Tech experts rake in the cash by teaching online

As online education platforms proliferate, some IT pros are making bank by teaching online. Just beware negative reviews from students

Tech experts rake in the cash by teaching online
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Rick Walter was facing a robust job market when he graduated from Brigham Young University in April of 2014 with an IS degree.

But Walter wasn't interested in a conventional career path. He'd worked as an intern at a tech consulting firm the summer before his junior year, where he realized that he didn't like having a set work schedule or a dress code. So instead, the 26-year-old built his own iPhone apps and picked up IT contracting jobs "just to pay bills."

Influenced by Timothy Ferriss's book The 4-Hour Workweek, Walter sought out work that would require limited time yet provide adequate money. So early in June 2014, when Apple came out with Swift, its new programming language for coding Mac OS X and iOS applications, Walter dove into Apple's hefty e-manual, then the only way to learn the new language.

rick walter online instructor Udemy Courtsey photo

Rick Walter launched his career as an online instructor by seeing a need -- for a course on Apple's Swift programming language -- and filling it quickly. 

It was then that Walter had a eureka moment: He'd teach Swift the way he would have preferred to learn it. He recorded himself explaining the language as he worked his way chapter by chapter through the manual. In just four days he made about 50 videos, each just several minutes long. He teamed up with Udemy, an online learning marketplace, to offer the video series as a single course. With that, Walter's career as an online instructor was launched.

It's a lucrative one. Making its online debut just three days after Apple released Swift, the course took off. Walter offered it free on day one, when 1,600 people signed up. Interest soared from there, even after he set the price at $199, and Walter earned about $40,000 over the next several days. All told, he has made about $180,000 from that course and others, even after factoring in Udemy's cut.

That's the kind of success that would make many an IT pro wonder: Could I teach online too?

Online courses -- and platforms -- multiply

The past decade has seen a proliferation in online education. Traditional colleges and universities continue to offer online for-credit classes to enrolled students, and many now provide free or low-cost Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to anyone with Internet access and a desire to learn. Web-based platforms like edX, Khan Academy and Udacity provide an easy way for people to develop courses and connect with students -- with a subset, including Udemy, Cybrary.IT, Fedora and SchoolKeep providing a mechanism for instructors to get paid for their services.

Beyond those options, entrepreneurially minded tech experts are setting up their own educational offerings using existing collaborative technologies like GoToMeeting and Join.me.

One such practitioner is Georgia Weidman, 27, founder and CEO of Bulb Security, an Austin, Texas consultancy that specializes in penetration testing. She had worked in IT security for three companies before starting her own firm in 2012.

Georgia Weidman online instructory Cybrary.IT Courtsey photo

Georgia Weidman burnishes her IT credentials by teaching live and prerecorded online classes on penetration testing and other cybersecurity topics.

Weidman also teaches. She started in 2011 by offering free face-to-face sessions to entice new members into a hacker space she had co-founded. That led to paid teaching gigs at conferences and for corporate clients and, in 2013, to online education. Initially she used GoToMeeting to run full-day live sessions -- for which students paid $100 to $200. She marketed those classes -- she has run about a dozen -- through her own contacts and social media accounts and used PayPal to collect fees. Average attendance was around 30 students, she says.

Weidman now offers a prerecorded class on penetration testing through Cybrary.IT, an education platform specializing in IT and cybersecurity. The for-profit organization offers classes free to students, funding its operations via advertising revenue. Cybrary.IT pays Weidman an upfront fee to develop her courses as well as a percentage of ad revenue.

Weidman, author of Penetration Testing: A Hands-On Introduction to Hacking, acknowledges that the online courses add to her already full schedule. She says it can take upwards of a couple of hundred hours of work to develop an 8-hour class, which entails building labs for students to use, writing content, studying research, and reviewing other online courses to prevent duplication. On the other hand, teaching builds name recognition and establishes her company as expert in the industry.

"I know the hard work I'm putting in is coming back to me," Weidman says. "I do get a fair amount of recognition for [teaching]. I get a good amount of karma from the community. And it makes me feel good to help other people get to where they want to be in their careers."

