Conference-hosting a novel training of thought

While the New Year again sees training providers offer a multitude of courses, one local software house has taken a novel approach to getting access to what it considers the best field experts in the world.

Like many small Australian developers, Sydney-based Talman battles an increasingly competitive market.

The wool industry specialist has been in business nearly 30 years, and accredits much of its longevity to the constant training of its (just under 30) staff.

"We've always been committed to putting a certain amount of money aside for training," managing director Peter Metcalf said.

Talman established the wool industry's first EDI network for brokers and buyers, and is a heavy user of Microsoft's Visual FoxPro tool.

Being an advanced user of a niche tool, however, means the company looks beyond the expertise offered by most training providers.

"We want to go to the highly-advanced level, but those [training] skills are not here in Australia," Metcalf said.

They are available overseas, he said, but at a cost most Australian developers cannot afford.

"It's just not practical for us to get 14 developers to the US for [Microsoft developer conference] Devcon," Metcalf said, citing time and travel costs.

Then the company hit upon the idea of hosting Sydney's resurrected FoxPro user group conference.

The conference was without an organizer and Talman leapt at the chance to stage the event late last year.

Talman approached the conference as a staff training exercise, and lured Microsoft's FoxPro development team from the US.

"We pay to bring them out," Metcalf said.

"I guess our approach is, if Mohammed won't go to the mountain then you bring the mountain to Mohammed.

"There's obviously significant benefit for the company (Microsoft), but it certainly didn't throw massive amounts of cash at us."

The three-day conference takes about 300 hours to organize, and at times can require up to six Talman staff.

"[The conference] is not a money-making exercise," Metcalf said. "It's more about networking. It's a chance to meet other developers."

"We were able to learn a lot of tips by looking at the actual software code developed by the speakers, as opposed to the sometimes very simple, clinical examples of a training syllabus," Talman CTO Craig Bailey said.

And the relationships that evolve allows Talman to stay in contact with the US development team throughout the year.

"Basically we have a hotline to them now!" Metcalf said.

Hosting the conference also meant Talman had some control over its agenda, and could focus the event on critical product issues.

"One subject that we raised, and which is ongoing, was whether Visual FoxPro will still be in the Microsoft camp in future," Metcalf said, "and Microsoft was adamant it will."

Talman claims the conference gives staff a 30 to 50 percent productivity improvement in their work, which they couldn't have gained from a standard provider.

Accordingly, hosting a conference for training purposes could be immensely rewarding, Metcalf said, but companies considering doing so must be sure they're capable.

"The company has to be stable to take on a community of users."

Oz Fox 2005 will run later this year, and Metcalf said the company is looking to expand the conference to Melbourne.

"We're very focused on keeping it alive."

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