Training — Baron von Steuben Style for CEOs

Training again, Big Red Car? Really?

OK, dear reader, we will have one last crack at training for the CEO. Promise.

Today, we discuss Baron von Steuben. You know the Baron, right? Drillmaster of Valley Forge, no?

Get this book by Paul Lockhart. Great read. Been around for some time and it is a great book to inspire a CEO.

Big Red Car, who is Baron von Steuben?

Baron von Steuben [Big Red Car prefers the more Prussian “von” rather than the anglicized “de.”] was a fraud. He was rumored to have been a Major General in some European army, but the truth seems to be that he was a combat experienced, Prussian Captain out of work for about fifteen years when he secured passage to the Colonies with an eye toward throwing in with the Americans in revolt against the Brits.

What he turned out not to be was not as important as what he did. He whipped the Continental Army and the attendant militias into a European style army capable of maneuvering on the battlefield against the British. In a single winter, he remade the army. Which proves the sentiment that any Captain worth their weight could train an army if it came to that.

He trained them thereby instilling soldierly confidence at the rifleman level, organized and balanced units at the platoon, battalion, and regimental level while providing the basis for senior officers to meet, maneuver against, and engage with the British with equal competence and deadliness.

What kind of training, Big Red Car?

It seems obvious, but when a column of troops is moving down a road looking for the enemy — a movement to contact — they move in a route march formation (column of platoons) which is effective for quick movement. No sooner do they encounter the enemy than they must morph into a line formation to get into the fight.

Von Steuben taught the Continentals how to conduct themselves as standard sized platoons — 50 men — and to go from a column of platoons in three files on the march to a line of platoons facing the enemy in two ranks of twenty-five men each. Long thin column transformed into a battle line facing the enemy on the double quick. With this formation, the Continentals could fire, reload, advance or withdraw based on the tactical situation. While advancing, the artillery could fire over their heads, and the cavalry could guard their flanks.

This maneuver had to be conducted quickly to ensure the Brits didn’t take the disorganized Americans under cannon fire and destroy them before they could get organized. It was the mark of a professional army to be able to make such an instantaneous transformation. Prior to von Steuben showing up, the Americans could not do this. After that winter, they could do it perfectly. That is the benefit of training.

Today, we would find it laughable to suggest that American soldiers could not instinctively make such a transformation. Then, the Continentals were a rabble and had no standard sizes amongst their units, no individual soldier drill or manual of arms, and no ability to move large units to engage the Brits.

All of this learning was captured and codified in a Drill Manual which was the US Army’s bible until 1812.

OK, Big Red Car, how does this pertain to today?

For a CEO, training has to be part of the program to build a company. You have to be able to meet contemporary standards in things such as marketing and sales. You have to be or find your Baron von Steuben, to teach your team to do basic things well.

You have to write it down, document it, revise it, and train to to it. It is that simple.

George Washington

Let me take one last swipe at Valley Forge. Washington went into winter camp with a beaten army. Poorly shod, poorly uniformed, poorly fed, unpaid, and at the verge of being beaten. Lots of desertions and disease. Militia men going home at the end of their term of enlistment. He had 10,000 men living in log huts they constructed. They were tired, hungry, and had low morale. The Brits were waiting out the winter in Philadelphia intending to quash the rebellion in the spring.

Along comes von Steuben. Von Steuben had pitched his case with Ben Franklin in Paris who sent him along to the Colonies.

Washington had a mutiny amongst his senior officers on his hands. Two or three were plotting with the Congress against Washington. He also had an untrained rabble which was really not an army. He meets von Steuben and gives him a temporary appointment to do some training. Why not? How could things get worse?

Von Steuben trains the trainers and sets up a system whereby he trains men from every unit and sends them back to train their units before returning to von Steuben’s tutelage to be trained as organized units. He standardizes the size and organizations of units so when Washington decides to commit a “battalion” he knows exactly how many men are going to show up.

