Become an IDOL 67: Government IDOL Jobs with Ron Nakamoto

Guest: Ron Nakamoto, Training Service Chief

In this episode, I’m chatting with Ron Nakamoto, the Training Service Chief at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Academy. He is one of the most experienced people I've found in this field to talk to us about working as an Instructional Systems Specialist (ISS). He shares how to find these jobs, how to make yourself a competitive candidate, and why he thinks now is the best time to become an ISS.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to have a learning and development career in the US government, this is the episode for you!

Listen to this episode below:

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Let me tell you a little bit about Ron:

Ron Nakamoto is the Training Service Chief at the TSA Academy. He manages major training projects at TSA Academy, including development of new course material, courses, instructor development, and emerging technology. Prior to joining TSA, he was the Deputy Training Director (DTD) of the U.S. Coast Guards (USCG) Special Missions Training Center, as well as the Deputy Director of the U.S. Citizenship Immigration Service Academy.

Before his civilian career, Ron served over 24 years in the USCG, where he honorably retired in 2019. He has a Master of Science in Instructional Systems and Learning Technologies from Florida State University with certifications in Online Course development and Human Performance Technology.  He is certified as a USCG Master Training Specialists, USCG Tactical High-Risk Instructor, USCG Instructor Development Course Chief, and International Society for Performance Improvement Certified Performance Technologist.

Connect with Ron: LinkedIn 

Would you explain what it is that you currently do? 

I'm one of the Section Chiefs at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Academy and I oversee project management for the Academy Training Center. So part of my job is to work hands on with the curriculum management section that oversees most of the Instructional Systems Specialists and the development of coursework. I would say probably about half my team is typically working on projects and specifically the development of course material. But, most of our folks are more Instructors versus Structural Systems Specialists, that’s with the curriculum management. 

One of the things that made me kind of start to get a little more involved in answering questions and to actually write that mini article was because I had been hoping to reach out to different people who have degrees. One to post jobs to get really great quality applicants to apply for the jobs that we were posting. And two, to really make sure that people understand the process of applying for the government jobs. It's not like applying for any type of corporate positions or even a lot of contract positions. It is a different animal in itself. It's can be a lengthy process, but, there's a lot of rewards at the end. 

As I interviewed people, I found that a lot of our folks just didn't understand the system or the process. They were really short cutting themselves which resulted in them not really getting selected, or at least being pushed up there as one of the top candidates.

What type of curriculum projects do you work on when you work for the government? What does that look like? How is that different from corporate?

You'll see a mixture of things. I will tell you that a lot of the different government agencies are still trying to understand what we do. They just know they want, ISS, right? 

I will tell you that based on what office you apply for, what agency you apply for, there can be a mixture of different things. So if you were at a formal Academy, you will probably see the development of typical situations or using analysis is typically done already for you. Whether it's a job task analysis, or something like that. There's already analysis done and you're taking it and you're developing that material. That could be two ways. It could be created from scratch or it could be looking at current courses.  Maybe I do a training analysis to determine what all the different training aspects are out there and what can be streamlined, what’s duplicated, how they flow together. 

So if you're at an Academy, specifically, as an ISS, Instructional Systems Specialist, you're going to do a lot more of developing courses, instructor guides, student guides, and curriculum. For the Coast Guard, we also had a separate section that focused on analysis where they didn't really develop curriculum. All they did was travel throughout the Coast Guard. Some of the work was done virtually, but ultimately, they did the analysis, as requested by a corporation program manager. We would assign the analysis team to that. And they would develop that process. 

The program manager had to make the hard decisions, because everything comes with a cost. They had to decide if they wanted to invest their resources towards the recommendations from the analysis. One thing I'll tell everybody–anywhere you go whether corporate or government, your recommendations aren't going to be always accepted. So you'll sometimes have to adjust to meet the needs of the client, or better yet, they don't want the analysis, right? The analysis is timely, and can be costly. I think when the biggest thing that you'll see in the government is sometimes they want it now. And probably, not just the government. Anybody. They want it now, and they're not always willing to wait. So, I will tell you that from the TSA Academy, what we tend to do is, maybe we can't do the full analysis, but we find a way to get analysis in so that we have something to be based off of. So, you know, it's funny that when I went to get my master's degree, I wondered how often I would use this material. And I will tell you that a lot of the ISS positions, at least in my experiences, you will use the full gambit of your degree in some form or matter with it.

