Adjusting to Work-from-Home: Remote Live Simics Training

In the current world-wide lockdown due to Covid-19, many things that were done in-person in the past have to become virtual. The Simics® New User Training that we run at Intel and with our customers and partners is no different. In normal times, we run in-person classes around the world, but that is not an option right now.  Thus, we shifted to running remote live classes as a substitute for the time being. This blog shares some of my experience from running remote live classes.

We changed the cover page of the Simics training to symbolize the change.

Alternatives

As I see it, there are two alternatives to in-person training:

  • Recorded videos
  • Live teaching, done remotely

The remote-live format is superior in my opinion since it keeps the energy and immediacy of an in-person class and allows the students to ask questions interactively. It also requires a lot less work to do and can be set up pretty much immediately.

Recording a quality video is a ton of work. You need to write a script and follow it To. The. Word. While still sounding natural. Add editing and retakes, and the pandemic might well be over before the work is completed.

Reformatting for Remote Live

The standard Simics New User Training format is to do two full days in-person, for approximately eight hours per day. Lectures and labs are interleaved, giving the teacher some time to catch her or his breath between sections, and providing students a chance to immediately practice what they learned in the lectures.

That format does not work for remote live training – having the conference call sit idle while students work is not a workable method (I have discussed this with other training organizers in the past, and most agree that labs are best done offline and not in-conference). Instead, lectures and labs have to be split up in a more coarse-grained fashion.

Another aspect to consider is attention span. For a student, it is a lot easier to stay focused on a topic when in the same room as the teacher, and it is easier for the teacher to adjust to the attention level of the students. Previously, I did some improvised remote trainings that crammed the lectures into two four-hour sessions. That was totally exhausting for everyone involved.

The current concept is shown below. The course is spread out over three days, with about three hours of lectures each day (and a rather large buffer towards the end). Each day also has a set of associated labs that the students are expected to do on their own after lunch.

Reformatting the in-person class to remote live

The topic sections of the training had to be reshuffled a bit to fit this format and get the labs spread out in a reasonable way. It is not exactly the same sequence as in the in-person training, but fortunately some of the sections were rather stand-alone and possible to move around a bit in the schedule.

There are still some small breaks inserted between the sections, just like when teaching live. When working from home, even five minutes is enough to get a cup of coffee or other refreshment.

Remote Live Training Technology – Video, Screenshare, and Chat

For the lecture part, it made sense to use video of the teacher alongside the slides. We did not use video for the students, since that would just waste bandwidth and reduce the quality of the screen-share. It is also hard for the trainer to both present and look at the student video streams at once – especially if there are tens of students in the class. I used to be rather skeptical to video conferencing, but I must admit to coming around to finding it rather valuable.

For the labs, it makes sense to use chat in an app like Microsoft Teams or Skype to answer questions. There are usually not all that many questions, and having the teacher sit and wait on the video conference for the occasional interaction is not an efficient use of time. When I present a class live, I tend to walk around the front of the room and point at the projector screen using either hands or a laser pointer. Sometimes, to illustrate a point or an answer to a question, I will draw things on white boards or a flip board. Neither of these things work with a remote screen-sharing session, but using annotation tools to draw on top of what is shown on the screen offers a decent replacement. The screenshot below shows an example of a heavily-annotated slide from the training.

Annotating a slide as a way to make the presentation a bit more lively

The Gear

It is quite feasible to run a training session like this from home using an average laptop. However, it is worth investing a little bit in audio and video gear to provide the best experience and the most effective teaching setup.

My personal home working setup, used to run Simics training in the remote live format.

You want a good web camera, instead of using the rather poor camera built into most laptops. It makes sense to put it on top of an external screen to get it up a bit compared to where a laptop screen typically resides and avoid the “up your nose” angle. For the sound, a headset works, but it is better to use a good external microphone. This looks better on the video (no headset on top of the speaker) and produces superior sound compared to most headsets. Using a “pop filter” is definitely beneficial. Figure 3 shows my personal home office setup used in the training, including an external keyboard and mouse.

For best results, it is good to work in a room featuring some amount of fabric to dampen echos and provide a better sound environment. For the video, a reasonably neutral background makes sense. Also for the video, it is a good idea to avoid clothes with busy patterns as that tends to result in very messy videos (especially when the image is shrunk down to a thumbnail).

This is not a good choice of shirt for a video session (but it is one of my favorites)

One upside of live remote training is that product demos using screen sharing actually work better than at most in-person trainings since reading a screen with small fonts from the back of a room is a lot harder than seeing it on your own local screen.

Simics is also a good subject for remote training in that it is just a piece of software. There is no need for specialized hardware or development boards for the students. Simics can be downloaded and installed on the students’ local computers, reducing the load on VPNs to connect back to corporate servers to access the software.  In particular for training, the required software is well-packaged and easy to download and install.

