

Whether or not boot camps will survive in the future remains to be seen though, as the latest edition of Visual Basic.Net is more comprehensive than ever. Some question if it is possible to teach the basics of .Net in a week's time.

"You would have to lecture for about seven business days to get through the whole product without exercising," said Mezick of .Net. "It's just not going to take. In fact, I don't even think pro developers are going to have an easy time with .Net."

However, Franklin said it is possible as long as the instructor prioritizes, focusing on concepts and framework rather than rushing through every aspect of .Net.

"They need to talk about it, write the code, make mistakes and get their questions answered. That's why I focus on objects and classes and n-tier stuff because it's clearly where people have to go," said Franklin. "That's why I don't try to hand people stuff they could easily look up later."

Mezick's New Technology Solutions offers classes for $1,796 per week, which includes e-mail support after the class. Wave's boot camp costs $3,990 for a week of training and also includes mentor support and pre-training. Franklin's courses cost $1,800 and $2,000 for VB6 and VB.Net respectively, and he also offers to throw in "geek snacks."

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Visit these SearchVB Best Web Links on training:
www.searchVB.com

Carl Franklin's Web site:
www.franklins.net

New Technology Solutions VB6 course:
www.vb-bootcamp.com

Wave Technologies VB6 Boot Camp:
www.wavetech.com

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