Teaching as a full-time career

That said, Weidman doesn't see herself becoming a full-time instructor anytime soon. But other IT professionals have either built much of their careers on teaching, or have transitioned entirely to it.

Leo Dregier, 38, worked as an instructor with a Baltimore training company, Advanced Computer Technology Training, in the 1990s after studying computer science in college and earning various certifications, including the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). At the time, Dregier says, it was easier to find work teaching than to find an IT position.

That changed in the early 2000s as organizations became increasingly focused on IT security, and his security skills became a hot commodity. Dregier worked in IT security positions for several organizations, including three federal government posts, from 2002 to 2008.

But he wanted to work for himself. After a stint in real estate, he focused on education again, building up an online presence and branding himself as a CISSP guru. He trains students both in person and online, working through his own company and through Cybrary.IT.

Lazaro "Laz" Diaz has also taken to teaching full-time. Diaz, 48, entered the IT profession 15 years ago after earning various certifications and an associate's degree. He worked full time in networking and taught some classes after graduating, but switched into full-time training because he found it more rewarding and more lucrative.

Lazaro "Laz" Diaz is not afraid to use a little video salesmanship to attract students to his series of online courses on network certifications.

Diaz first taught computer skills at local training facilities and then, in 2010, posted instructional videos on networking on YouTube, where he got more than 1 million views and 20,000 subscribers. That earned him $300 to $500 a month from ad-revenue sharing -- a nice boost but not enough to quit his job.

He started teaching online classes in networking through Udemy, which has earned him about $80,000 since April 2103, Diaz says. He also teaches live online boot camps via JoinMe.com, and runs his own company, The Networking Doctors.

Diaz's No. 1 piece of advice to would-be online instructors: Don't assume because you're a whiz at technology that you'll make a good teacher. Even highly skilled engineers may not be capable of conveying information to students in a way that educates and engages them. (For tips, see How to earn an A+ in online instruction.) To be successful, Diaz says, "You've got to have fun. You've got to have a passion for this."

And you've got to be a bit of a salesperson to convince students to sign up, says Diaz, who isn't afraid of adopting a bit of a "come on down" persona to get would-be clients pumped up.

Passion for teaching opens new doors

Other techies have found full-time employment in the tech-education industry. Michael Wales, 30, learned his IT skills in the U.S. Air Force, where he was a systems administrator for six years. After that, he worked as a Web developer for government contractors from 2009 to 2014.

michael wales udacity employee Courtsey photo

Michael Wales considers himself first and foremost a Web developer, but for now he enjoys the teaching and course-development work he does for education-platform provider Udacity. 

Wales says he always had an interest in teaching; he had used blogging and job-related training duties as ways to feed that interest over the years. He found that teaching reinforced his own understanding of a given topic, and it was "a nice, feel-good type job."

So when Udacity, a for-profit online educational site focused on teaching tech skills, approached him in spring 2014 about working on staff, Wales made the leap. He's now a curriculum manager for Udacity, helping to create content for Web development courses. He also taught an Object-Oriented JavaScript course offered through Udacity.

Wales says he likes the startup culture at Udacity, which was founded in 2012, and he says the pay is comparable to what he was making in his prior tech jobs. And while he doesn't rule out taking a conventional IT job down the line -- "I still view myself as a Web developer," he says -- he's happy where he is for now.

Whether full- or part-time, on payroll or freelancing, would-be teachers must prove themselves not only as experts on their course material but as good instructors too. If you're not, word spreads fast. Today's instructors must contend with online ratings and feedback -- whether it's positive or negative, accurate or not.

Weidman, for example, looks at her reviews and says they're mostly positive, but she admits there are also a few poor ones, including posts from people who haven't even taken her classes. "I've always found that there's nothing you can do about it. You can always get some blowback on the Internet," she says.

Likewise, Walter admits to seeing mixed reviews about his first course. "Some loved it and said it helped them get off the ground. Some say it was a scam [because] it just walked you through the book," he says. "It's not something I fret about all the time, but I check on it."

For his part, Diaz likes to tackle the problem of negative reviews upfront. As he reminds students on the home page of his website," Our reputation depends on your success."

This story, "Tech experts rake in the cash by teaching online" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.