Washington recognizes what he has in von Steuben and appoints him a Major General of the Continental Army. BRILLIANT MOVE, easily one of the top couple of decisions of the entire Revolution. [Hey, CEOs, always hiring? Always talent spotting?] He makes von Steuben a MG on the same day he learns the French have thrown in with the Colonies and will support them against the Brits. That was the moment at which the tide turned though there was plenty of fighting left to be done.

This was a very controversial appointment as von Steuben was a foreigner. Nonetheless, Washington — a guy with a nose for talent, a talent for timing, and cojones — appoints the guy and says, “Make me an army which can fight the Brits in the spring.”

The rest is history. As part of that history, one has to ask — “How did the Colonies deserve someone as selfless, as brilliant, as prescient, as insightful, and as shrewd as George Washington?”

That is why you train your company, because the change can be monumental and nation building. Now go figure it out.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. [BRC is in the shop getting a new water pump and a bit of work on the carburetor. Initial indications are all good, but it is serious surgery, so say a prayer for the BRC.]

7 thoughts on “Training — Baron von Steuben Style for CEOs

  1. As I think about “training”, I see some challenges:

    When I get around to hiring technical people, I will want them good at, when they arrive and/or after training, in

    (1) General computer usage and programming ‘skills’ plus some more advanced such skills.

    (2) Ability to learn from courses, lectures on specialized, advanced topics, and independently from books, papers, lectures, Internet sources.

    (3) Ability to write clearly to document their own work.

    (4) Creativity, ability to look at a new problem and find a new solution from own ideas and work and pulling together ideas and work from books, papers, specialized experts, etc.

    (5) Optional but potentially quite desirable, be a good pure/applied mathematician.

    For (1), that is, some of the basic objectives of training:

    General computer usage

    Disk drive letters

    Disk partitions

    Boot partitions

    Windows HPFS file system

    Common command line commands

    KEdit programmable text editor

    Kexx KEDIT macros

    Rexx command line scripts

    Excel for graphing data

    Internet overview

    E-mail usage

    Web browser usage

    Computer Hardware Basics


    Power supplies and voltages

    Fans and cooling

    Processors, cores, and threads

    Main memory and error correcting coding

    Cache memory and cache invalidate

    Virtual memory

    Northbridge and Southbridge chips

    I/O standards — PCI, SATA, USB, etc.

    Adapter cards

    Computer System Administration

    BIOS settings

    Windows system configuration

    Windows logs

    User data backup/recovery

    Boot partition backup/recovery

    System monitoring


    Resource limits


    IP addresses and port numbers

    Solid state disks



    Windows .NET Framework

    MSDN documentation

    Visual Basic .NET,

    our standard

    C#, tricky different syntactic

    sugar, we avoid

    Elementary data types



    Statements and expressions

    Exceptional condition handling

    Algorithms and data structures

    Binary search

    Block binary search (new?)

    Heaps and heap sort

    Heaps for priority queues

    Hashing — with examples

    Extendible hashing

    Big-O notation and criterion

    Computational time complexity


    Combinatorial optimization

    Linear programming

    Simplex algorithm

    Ellipsoidal algorithm

    Integer linear programming,

    example of NP-complete

    Linear programming on networks,

    integer linear programming for free

    Cunningham modification

    Bertsekas algorithm

    Network shortest path

    Balanced trees

    AVL trees

    Red-black trees

    K-d trees


    .NET collections

    .NET TCP/IP programming

    SQL Server Database



    Database definitions

    Users, logins, capabilities

    Command line SQL usage

    ADO.NET SQL programming

    Connection strings

    Connection pools

    Clustered keys

    Foreign keys

    Normal forms

    SQL performance analysis

    SQL administration

    Web Site Programming

    TCP/IP IPv4, IPv6

    TCP/IP routing

    DHCP and static IPs

    Domain names and the DNS

    Certificate authorities

    Internet backbone and BGP

    Content distribution networks —

    Akamai, etc.




