Moving from in-person delivery to online, virtual training pays off for everyone: customers, providers, and stakeholders, even (or especially) during a pandemic. An excellent example of this is the recent initiative involving the implementation of a virtual training platform by a load testing and performance testing innovator. It turns out the payoff depended less on the answer to “does virtual delivery work?” than it does on understanding “how well does the chosen virtual platform support what is needed?”

In this article, I report what I learned about this initiative in a recent conversation with executives who led the effort: the reasons for it, the challenges they met while making the shift from in-person to online, and the payoffs.

I interviewed Bill Nicholson, VP of Customer Success in North America for Neotys, and David Hand, VP for Orasi. Neotys provides load testing and performance testing for web and mobile applications. It has nearly 15 years of development in its performance testing platform, NeoLoad, which is designed to accelerate Agile and DevOps processes. Orasi is a DevSecOps innovator enabling the acceleration, security, and adoption of software applications through automation, offering solutions and services for full lifecycle support and integration to ensure confident delivery of transformative applications. Orasi is also the maker of OrasiLabs (“the train anyone, anywhere, anytime cloud-based hands-on learning platform”).

Neotys implemented OrasiLabs as the virtual platform for its customer training. The result of the initiative has been to provide Neotys with a flexible, scalable, hands-on virtual learning experience that Nicholson says enabled Neotys to increase revenue and to deliver training to customers, teams and partners worldwide.

Why did Neotys change delivery platforms?

Bill Nicholson: We teach our applications. We were more of a traditional training shop. Up until about two years ago, we were a GUI-based product. We had some other stuff with it, but it was a fairly straightforward product. That changed. Neotys started to go web-based with a lot of our product line with an API direct-driven approach as well, so the complexity has doubled in terms of what we need to teach the students. That meant having consistency with a platform so that each student would have the same thing to start with—so that they weren’t using different browsers, ones on Mac, ones on Windows, you know, that type of thing.

We would do onsite training for three to four eight-hour days, which worked out well until COVID. We tried to initiate a lot of online training, but to do eight hours a day with Zoom ... Plus Zoom didn’t really give us the flexibility of a student-instructor type of platform, so it was very difficult when we had to switch to have (one) person show their screen and our training program just took a major hit. We weren’t really able to sell the online component, which didn’t make sense with the way everything’s online now.

So we wanted the flexibility to broaden our training program around a five-day, half-day package that would be easier for the customer. We were only able to do that because we have this student-teacher interaction where we can deliver the course, watch what the students are doing, and help manage the students if they have an issue with certain things. Beyond that, it was the ability to have a platform approach, meaning every student has the same lab, the same hardware and software as every other student. One of the complexities of the other training program, the three- or four-day intense one, was to get onsite, everyone’s using their own laptops, and there’s major connectivity issues in it. It would take like half the day on the first day to fix that. OrasiLabs has allowed us the flexibility of just diving right into the class from the minute it starts. Everyone starts at the same exact baseline, and there’s no issues from that perspective.

What about collaboration? How does collaborative training provide better engagement and retention than traditional training?

David Hand: One of the challenges, and Bill can probably attest to this one, if you’re in-person, the instructor can walk around the room, especially doing product training. We’re focused on hands-on product training like Bill just described. So for us, it was how do we get as close to that in-person classroom experience as we could, but do that virtually? And that required us to create something called an over-the-shoulder view. That’s a particular feature of our product which allows the instructor to see each student in real time, where they’re at on that particular exercise while they’re doing hands-on activity; the student can then ask for help if they want to. The instructor can go in, unlock that student’s machine, help them get through whatever problem or move them along in the exercise, without affecting the rest of the class. The rest of the class can still be doing their work. That is very similar to what it would be like in an in-person experience where the instructor can walk around the classroom, look over a student’s shoulder, see their desktop, and help them individually while the rest of the students are continuing on with their work. Being able to deliver that in a virtual way so that you can still have that student-instructor interaction was the core tenet of why we built OrasiLabs.

The collaboration is between the instructor and the individual student. Let’s say Bill has online classes that are about 10 people, give or take, at a time. The instructor can see all 10 students simultaneously and what they are doing. And it’s real time, the instructor can see if a student’s stuck. Or if a student happens to be off browsing the web, or if they’re not engaged, or if they haven’t even turned on their machine yet, that kind of thing. And yet there’s the element of being able to interact with that single student, if you need to.

Who are the students?

Bill Nicholson: They’re kind of all over the board. Mainly they’re engineers, sometimes we get business analysts, sometimes we get developers. I’m not ranking them by any means. They are people who are now tasked with doing performance testing of their applications, mainly browser-based, to validate that their environment can handle the stress and load of whatever the requirement i— maybe it’s Black Friday, Cyber Monday, some big marketing event, a whole host of things. They are tasked with doing performance testing with the NeoLoad tool, and we train them how to do that.

