6 mins

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Software moves fast, how can you build a culture ready to keep up?

The pressure to stay relevant in the fast-moving world of software engineering can lead to major anxiety, but companies that take continuous learning seriously not only tend to be more desirable places to work, they are also able to improve the quality and efficiency of their work.

A few years ago I was managing a team of strong developers and I had convinced myself that we had a great learning culture. As our team expanded, and we began hiring folks with different levels of experience, I started to see how uncoordinated learning had become, directed not by a cohesive culture, but a mixture of project requirements and personal interests.

Over the next year, I focused on building a learning culture that set clear objectives and outcomes, tracked progress, and made it easy for engineers to take part. I hope this helps you establish a process that makes learning outcomes both measurable and achievable.

What to learn

Choosing the right topic is the first step in any learning journey, but it has to finely balance the career development needs of the individual with company requirements. To achieve this, always ask yourself two questions:

Does it benefit the engineer?

Ensuring that engineers see value in the learning process is essential for keeping them engaged. I approach this by always focusing on how to enhance my engineers' attractiveness in the job market by constantly evaluating whether the skills we are developing will make them more desirable based on industry trends and company direction. 

In this context, it’s important to distinguish between upskilling and job training. Learning how to use an obscure internal tool may be useful, but it won’t make that engineer more attractive in the job market. Engineers will truly benefit from the knowledge if we focus our learning resources on upskilling activities that boost the engineer's marketability.

Does it benefit the organization?

This emphasis on personal growth must not neglect the organization's strategic goals. For instance, learning a programming language that isn’t intended to be used by the company shouldn’t be done on company time. Instead, focus on learning goals that help the organization:

  • Stay relevant: Increasing the organization’s ability to respond effectively to industry changes 
  • Make performance improvements: Improving productivity and quality standards
  • Upskill: Enhancing the team’s ability to undertake more complex work
  • Innovate: Encouraging learning and experimenting with new ideas
  • Improve employee satisfaction: Increasing team vibrancy and improving employer branding

Finding the balance between personal and organizational gains

To help find this balance, sit down with your report to align learning opportunities with the engineer's career path, identifying knowledge gaps and setting them as targets for development. For instance, a list of skills a junior engineer should know in order to be considered a mid-level engineer. This approach can include both soft and technical skills, reflecting the values your organization looks for as engineers move up the career ladder.Career paths tend to correspond with the company's strategic direction, which makes the learning alignment much easier.

There are some handy tools that can help you with this exercise, such as Zavvy and Lattice. I find Progression useful in mapping out career paths and expectations that can be altered as industry trends evolve.

Source: Elsewhen.com

Defining measurable outcomes

I used to believe in the necessity of generating some output from a learning task. I saw a tangible form of output, such as notes, as a way to prove that the engineer had genuinely spent time and budget on learning. As you might expect, that was not motivating, engaging, or measurable. 

Instead, I like to focus on how engineers share the knowledge they have gained, which I measure as Multiplier Impact. The larger the group you share your new knowledge with, the more significant the impact. 

I got this idea from my wife, who is a teacher. In education, the Hierarchy of Audience encourages students to improve their work by presenting it to an increasingly broad and critical audience. Starting with themselves and moving outward, the hierarchy includes peers, family, experts in the field, and, eventually, the public. The idea is that as the audience becomes wider and more demanding, students are motivated to produce higher-quality work due to the increased observation and feedback they receive.

Below, you can see the original Hierarchy of Audience chart on the left and my Multiplier Impact (MI) chart on the right. At the beginning of each learning task, engineers should decide what level of impact they want to aim for and the output they will produce. It starts with “To present to the public”, which means the learning output would be giving a talk at a conference or meetup, aiming for the highest impact. Implementing this approach led to engineers writing blog posts or giving talks at conferences. 

Source: Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment, by Ron Berger (Author), Leah Rugen (Author), Libby Woodfin (Author), EL Education (Author)

While sharing knowledge is a great outcome, it’s also important to recognize that it’s not for everyone. To be as inclusive as possible, ensure you aren’t using MI as a blocker.

The manager’s role

As a manager, your influence is critical in promoting your team's continuous learning culture. Your actions set an example for your engineers, showcasing the value and importance of ongoing professional development. Here are some key strategies to enhance this culture:

Track progress and provide coaching

Using one-on-one meetings is an excellent strategy for monitoring your engineers' learning journeys. These sessions should naturally focus on career development and offer the perfect setting for discussing educational goals and challenges. They also present an opportunity for personalized coaching. Explore various learning techniques and resources together, from books to digital platforms, and guide your engineers on selecting and engaging with materials that align with their objectives. Facilitating access to necessary resources and providing personalized advice will help them to advance more effectively.

Additionally, the learning conversation should also expand beyond individual meetings and to the team level. Encourage the organization of regular forums, such as book clubs and weekly discussions where team members can share insights, resources, and outcomes from their learning experiences. These gatherings create a space for presenting their learning efforts' outcomes (driving multiplier impact), promoting a shared sense of achievement and collective growth. Use these opportunities to lead by example. Consistently demonstrate your commitment to personal development. Share recent books you read, discuss new concepts you're exploring, and openly engage in learning activities.

Create opportunities for your team

Finally, as a leader, you have a broader view of the organization's overall direction. As previously discussed, you should use this insight to align individual learning initiatives with the organization's wider objectives and future direction.

You must also use this organizational insight to create meaningful opportunities for your team to apply what they've learned, making their new skills useful to the organization. Highlighting these contributions boosts the visibility of their achievements, reinforcing the value of the learning culture, and inspiring further engagement.

The role of the organization

An organization's support can significantly enhance the effectiveness and ease of implementing a learning culture, which includes providing the time and budget to support learning activities.

Allocating time for learning

One of the most significant resources an organization can provide is time. It's essential to recognize the importance of a healthy work-life balance and to ensure that learning doesn't overstep into personal time. Instead, learning should be integrated into regular working hours, demonstrating the organization's commitment to its employees' growth. At Elsewhen, we dedicate two days monthly for learning, reserved via our holiday system, ensuring consistent development opportunities.

Providing a sufficient learning budget

The cost of learning in the tech industry can be substantial. The expenses can add up quickly, from purchasing books and courses, to subscriptions. This financial commitment emphasizes the value of continuous learning and development, allowing teams to access the resources they need to grow and stay at the forefront of technological advancements. 

Final thoughts

A sustainable learning culture within a software engineering team is absolutely necessary in today's fast-paced tech landscape. By focusing on what to learn, defining measurable outcomes and ensuring both manager's and the organization's support, we can guarantee a purposeful learning culture.