When do people actually go to the academies in the military? Is it after they go through basic training? 

I call it an Academy because that's typically what people mostly understand it as, but it's actually a Training Center. There are different ways to enter the military. One is to be enlisted or basic training. I did that in 1995 myself. Another way is you become an Officer and there are different ways to become an Officer. One is, if you're enlisted, go to bootcamp, and then you apply to become an Officer. Then you go to Officer Candidate School which is 17 weeks long. It's actually in New London, Connecticut at the Coast Guard Academy. But, there's also the regular Coast Guard Academy that’s a four year degree program. 

It’s a little tougher than a regular four year degree because it’s a military academy. But, there are people that will go that route to join the military. So, usually bootcamp is for enlisted and then you have Officer Candidate School, US Coast Guard Academy, Army Academy, or Naval Academy. They all have those different options. That's typically how you enter the service. 

Now when I was talking about “Academy”, I was referring to the Coast Guard.  They have training centers that focus on different things. We have the training center, Yorktown, in Yorktown, Virginia, that focuses more on specific types of jobs. Like you said, you know, there's weapon’s specialist, we might call them “gunner's mate.” They would have the school for those folks to get trained on that job. 

We have one in Petaluma, California; Elizabeth City, North Carolina…Cape May, New Jersey is actually where our bootcamp is at. And then for myself, I was at Special Missions training center at Camp LeJeune. And what that training center focused on was the tactical boat driving tactical operations, and Expeditionary Forces. Those are the folks deployed overseas to fight the wars for the Coast Guard. People will be surprised but yes, we deploy overseas and participate in every war there is. Then we also oversaw the dive program for the Coast Guard.

Do Instructional Systems Specialists get hired at these training centers or other places like the Officer Candidate School? Or is it across the board?

It's across the board. At every training center is an ISS–there's a group all there. Every Academy actually has the same type of folks there that kind of develop their curriculum, more on a college level. Then, you know, everybody has a Headquarter type Unit, right? Whether it's TSA or Coast Guard, we have the Headquarters Unit. Wiith most of those federal agencies at their headquarters unit, they have an ISS that may be focusing on a higher level type of trainee or analysis.

Now, usually you don't need to be an expert in what you're designing training for because you get subject matter experts in corporate. Is that the same kind of thing for the military? Or do they prefer former military or people already who've been through it to be ISS?

No, I think there's an advantage for both, honestly. The reality is that there's a very limited number of people who have that kind of background or degree that can do both. I mean, one of the advantages I had for myself was that I was fully qualified in most of those jobs, either doing it myself, or as a command leadership over one of those types of units. So I had done all those different types of operations. So when I got my degree, it was really easy for me to understand the lingo.

But, the reality is the majority of the ISS we get do not have that background. And I would say, in my last job with the Coast Guard, we had more contractors than government employees. None of those contractors had a background in it. So it's very common to become an Instructional Systems Specialist with no background at all. My current position, I will say, probably less than 20% actually have a TSA background.  All of the rest are from outside the TSA.

What does TSA stand for?

Transportation Security Administration. That's the folks you see at the airport.

What about security clearances? From an outsider's perspective, that seems to be kind of a barrier.

It can be. I will tell you that when you're applying for some positions that have our security clearance, you could be the top candidate. But if you don't have the clearance, sometimes that can push you further down the road. Maybe somebody's pretty competitive against you, but they have a top secret clearance and that position requires a top secret clearance, then they can easily go, “Hey, I need somebody right away. I'll take someone who has that top secret clearance.” 

I will tell you that again, this position is unique. So ISS, Instructional Systems Specialist, is a position that has  professional series with the government. So you do have to have a degree with a certain percentage of classes in this type of background. And it's going to be tougher to find folks with security clearance in this field. And then, not all those jobs require that you might.  Maybe you just need to have a clearance. You got to be cleared with a criminal background check or something like that. So that's not as tough as a full clearance. It can be a little nerve wracking with that. I will tell you that in most cases, if you're selected, you'll go through that clearance or background check process…Unfortunately, that's one of the biggest things that takes the longest to do. And that's what typically holds you up to actually report to your job. They can't let you come on board until you have that background check done. So that's why the process can take so long.