    JavaScript, we try to avoid


    Ad servers

    Microsoft’s Internet Information

    Server (IIS)

    Microsoft’s ASP.NET

    HTML controls

    HTML tables

    HTML divisions


    I’ve been in computing for a long time, learned and used a lot of material, taught computer science to undergraduates at Georgetown University and to graduate students at Ohio State University. But, still, for my Internet startup, I had to know all of the material in the list above and more and most of it I had to learn as I needed it. And I have more to learn, e.g., about more advanced parts of SQL Server administration — hope to get some good materials, lectures, expert tutoring, etc.

    E.g., for the size of the learning effort, just for my startup, I found, downloaded, read, abstracted, and indexed 5000+ Web pages of documentation, mostly from MSDN but also from various other Internet sites, studied about a cubic foot of books, etc.

    So, for “training”, should have video lectures (should have a decently good video production and editing facility), written materials, exercises, references to high quality texts, papers, and various additional videos, e.g., videos of invited lectures from experts, e.g., in high end server farm and network planning, monitoring, and administration.

    So, that’s a lot of stuff!

    So, a big question is, how much should train for, hire for, have right away, develop over time?

    For my startup, those are some of the challenges of “training”.

    • .
      The skills you enumerate still require training to coordinate and to direct.

      Staying in our Revolutionary frame of mind, Washington realized that the Kentucky, Tennessee, west Virginia frontiersmen had long rifles which were accurate out to 3-400 yards.

      Meanwhile, the British Brown Bess was a crap shoot beyond 50 yards. The Brits made up for that with their skill with bayonets. If they could get within a short distance, they would fix bayonets and come get you.

      Washington — say on the road from Princeton to Trenton after the Battle of Trenton — put his long rifled soldiers in the edge of a wood and let them pick off the Brits (heading down the road to give battle on the heights around Trenton) as they formed their British Square to fight them.

      When the Americans had wreaked havoc and killed a lot of British officers, the Americans fled and evaporated into the woods, came out the other side, and went to their next blocking position to lay in wait for the Brits. It was classic shoot, move, communicate warfare.

      In this fashion, Washington never became decisively engaged with the Brits — meaning he never risked his entire army in a single battle. A decisive engagement — like Yorktown — means winner takes all.

      These same soldiers were trained by Von Steuben to move from column-of-platoons to line-of-platoons. They still retained their distance standoff and marksmanship advantage when they gave battle. They were trained to incorporate their unique skill into the entire force structure.

      When the long rifled soldiers were formed up at the appropriate distance, they killed a lot of Brits beyond Brown Bess range. They killed a lot of British officers.

      In much the same way, if you can find folks who have 75% of the skills you enumerate, you will have a better start than if they only have 25%, but you will still have to fill in the last 25% and the cultural training unique to how you want your enterprise to operate.


      • Thanks.

        I was guessing that partly I could exploit time: As I start to hire people, I will have a nicely successful business so, thus, necessarily, won’t go out of business if I don’t hurry up and build a great team of great programmers.

        So, maybe I won’t be asking much of my first hires so could give them time on the job to learn some of the items on my list. Then have them do the shopping for the video studio and organize lessons for the rest of the training making good use of the video studio.

        There’s a point: In spite of all the computing I’ve done, for my Web site startup I had to learn a lot of the skill items on that list. So, I learned them, well enough to use them and get good running code.

        Well, my view is that for nearly all those skills, with some reasonably good learning materials, learning that stuff can be darned fast. So, I’ve been considering hiring some people and having them learn on the job, starting with some simple tasks we do need done.

        E.g., my first hire might be an office manager, i.e., COO, to work with the bookkeeper, CPA, auditors, payroll, benefits, expense accounts, bank, landlord, insurance agent, cleaning firm, etc.

        Next the COO could hire some interns. One of them could do the shopping for a video studio and write up the results of the shopping, partly or totally supervise the construction of the studio, learn how to operate the equipment and do video editing, write up a user’s guide to the studio, etc. They would make use of a computer for various tasks and learn needed skills as they went. Along the way, I might give them an hour tutorial occasionally.