How is a virtual learning lab different from what we might call traditional training?

David Hand: There are different kinds of “traditional”—traditional physical, in-person, traditional LMS, video, PowerPoint. There are certain aspects of training that lend themselves well to LMS-style training, where you want to do PowerPoints and videos, and those typically are things associated with HR compliance training for example: Did all my employees get their security training? What that LMS didn't necessarily provide is what Bill’s doing for his customers: He needs to train people from all over the world and he needs them to get hands-on with the product; hands-on a keyboard is the only real effective way to train them in a product scenario. And therefore, what Bill’s hope is that, hey, they adopt our software, therefore they’re happier, and then therefore they renew or buy more at the end of the day. That’s what Bill and training providers and software companies care about.

The challenge right now is that it’s almost impossible to go in-person because of the COVID restrictions. The risk of people getting COVID is just too high. Additionally, if you look at it from a classroom setup perspective, the number of computers that are involved, the fact that people have to travel potentially to a particular location, by its nature the cost of physical training is higher, not to mention the time you’re taking people away from their desks.

Bill Nicholson: From my perspective, when we’re delivering training to the larger companies, large retail chains, big energy companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, we’re looking at the T&E to get the instructors there, to fly people in to take the training. For the online lab, we’re trying to cap the class size at about 12, but in person, we’d be up to like 20 because it’s advantageous to the customer, but it is so much more difficult now to do the in-person training.

Time and expense savings, engagement and retention all show up in the return on investment.

What were you looking to gain from the change to the virtual format?

David Hand: Besides the last things Bill mentioned (time and expenses) virtual training gives Bill the ability, even with COVID, to expand his training worldwide—France, India, the United States—and not have to send anybody there physically. His best instructors can sit in their offices in Boston and train the resources in India that need to get trained right. Distance isn’t a barrier anymore.

Bill Nicholson: I think there’s two big ones. I mentioned these earlier, but I can’t stress this enough. The first one is having every single student use the exact same hardware and browser. Some people love Internet Explorer, some like Chrome, some like Firefox, and they all work differently. With the larger customers, you have security challenges, which means that browsers are locked down so students can’t add something; the Orasi Labs platform took all of that pain and struggle out of the equation.

The other was from the lack of cohesiveness between the students and the instructor, where if there was a problem with a particular individual who’s a little slower, all of a sudden this starts slowing the whole class down. If you’re in a traditional kind of remote session, you have to stop the whole class and share that person’s screen, and then the whole class just sits there waiting. The amount of surveys that came back negative on that note made it strategic for us to look for a software package that could offer us a true classroom experience.

What were the particular lessons you learned in implementing the virtual lab, with making the shift from the traditional approach to the virtual?

David Hand: It's an interesting question. I think that with some customers it’s been a cultural challenge. It is hard to get some customers to realize that you can offer the same experience virtually that you could in a classroom. That’s been a challenge for us sometimes with people that have been doing training for long periods of time in a certain way.

A second piece of it, and it’s been a learning experience for us, is more on the ROI. Training is an interesting thing, and it has been an interesting thing for me to put an ROI around. It depends on who we’re selling to. If I’m selling to somebody like Bill who’s a software provider, I think the ROI is a little easier to calculate: did they renew more, is my NPS (Net Promoter Score) higher, did they buy more? Sometimes internally when we’re doing more corporate stuff, the ROI has been tougher to come by and it’s more focused on cost reduction or risk mitigation, or whatever it might be.

Then I would say the third challenge is for us, just as a person who wants to provide this platform, has just been (to raise the customer’s) awareness that there’s even something out there, that can deliver that experience for them.

Those are the three things that I think we’ve learned: once we have awareness you’ve got to get over that cultural hurdle and then you’ve got to get over the ROI hurdle.

Bill Nicholson: One of the things that really hit home for us was we had a customer, not too far into the COVID thing, and they were really determined to get us there onsite. “We paid for you to come onsite. We want you onsite.” We said, “Well, we can’t go onsite because of COVID." There was a lot of back and forth.

We did the OrasiLabs. We spread it out to a five-day. Their CTO gave me a call personally on my cell phone to thank me for the effort, and they are now buying five more classes, because the experience was, to them, “just as good as it was in-person, if not better, because we could do certain things differently.”

That really hit home for us, to say, “That’s it, we’re not selling in-person any more, even if COVID turns around and we can do it. We are 100% virtual. From our perspective, we won’t change that.”