Is there a way for someone to get a security clearance before they apply? Or is it something that you get if you’re hired? 

Only something you get if you're hired. If you get a clearance, typically a federal government agency has a security organization within its agency that will conduct background checks. So, based on what the clearance is, it could be a 5 year or 10 year background check. So they go back 5 or 10 years into your history of where you live, who you're associated with, the criminal background, financial background, things like that, to make sure that you're clear to work. Unfortunately, it is something that they will typically not start until you get the final job offer. Because it is a very costly program to actually get you a background check. I mean, once you get that background check that is. So having that clearance itself will open up doors for you within the federal government, alright, even with contracting. That a lot of people don't imagine, but it is a very costly thing for the government to actually get a background check.

If people want to go through the process, apply, and they see that it requires a certain security clearance, could they apply anyway? 

Yeah, definitely! It shouldn't restrict anybody from applying. This is telling you that you're going to have to have that clearance. Each person will have to be truthful to themselves, if they have a background that has maybe some criminal charges, or things like that. It’ll ask those questions, and just know to be upfront about it. And if it doesn't qualify you, because of a criminal background or something like that, you just have to be truthful. Because typically, the clearance process would find out, and that's not going be good for the typical person applying for it. But, if it says it requires a clearance, it's just telling you that, “Hey, you're going to have to go through this process. And you need to be truthful with the questions you put in your application.”

Are there drug and hair follicle checks in addition to the criminal background check?

So typically, every federal job has a drug test. And that's typically one of the processes besides the clearance is that if you've been selected, they will make arrangements for you to go to a lab to give a drug test.

Okay. But, that's not necessarily part of the clearance.  The clearance is more about your criminal background right?

Correct. The whole idea behind a background check is to see if you have a criminal background? Do you have anything in your record that can be used to coerce you, or go against you, blackmail you against the federal government, right? So it's going to talk about where you lived the last 5, 7 or 10 years? Then they’ll contact who knows you in that location so that they can call for an interview. And they will actually talk to those people? Have you ever been overseas? And if you have, what was the reason for it, and who's our contact for that? So they can kind of look at your full background, just to see if there's any known association to any agency that might be a threat to the country.

Okay, that makes a lot of sense. I bet you a lot of people don't even apply just because they think, “Oh, I don't have XYZ clearance. I can't even apply for this job.” So already, I think you have opened a lot of doors for people. So first of all, where do they find these jobs?

All federal jobs are through USAJobs.gov. So it doesn't matter what federal agency you're looking at applying for. This is the actual site. So even when you look at Monster.com or LinkedIn, you’ll find all those links will take you back to USA Jobs to apply for. Any person can go to USA Jobs, create an account, set up different functions to serve, or even be notified about different positions. But USA Jobs is the only place that you can apply for the jobs. What typically happens is when you go to officially apply for a position, USA Jobs will actually transfer all your information to whichever government agency site where you actually do the application, but you can't get to those sites without going through USA Jobs.

What about the contract positions? Do those also come through USAJobs? Are there other companies that contract with the government where you have to go and apply directly with those outside businesses? 

Yeah, unfortunately. All contract positions are typically from that contract company doing a solicitation. So what happens is a company will be looking to bid for a contract. So you might see companies soliciting for people that say this job's ISS. It’s no surprise that they'll start collecting resumes before they even get the contract. What they're doing is trying to build up their pool of applicants for positions because once the government awards a contract, that company has a very limited time to get people hired and on site. They only start getting paid until people report to their duties. 

What typically happens is a lot of companies will start to solicit for applicants. You might have five companies bidding for a contract. All five companies are soliciting for the same job doesn't mean they have it yet. They're just looking for their candidate pool to put it together. And then once that contract was awarded, then they obviously will start to fill those positions. 

So I would tell you that if you find one contract position that's open, do a Google search. You'll probably find other companies that might be bidding for that position so go ahead and apply for all of them. Because whoever wins that contract, they have your name. Now, saying that, once a company gets a contract, again, they get paid by having a person filling that position.  So as people leave or get let go for any reason, they have to fill that position. So you'll still see people soliciting for folks there to kind of get those positions filled. But unfortunately, it's a separate process. There're some sites that you can look up for government contract positions that you can go to. A lot of these contract companies will use sites to solicit you like Monster.com, because they have to get out and advertise their own stuff. But that is separate from USAJobs.