        Then would need some monitoring of the servers and network, so have an intern do the shopping for that, line up and use some consultants, …, document the work, and learn.

        Then would need some …, etc., on and on.

        So, slowly they would get into more technical things.

        Eventually they’d bring up a Web site for our advertisers or some such.

        But, put all the above on hold!

        Yes, if I want to start hiring when I get to revenue of $1 million a month, then to get to $1 billion a month is a factor of 1000 more, essentially in each of server farm capacity, servers, racks, floor space, electric power, HVAC , system equipment failures and similarly for the network.

        A factor of, gulp, 1000. Even if two spare bedrooms could get me to $1 million a month, likely possible, a factor of 1000 is totally different! An empty factory or shopping mall someplace?

        A factor of 1000 is much like 1024 which is exactly doubling 10 times. Hmm …. To do that in not too many months would be rapid growth!

        I wouldn’t want the site capacity to grow slower than the user demand!

        Maybe have some employees and let them make a lot of use of consultants? E.g., Microsoft knows how to setup and run such a server farm and network, and I would be a darned good customer for Windows Server and SQL Server. Sooooo, maybe could get a tour of one of their server farms and hire one of their people for a week and some hour long phone calls later, or some such?

        One of the keys here is that darned little of the work for growing by a factor of 1000 is really advanced, tricky, creative, etc., and the skills needed to learn can be learned quite quickly from an experienced person.

        So, maybe exploit this point: For stuff or skills don’t know, look at the usual text sources and then pick up a phone or get a Skype session for an hour with a specialized expert who does that stuff all the time and has done it 100+ times. Then, apply the skill, get the immediate work done, and write up some good notes on what learned and did!

        Maybe my thinking was weighted too much to some successful company growing relatively slowly and not some, initial, short term F-22 takeoff and screaming, full afterburner, climb to 100,000 feet. Factor of 1000, double 10 times, wow. It could happen.

        Washington realized that the Kentucky, Tennessee, west Virginia frontiersmen had long rifles which were accurate out to 3-400 yards.

        Meanwhile, the British Brown Bess was a crap shoot beyond 50 yards.

        WOW! 3-400 yards v 50 yards!

        And for the rest, yup, when I imagined I were in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, I imagined that I’d be with a few other guys and we’d mostly stay hidden, be snipers, and pick the enemy off one shot and one person at a time, night, day, dawn, dusk, fog, rain. And, right, smarter to pick off the officers.

        So, Washington, Steuben, never directly confronted the British, did some sniping from 100-300 yards away, disappeared into the woods, moved on, repeated the sniping — smart guys.


  2. I get some serious side eye from the Conventional ( Not SOF) Active Military when I say going from the military to defense contracting is like going from College Football to the NFL.

    It’s faster, the players are better and the old rules don’t apply

    • .
      Very interesting point. I wonder if it doesn’t depend on what branch one serves in?

      I found it the other way. When I got out, I couldn’t figure out what people did between 6:00 AM and 9:00 AM when they reported to work.

      I was in the combat engineers which meant when we came in from the field, we were building stuff. No down time. Plus it was always dangerous.

      There is no question that the pace of business, the efficiency of business is accelerating.

      Computers. Technology.


      • I was on a defense contract in Afghanistan where our mission was to train a commando force and then take then supervise them destroying poppy fields in order to cut down on the Heroin trade with a side of fighting the Taliban and Narco Mercenaries.

        We had a contract with about 200 people on it.

        40 were US trainers ( former enlisted Marines, Army SF, Rangers Police SWAT, Air Force Security Forces , SEALS, CIA Paramilitary) 12 EOD guys, 50 former British Gurhkas as light infantry for the trainers, about 10 various former 3rd Country intel and SF guys doing planning/staff roles, 4 or 5 of logistics folks and the balance were admin and support.

        If you sucked you got canned quick.

        Most of the folks involved had 10 years of experience and most with multiply combat tours.

        So the planning and decision making were second nature, tactics were adjusted or changed quickly and learning new weapons system happened quicker.

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