Tech training center outlasts Lotus 1-2-3

The year was 1985. Office automation was a hot topic, and mainframe-dependent federal agencies were beginning to order truckloads of desktop computers.

Two Interior Department mainframe specialists were learning the new technology, using three or four shared microcomputers, as they were known, in the agency's Technology Information Centers (TIC) in Denver and in Flagstaff, Ariz.

When U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) managers in Denver needed more structure, they put one specialist, Susan Keen, in charge of the city's TIC and hired another, Ellen Sanchez, as the senior technical specialist.

Nearly 20 years later, Denver's TIC is strong, thanks to the programs Keen and Sanchez launched. The centers in other cities, including the one in Flagstaff, no longer exist.

Today, Sanchez is still running the TIC. Keen has retired, but she occasionally works as a consultant to the center, which has customers in 54 federal, state and local agencies. Many of the agencies are part of Interior, which is USGS' parent department. But the center serves other departments, as well. For example, the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department, is a major customer.

Thousands of people have taken courses at the center in topics such as Web design, databases, word processing and spreadsheets. When the center first began offering courses, the favorites were Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect and Lotus Software's Lotus 1-2-3. Today, the most popular courses are in Microsoft Corp. Word and Excel.

The fees for the self-supporting programs cost about one-third the price of similar commercial training courses, Keen said.

Despite their insistence on quality at a low cost, center officials are training only about one-third of the 2,400 people who took classes in a peak year in the late 1980s. "Training's been going down everywhere," Sanchez said. "Budgets are being cut back, and training...gets cut."

Training needs also have changed. Introductory classes about PCs are obsolete, but computer security classes are in demand. "Security has been a big topic everywhere because there's more and more mandates coming down on that," she said.

The center also provides help-desk services for Interior — an arrangement that Keen and Sanchez like because it keeps them on top of their customers' IT learning needs. "We learned a lot...by troubleshooting," Sanchez said.

The TIC recently started offering online training courses from a commercial source. Those courses have not become as popular as Sanchez had hoped, but she said she will continue to experiment with new offerings because changing with the times has been a hallmark of the center's success.

Dawn Bjork Buzbee, who has taught classes at the center for 15 years, says Sanchez and Keen are "not too locked into policy and procedures." Their characteristic response to change is, as Buzbee puts it, "If this isn't working, what else would work?"

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