So, when you start seeing one company advertising a position for a government contract job, then you can probably find other companies. What's good is that you’re not only putting yourself in their candidate pool for that role, but I imagine they probably store those applications for upcoming projects and upcoming candidate pools that they need.

They sure do. I had one contract company that had to let a few folks go. And when they had to pull, they started going down the list of all the applicants they had previously until they found someone that could fill that position. So it's very common for them to do

If you get hired directly through the government or their upward mobility, can you become like an ISS number two, or ISS number three, or however that works?

Sure. There's a pay scale within the federal government. And it's sometimes confusing because they have General Services, which is GS. The Office of Personnel Management has a set pay scale, that goes anywhere from a GS 10, probably to a GS 14, sometimes 15. So those are different levels you can be at. 

And then the TSA has its own pay scale, the band system. So they can be like a say H band, I band, J band..so it's kind of equivalent to the GS. They're all equivalent, but you will typically see different agencies offer different levels. In the Coast Guard, we had a lot of GS 11 positions, but the supervisors were GS 12s. So that one level up into the TSA, we have what we call “I Band” at our academy. So all of our Instructional Systems people have “H/I” which means they might get hired as an H and then maybe they can work their way up to the I Band. That's a promotable exception because they have H/I. Based on your experience, they might bring you straight in as an I Band because of your experience. 

And then, for us, the person overseeing those folks are a J Band or GS 14 equivalent. So you have the steps that you can take. Other agencies that might have different levels based off what they find is the most competitive.

What is the pay range for a full time ISS?

It can fluctuate but it's challenging. One of the challenges is that you’re paid just based on where you're at too. For example, somebody in Glynco, Georgia is not going to get the same pay as somebody in DC. DC is going to be higher because of the higher cost of living. So there's your basic pay. There's a cost of living adjustment based on where you're at. So let's say you're in Glynco, Georgia. You're going to go based on your experience and you can go anywhere from $78,000 to $130,000.

That actually tracks with the corporate range. So what does the process look like to apply and get hired?

When you go to USAJobs, the first thing you do is set up an account. When you're applying for different federal jobs, sometimes they allow you to upload your resume. Sometimes they require you to create your resume within the USAJobs site. The first thing is getting into that account and start to build that account up. The resumes can be a very, very big part of that time. I think you can have up to five resume types stored at one time. 

Then the next thing you're gonna want to look at doing is getting the appropriate documents that you need to apply for jobs. And that can be your transcripts for college. I would tell you that almost every high position requires some type of degree, bachelor's, or master's and a certain college level. I would say get your transcripts so you can upload those. If you have a cover sheet, get those uploaded. Then look at anything else that might be applicable to your background. If you were prior military, you need to have certain specific military items to give credit for that. 

A lot of people don't realize it, but if you're a spouse of a military personnel–you know, because the military makes you transfer every three to four years based on what your job is–spouses actually get a little bit of a priority because the government says you're moving with your husband or spouse. So they're trying to give the spouses a little bit of a leg up and trying to help them out with employment. So, you get a copy of your husband or wife's orders and upload them to show that you just transferred there. You really want to look at the documents that are required and start building that into that USAJobs account and having that stuff ready. 

The next biggest thing is searching for jobs. When you're searching for jobs, you have to keep in mind that it can be by just terminology “Instructional Systems.” But, I will tell you that on the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) website, you can look up Series. You're going to want to look up Series and then look at Training. There's different Training series that are out there. 1750 is ISS, that's an Instructional System Specialist. That's the Series numbers, 1750. But you also have things like 1712. 1712 is a Training Specialist or Instructor. It goes by different terms. And then you have general ones. For example, I'm a Program Analyst and Manager. And that's O343. So that's a very broad series and can be used for different things. 

