This Month’s Q & A: February 2022
Updated: Feb 16
Dr. Donald S. Walker, Lt Col, USAF (ret),
Director of Training,
Arkansas Center for Data Sciences
AT ACDS, WE often characterize our work as something of a “three-legged stool,” one that forms a sturdy balance between the tech needs of Arkansas employers and the skillsets of Arkansas tech talent. The all-important third leg is the customized training we’re able to give our Registered Apprentices, enabling them to contribute immediately to their employers’ operations. The key player in that effort is Dr. Don Walker, a former director of the Arkansas Coding Academy at UCA, and, before that, a three-decade Air Force man. Arkansas finished 2021 as one of the three states that led the nation in IT apprenticeships for the year, so Dr. Walker is a very busy guy. We sat down with him to hear how he does what he does.
I want you to talk about training as the vital “third leg” in bringing together Arkansas employers and tech talent, but first, tell me how you got into this kind of work. I know you’re retired Air Force. Can I assume you did this in the service as well?
Not directly, but the way the military builds its own talent internally has certainly had an influence on me. Every enlisted person becomes an apprentice. They’re not Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeships like ACDS administers, but they’re apprentices nevertheless. You might learn to be a jet engine mechanic. I was an electronics technician for one apprenticeship and a computer programmer for another apprenticeship.
The Air Force uses a five-level training framework for enlisted skills. Level one is Helper, which means you’ve been hired but you’ve had no training or experience. Level three is Apprentice, indicating that you’ve completed entry-level classroom training and now apprentice in OJT—on-the-job training. Level five is Journeyman. Level seven is “Craftsman,” very similar to a master in the trades. And level nine is Superintendent, normally in charge of a work center or multiple work centers. So that’s how the Air Force manages it. You’re always—or frequently—in some sort of upgrade training to get to the next skill level.
I was an enlisted man initially. After my first six years in avionics, I re-trained into being a computer programmer. My first base was in Little Rock. That’s how I married into the Arkansas family. I met my wife in 1984 and then moved all over the world.
I finished my bachelor’s degree while on active duty and went to officer candidate school, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2012 after almost 30 years. Along the way, I finished my master’s in telecommunications from Southern Methodist University and my doctorate in computer science from Colorado Technical University.
Through that journey, I’ve learned a lot about both training and education. I know they’re different and they’re for different purposes. A lot of people commingle them, but I think I have a pretty solid understanding of the difference.
Tell me about that.
I think that education is foundational, and should focus on less perishable skills. It seems most folks only get one bachelor's degree, so I feel it’s important that topics like research skills, information literacy, foundational theoretical concepts, ethics, and so on, be the focus. Training, on the other hand, covers more vendor-specific skills like particular tools and techniques.
So when I came on at the Coding Academy, at UCA, I was the training guy in the education world. Embedding a job training facility in a higher education institution was quite a culture shock for a lot of the faculty and staff. In some ways, it was seen as a threat. You know, You’re going to take away all the people enrolling in our credit-bearing programs. It took a lot of communicating to get over that mindset, but eventually my colleagues saw the benefit of being involved in a program that is laser-focused on satisfying employer needs. The last course we offered while I was director, in data analysis, had participation from across the university faculty as guest lecturers.
So that’s where I was when I met Bill Yoder and Lonnie Emard of ACDS, probably in the third week of June of 2019. ACDS was very young and just beginning the process of putting together cohorts, so we talked possibilities. At the Coding Academy, we were teaching full stack web development, but I remember we also talked about cyber and data analytics that day. And it was through working collaboratively with Bill and Lonnie and forming a syllabus that we taught that first data analysis cohort, from July to November 2020.
In the year or so it took to develop and launch that data analysis course, in constant collaboration with employer partners, I really enjoyed working with the ACDS folks. I appreciated the statewide mission of ACDS and the breadth of IT careers they were working on, so I asked them if there could be a role for me. They were like, “Matter of fact, we need someone to do our training stuff.” There was also the opportunity to teach future data analytics courses, so I was very happy to accept my current position at ACDS.
I’ve got pretty good breadth of experience in IT, but with so many years in leadership positions, I’m peanut butter spread really thin. Like so many managers, I’m “an inch deep and a mile wide.”
How do you teach depth if you’re a “grazer”? Also, apprentices are always saying great things about you—what do you personally bring to the training?
