This Training Firm Does Its Best Work in the Dark

This Training Firm Does Its Best Work in the Dark

By Calli Schmidt, Contributing Writer

When you are a Web software training specialist, you get a certain measure of satisfaction in seeing the results of your hard work and skills, such as a sparkling new Web page or innovative e-commerce application, designed by your students.

But the trainers at WestLake Internet Training of Arlington, Va., get no such satisfaction with one government client. The company trains Webmasters, systems administrators and Web page publishers for Intelink, the top-secret extranet for the federal intelligence community. And security concerns preclude WestLake trainers from seeing firsthand how Intelink personnel use the instruction they receive.

"We provide the training for them, but we can't teach them on their product," said Jon Steffy, director of business development and training for WestLake. The firm signed a $325,000 contract for 2000 to do a needs assessment and then provide this year's schedule of classes ? one that is already full and has been extended by several weeks, he said.

WestLake trains employees of Intelink and its member organizations, which include the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, military intelligence groups and others, signing them up for weeklong sessions on topics ranging from HTML programming to XML, Perl, Java and database applications.

Intelink was created in 1994 as an "electronic intelligence information discovery and retrieval service," according to David Sedlack, information management specialist for Intelink in Washington. The extranet is based on familiar Internet technology, but instead of logging on to the World Wide Web, users log on to the secure Intelink.

The system is a network of Web pages from various intelligence community and Department of Defense sites all over the world and serves about 100,000 users, Sedlack said.

Pick up any spy novel and you will read that the intelligence community, similar to the branches of the military, is notoriously competitive about the information that each agency gathers. Agencies also historically have been unwilling to share that information with each other. Intelink helps to open the lines of communication.

"One of the intents of Intelink is to be able to share and to collaborate information" from agency to agency, Sedlack said. "This is an aid to disseminate information to the intelligence community."

In addition to intelligence information, some member agencies use Intelink to broadcast other kinds of news and items of interest to their employees, such as job postings and human resources policies, he said.

WestLake has focused its training programs on Web development since 1996, and in 1999 posted revenue of more than $3 million, according to the company. Federal contracts account for about 30 percent of its business. Commercial clients include Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., and Aquent, a placement company in Boston, for which WestLake has developed a customized Web program training for new hires.

For its Intelink work, WestLake holds training sessions both in its own facilities ? the company has offices in Arlington, Va., Washington, Pittsburgh, New York City and outside Detroit ? and also in some agency training rooms. But the company cannot use the actual workstations or the programs on those workstations used by intelligence agency employees because the information is classified, Steffy said.

Also, "we can't use their normal training rooms, because they're classified," he said.

In the WestLake facility, trainers show the agency employees how to do the technical setup of new programs and applications without looking at the actual information Intelink needs to provide its members.

In lieu of real data, WestLake uses templates that replace the actual content with mock content. For example, "they'll replace the classified phone number with the mockup phone number" when demonstrating an application, Steffy said.

Sedlack makes sure that training class schedules are posted on Intelink. "We make an announcement with a schedule of upcoming WestLake classes, and folks can call WestLake or register online" on the regular, public WestLake Internet address.

Participating member agencies can either sign up for the regular WestLake Intelink classes or arrange for on-site training in an unclassified classroom. After employees have finished the training programs with the mock information, they can apply what they have learned with the real, classified information.

But what if an intelligence official has problems getting the application to work? WestLake is available for consultation, but Intelink employees must obviously refrain from spilling state secrets. "If you can talk in unclassified terms, that would be one way" for WestLake to help the agency fix a problem, Sedlack said.

"If you're conversing with WestLake, everything has to be done in an unclassified manner," he added. That usually is no problem when the question has to do with the application itself, as opposed to the content being posted.

Another solution may be for the employee to find someone in his or her own department with experience in the application, he said, or to call the Intelink Support Management Center, the operational and technical support unit.

Sedlack does see a potential problem surfacing in Intelink's plans to do Web page design usability training, a program still on the drawing board. While not essential, usability training usually includes examining the site content, "and with content, you have to be careful," he said.

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