So you want to do your research and find out what you would fall into. I covered some of that in the article that I posted. But you really want to research that because you can search by that Series, you can put all those Series numbers or names in your search engine. And it's going to bring all those up. And that's going to really, really help you focus down into areas that's in your specialty. And then you can later narrow that down by Pay and Location. A new option that’s on there now since COVID is Remote. The other one is Job Location Negotiable. That means it might not be remote. But if you're near another facility, for the agency you're being hired at, you can just go into that facility as needed versus going maybe all the way to DC. 

So you really want to focus on building your search. And research is important to build your searches. You can store multiple searches in your USAJobs account. You can also set it up where you get notified via email anytime there's a new job that matches your categories and your searches. So you might set up four or five different searches based on the different things you're interested in. Then you would just get an email of all the new jobs that matches that criteria. And that's just going to help you in your search process. So really, setting that account up and really figuring out what you want to search for is going to be important. Again, you can do this by words or you can do it by a Series number. But it's very important to do a little bit of research to see if you fit the different categories that you’re searching for. 

One thing to remember is that the resumes for USAJobs are not like any other resumes. You can have up to five pages to submit for a resume. And it's very important that you look at that job announcement. These are things you will see on how you could be evaluated, the job description…you want to look at those keywords, and make sure that when you're addressing those key areas in your resume and every position that you held. Then you want to include those specific keywords. Look at how the words are used in that announcement, because that's what they're looking for. Match their announcements as much as possible. Because what typically happens is, when you're applying for a job, the system goes through the process, and it'll look for keywords in your resume. So the first thing is getting past the AI. It looks for keyword matching with the job announcement. Second, it gets sent to a person who's supposed to double check that you have all your documentation, how you answered the questions, and whether your job application process matches your resume. 

Keep in mind that this person looks at probably thousands and thousands of resumes every day. And they don't know what the job is. Their job is to pretty much match these things together. They're not specialized in this and not an ISS. They're just there to match resumes to the job application process. So I tell people to make it hard for them to say no. The cover letter becomes very important. And that's where for me personally, I like to put on one side how their announcement is saying that you're being evaluated. Then on the other side, how I met that requirement for valuation. 

Again, it's a little bit repetitive to the resume. But it's kind of a dumbed down summary of how I met that evaluation process. My thought behind that is that when this person gets my resume and my cover letter, hopefully I've done their job for them, and make it easy for them to say yes. Because they're trying to see if I met all the evaluation requirements and I broke it down into the table and my cover letter for them. And then in the resume, as I mentioned, it's five pages.  Typically in corporate resumes, you tend to give them just enough pace to go, “I want to know more about this person.” With the USAJobs, you want to give them everything about you on that resume that you can fit in. It's very important that you can expand upon the role of those positions that are focused on the Structural System Specialist area. You want to talk about some of the projects you've done and get some of the details. 

I like to say Action. Impact. Result. What action did you take? What impact did it make? What was the result of that project? And so it's very important that you spend the time and you really do justice to your resume.  Remember, it goes through the process that makes sure that you're truthful in your resume and how you answer the questions in the application process.  Then it goes to a hiring panel or hiring board. When it gets to that actual agency, the people doing the actual hiring and the people who will be interviewing typically set up a matrix. And that matrix is broken down by different aspects of that job. 

There's a percentage in each of those portions of that matrix. So there'll be a group of people that will look at your resume and based off of that matrix they’re going to grade you. That matrix is built upon how the job announcement is and what that job consists of. This is where it really comes to “Am I getting this interview or not.” You're going to be given a score, and it's going to be based on how well you wrote your resume and how you describe your jobs, projects, and things like that. So that's where it becomes very important. Because if you don't have a good resume, you're not going to get to the interview. We really, really, really talk about projects you did. 

And I've seen so many people that were, they're great. People that work for me, they're great folks and they have experience. But they can never get through that resume process to get the interview. So make sure you spend that time and address those issues. Then, what happens is, when you go through that resume matrix, they'll score you out. And then they'll make a determination on how many people they're going to interview. And ultimately, it'll take us a bit, say, 10 people. They're going to take the 10 top folks on that matrix, who scored out and those become the folks who get interviews and get the phone call to come in.

From there, it's just like most difficult interviews.  They pretty much have set questions. A lot for ISS will be on projects and development. They're going to see if you truly understand the process and that you're not just maybe educated in it, but that you can also talk about projects that you did that show your experience. This is very key, because a lot of the folks that will be on your interview will be other ISS. You're going to have folks that have the same background and they're looking for those keywords…looking for the ADDIE process to make sure you understand that process. And they’re looking for analysis and curriculum development. They are trying to see where you had the experience in that area to get hired. 