That’s nice to hear. To prepare to teach something, I do a lot of self-study. Luckily there are fantastic resources on the Internet nowadays. Also, I’ve been adjunct faculty for a while, so I’ve done some course development and student management, and then trained folks in the techniques of staying engaged in the online environment. But I think students respond to me because I’m gregarious and I don’t take myself too seriously. In this apprenticeship environment, learning is a collaborative effort, so I really go out of my way to make it a two-way relationship. I think my breadth of technical experience lets me use examples too, regardless of the subject—why it’s important, why it matters. The tech bug bit me 35 years ago and many things have not changed. The tools change, but the people, the processes, the problems are all timeless. A couple of the tools I use in class, Excel and SQL, have been relevant for decades. Certainly, graphical user interfaces and increasingly “smart” applications greatly improve productivity, but there’s nothing really fundamentally new.
Do you code?
I do. I nerd around at things enough to stay in it. And then even though it’s been 10 years since I retired from the military, a lot of what I did is still fresh in my memory. And the issues are still there, whether it’s for user training or planning for adoption or data migration from one old system to the new system. Or cost, or budget, or schedule. All of those things are still relevant now.
And I keep myself in the tools enough that I can pass on what I know about software engineering, and help apprentices spot mistakes. For example, I’m teaching myself Python constantly because its popularity is exploding. I know what I know in other tools, but I keep teaching myself how to do it in this new generation.
Then, every once in a while, I’ll have a data analysis apprentice hit me up for help with something work related. One colleague was asked to automate a manual process, sending out patient survey results to medical practitioners. He had a spreadsheet with the doctors’ names, email addresses, the patients’ scores, and a couple other data fields. He or someone in the organization was manually cutting and pasting them into emails and sending them out one email at a time. I figured out how to do that in Python by opening up the data file and then looping through it and automatically using an email command to send out all those emails at the click of a button. It was great working together on the problem. He implemented that at work using their email system. Little real-world projects like that are a blast.
Okay, let’s talk about that “third leg.” How do you play that vital role of helping bring Arkansas employers together with our state’s tech talent?
By working with ACDS on the data analysis course, I had a good idea what the team needed in a training director. So I’m now what Bill and Lonnie were to me when I was the Coding Director. I’m the go-between. I’m now doing that role with everyone, from the self-paced and in-class students to all of the training providers—Global Campus, ASU Newport—to the employers themselves. Also, as ACDS has built relationships with employers, we’re finding that large, pre-planned training cohorts don’t always work. So, I set up custom learning paths for some apprentices using self-paced online resources like Pluralsight and LinkedIn Learning, which we’re able to fund via some of our grants.
The customization is key. It's my job to find out exactly what the employers need from a potential employee, and that’s the major challenge of this whole training piece. Because IT is now so diverse. Even within the same occupation you’ve got different tool sets. A full-stack web application could have a back-end written in Java, C#, Python, Ruby on Rails, and on and on. There’s a wide assortment of tools out there now. So, we often can’t just give people a boilerplate training program. It’s great when I can put people in a public, instructor-led course, but I can’t rely solely on that approach.
Many employers do want to “hand craft” the RTI, so having somebody with technical breadth that will be responsible for going out and finding the right providers and setting up the training dates and getting the invoice over to ACDS—it takes a pretty big load off of Bill and Lonnie.
Employers are also looking for tech talent that’s ready to step in and do the job from the get-go. So what do you look for in a student?
This goes for college classes I’ve taught as well as apprenticeship training. It starts with genuine engagement and interest, that they actually want to learn this. I want people who are really engaged, particularly using virtual instructor-led training. If I put out a question—“Okay, guys, what do I add to this query if I want to limit the number of rows?”—I look for people who’ll come off mute and engage. There are some people who won’t talk no matter what. They’re not engaged, they’re not listening, they’re perhaps doing other work, or they’re shy, what have you. But they’re just not engaged. So that’s the first thing I look for—that “I’m in it” mental attitude.
I recently had a guest speaker teaching a Business Intelligence tool. He told the class that when he first met his wife, she asked him what he did and he told her, “I’m a professional Googler. Because when I’m working in IT there are so many tools and so many syntaxes and so many commands and function names and ways to do things, that you always have a Google window open.”
I’m the same way, and it leads me to the next thing, which is an apprentice’s curiosity and willingness to bump their head into the wall three, four, five, 10 times to figure out how to make something work. To figure out how the book says to do it, to Google it, and then having the tenacity to actually figure out why it’s still not working for them. You need tenacity in this field. Underneath all of that is going to be some level of aptitude, for sure.
So: engagement, determination, some intelligence. Then you’ve got worthwhile experience. Putting things into action. There’s no better teacher than doing. You’re in perpetual keep-up mode with training.