Final Thoughts

Doing a live remote training works, but it is not a perfect substitute for an in-person class. You do not get the same connection with the audience, and as a trainer you cannot sense the attention of the class. You also miss a lot of the informal discussions you get over lunch and before and after classes. 

On the positive side, remote live lets us keep doing training even during mandatory work-from-home times and with people scattered across multiple cities and sites. It is still live, and we still get interactive discussions going. The technical requirements are not overwhelming, and most people should be able to partake in training from home as well as teach it from home.  Technology really works, and it can help us get through these trying times.

Cancer Part 3: So Far So Good

It has been a bit more than six months after my radiotherapy treatment for thyroid cancer, and I feel pretty much normal. Several times over the past few months, I have talked to people I have not seen in a while and they have asked me how I am doing. At first I just say “fine”… and I then realize that they are asking about the cancer. It’s not top-of-mind for me since I have been living with it for almost a year now, and it feels (currently) like it is “done”. Of course, it will be years before I am formally considered to have fully recovered, but right now I feel like I am functioning mostly normally (except a small side-effect from the medication).

Getting Back in Business

My last update was written as I was in isolation after radiotherapy. Following the hospital time, I stayed one night in a hotel to get the radiations down a bit more before going home. Once home, it was just me and my wife for a few days until the kids got home from their fall break. Until two weeks had passed after the radiotherapy, I made sure to sleep in my own room and stay several meters away from all the other family members.

I went back to mostly normal life just in time to give a talk at the Embedded Conference Scandinavia in early November. Guidelines from the hospital were that I could be around people again by then, but preferably only for a short time and keeping some distance. Giving a talk from a stage kept a safe distance for the audience, and I skipped the conference dinner.

At the talk, a friend of mine showed up with a Geiger counter (he works in a company where they use such instruments), and I got an actual measurement of the situation post-therapy. It turned out that while there was a noticeable amount of radiation right at the skin of my throat (which I suppose indicates that the radiotherapy did hit the right spot, but I am not a doctor and cannot know for sure). More importantly, at a distance of about 50cm the radiation level was indistinguishable from the background radiation. That felt pretty good to know, as it did indicate that the risk I posed to other people was rather limited already at that point.

Later in November, I went to India to teach a long-planned Simics training. There was some (theoretical) concern that I might get caught in airport security somewhere due to being radioactive, and I did have a letter with me certifying that I undergone radiotherapy and explaining the situation. However, nothing happened and the trip went off without a hitch.  

Radiotherapy Done

Thus, radiotherapy was “done” after a couple of weeks and life could go back to its normal routine. It is noticeable just how unaffected I was from this treatment. It is highly localized and should not really affect your system much. I basically felt nothing.  The big question was obviously if the therapy had done its job.

Answering that questions comes down to taking blood tests to check for indicators that I should not try to explain. The first tests late in 2019 came up inconclusive, and I stayed on the rather high dose of 175mg of Levaxin per day. Recently, the second test indicated that the process is going in the right direction, and I could lower the Levaxin dose just a little: taking 150mg every second day, which lowers the average just a little to 162.5mg per day.

Levaxin and its Side Effects

That leads on to my last observation about the cancer treatment: taking a high dose of Levaxin has side-effects. Even before the cancer, I was known for my high tempo and high energy. Taking 175mg of Levaxin definitely exacerbated that to the point that it has been a bit tough for the family and close to debilitating for me. It is like having a little rocket push you around and losing a bit of self-control and self-restraint.  

With the Levaxin, I have had a harder time focusing and actually finishing something that I start. It is like my brain is on a slippery surface and kind of skids around, requiring a conscious effort to stay on task. I left a trail of half-done to-do notes for myself in Outlook at work. Sometimes, it felt like being slightly drunk, and unable to stop myself from doing things even if I knew deep inside that it was unnecessary or not a good time. Overall, a slightly disconcerting experience.

One particularly visible aspect of this is that I have had a hard time getting around to writing and finishing blog posts (which is clearly visible in the output on this and my Intel blog). It has been too easy to get distracted with shorter-term tasks and interruptions at work and at home.

However, lowering the dose just a little made a huge difference. I feel much better, like some kind of fog has lifted. I feel calmer and less jittery. I am really looking forward to the next step in lowering the dose. Even 150mg is fairly high, but it seems closer to the level of drive I had naturally before the cancer. Clearly, I won’t do anything until I get instructed by my doctor. Right now, the plan is to try the lower dose for a while, take new tests, and check that nothing creeps back in. The standard procedure as I understand it seems to be to run a high suppressing dose for something like a year after the initial surgery. I will find out this coming Summer I suppose.

Covid-19 Note

This was written and posted in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. My personal process with cancer goes on regardless of the much bigger issues in the world, and I wanted to get this update out since I myself got updated rather recently. And the question comes up every so often.