How much weight does having a portfolio have in this process?

I would say there's a few agencies that probably would ask for a portfolio, but different agencies do things differently. I know when we hire instructors, we actually require them to do a 10 minute demo for us to actually see if they can instruct. In my experience, not many portfolios have been submitted for ISS.  It’s typically based off of the resume. And then maybe when they call around to your references, they'll talk about some of the projects you worked on. But, most of the time, I do not see a portfolio. It doesn't mean it doesn't happen. I guess that each agency is different.

So it’s more about the experience that you have?

Correct. It’s more about the experience and being able to showcase your projects in a professional and clearly understood way.

So it almost seems like if you are wanting to transition into instructional design, and you're interested in government ISS work, then you should probably get some experience somewhere else before you apply to the government jobs? 

Yeah, Robin, I would say so. I mean, obviously they're looking for the best. They want strong people. My TSA Academy has five Instructional Systems Specialists. In some places that seems like a lot. But for us, as many training courses that we oversee, it's not a lot. So you want somebody who can come in and really be a self starter, to understand the material and just kind of move forward projects. 

But I'll also tell you that this is a great time to get into the federal government an ISS. I don't know exactly what has been driving this, but I’m seeing more and more postings of these positions. And I don't think these are just positions that are just just becoming vacant. I think a lot of agencies are starting to learn and understand what Instructional Systems Specialists do. And they're seeking that.  And let's face it, there's just not a lot of people in this community still. It’s not all well known. One of the challenges you do have for the federal government side is that  they do require at least a bachelor's degree with a certain amount of credit hours in Instructional Systems or education. So that limits the candidates to apply for it.  

I will tell you the process does take long. If someone's really looking for a job and they need it right now, they need to know that the federal government's not fast. It is a slow process that can sometimes take two months or three months…sometimes even longer based on the clearance. But it can be a couple of months just to get hired and brought on board…And I would even tell you, because of what I've seen, if you are a new college grad that has an education background, I will tell you to apply. I tell my daughter this all the time, “It's always ‘No’ unless you ask. It's always ‘No’ unless you apply. 

So, you get a lot of experience, just going through the process. The interviews kind of build you up. Maybe you went to interview, you felt you were prepared. But maybe you found out the questions they asked, you weren't 100% prepared. And now, the second time you can prepare even better. So I would tell people, even new folks in the program, if you match the criteria, apply. Because you never know. They might use that same list to hire multiple positions. Or it could be that the process takes a few months, sometimes longer. And everybody says no, or they turn the job down. And you're number five, and you're ready to go.

So my next question was going to be, “What about teachers?” But it sounds like they are seen favorably because they have the degrees. Are their transferable skills from creating curriculum for K through 12 valued in these ISS roles?

Yeah, I think so. I would tell you that they might find it challenging to expand themselves outside of that K-12 world. I think that if you're wanting  to transition, you just have to open your mind to it. Like you mentioned, we're typically not subject matter experts on the curriculum or developing an analysis that we're doing. You have to be willing to ask those questions, seek, and read. So I feel teachers would do a great job in some of these positions.

What is your best advice for those who want to become an IDOL?

You have to have that desire to help with education and training. You might not be the person doing it, but you're building the material. So having that love to develop people, that’s really important. And you have to remember that because you're always going to face a challenge where you have to remember why you took this job. 

The second to it is to do your research. This is such a vast community. Whether it be corporate, volunteer work, federal jobs, contract jobs…there are just so many opportunities out there. But I think some people get fearful that they’re not qualified. So I would tell them to apply. Start that process. You might not get it the first time. You might not get it the second, third, or fourth time. But you're going to learn the lessons as you go through that process and you're going to become a better interviewer, you're going to become a better resume writer, you're going to be better at networking through that process. And I really, really encourage everybody to just push through and do the research and put your neck out there. Take the chance.

Ron, thank you so much for your service! Thank you so much for coming and sharing with us today on the Become an Idol podcast. I really, really appreciate you.

Thank you for having me.

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