In Part 1 of this sequence of blog posts, we covered online and print learning. Part 3 is now available as well. This time we will review some of the in-person options for learning and focus in on smaller groups. But first…
An Elaboration On “The Best”
I suggested in 2014 Developer Learning Guide: Part 1 that A-players, top developers, etc. only want to work for companies that have a great learning culture. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they already ARE working for these companies. The point is that, given the choice, the best developers know the value of learning and want to be part of groups where everyone is actively engaged in it. If you are already working for a company like this, I congratulate you on your outstanding choice!
The most common argument I’ve heard for choosing or sticking with a company with poor learning policies/funding: “If a company pays well enough, I can afford my own learning/training.”
This is true. The fallacy is that all of the developers will use their “extra money” for this purpose. We all have obligations and sometimes paying off that credit card or taking a family trip might take priority over paying for our own training. When the employer provides budget and opportunity specifically for training, the entire team is far more likely to take advantage of it. This leads to the entire team learning and growing together. You avoid the situation where stragglers are content to stagnate and contribute a steadily degrading quality of work (and contribute steadily degrading quality of feedback on teammates’ work).
TL;DR I stand by my original statement with a few caveats.
This is not to say that everyone should try to learn in the same ways. Some people don’t take much away from certain types of training and learning opportunities. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, in fact, it is the purpose of these posts to provide a comprehensive list of the options that are out there! My hope is that you won’t focus on only one type of training. A rich selection of options awaits. I encourage you to try many and find out which work best for you.
In-Person (Smaller Groups)
Start or join a book club/group/discussion. If you don’t like the word “club” find something different. Oprah won’t mind… why do you even care what she thinks? Hopefully your company is willing to sponsor a book group with lunch provided and books paid. This is a minimal expense and provides a great return on investment. Reading books alone often isn’t enough. Having discussions with peers (who will definitely have takeaways you didn’t consider) is a great way to help maximize learning. In addition, adding coding exercises that pertain to the book topic occasionally really helps to cement the knowledge. More on that later…
One thing I’d like to call out here: if your group is larger than six people, consider breaking out into smaller groups for the majority of your discussion time. This is a neat trick I picked up from Mike Clement at Utah Software Craftsmanship meetups. Large groups tend to lend themselves a couple of antipatterns:
- At best some participants may not participate because the more dominant voices in the room are taking up too much time.
- At worst, you may have people napping in the back.
We implemented the breakout approach at my current company with great success. We get back together for an overall discussion for 10-15 minutes at the end of the hour and cover the points each group thought were most important.
Selecting the right kind of book is a very important concern here. Voting as a group is a nice way to get an idea of what people are interested in. Always be sure to select titles that will be good for discussion. Code cookbooks are an outstanding example of what not to read. I tend to prefer books grounded in theory, patterns, practices more than how-to books on specific technologies. If you aren’t sure where to start or don’t have money for books initially, there is a lot of great free material for discussions available online. Many blog post make for excellent discussions (hint, wink, nudge).
Presentations/User Groups/Meetups/Open Space
This section is a little more broad. Intentionally. There is an entire class of in-person interactions that can be extremely valuable learning tools. Many are existing groups and some you’ll have to go out of your way to create.
Presentations – The most formal entry of the section. Presentations are sometimes more valuable for the presenter than they are for the people watching. Nothing cements knowledge in your brain like stressing over sharing it with 5 to 500 other people all at once (for me anyway).
What you will take away from attending a presentation depends on your own personal learning style, the effectiveness of the presenter, and how much attention you actually pay to the presentation. I get nuggets from attending presentations but in general they have moderate value for me. So, “Present, present, present!” becomes my mantra.
“But where can I present?” you ask? The opportunities are out there. Present at work, user groups/meetups, coding dojos, code camps, large conferences, or just record yourself and post it online. Not sure how to get started? Go and watch someone present and ask them how they did it. This is also a topic I may write more on in the future.
User Groups/Meetups – Unfortunately I missed a great one of these (Utah Software Craftsmanship) last night because of pressing matters elsewhere. These groups are somewhat hit and miss, but if you find a few that are a good cultural fit and really match your interests they can be fantastic. User groups/meetups are a great place to learn, practice presentation skills, mingle with fellow techies, and often get free food.
If there isn’t a local user group that fits your interests, start your own. The most difficult part is securing a venue but local colleges and businesses are often willing to host your group. In addition, larger groups will attract sponsors who may provide swag for giveaways and/or food.
The best current place to look for a public group (or start one) is on Meetup.com.
Open Space Technology – I’ve only participated in one open space-style of meeting/collaboration unfortunately. It was at an Agile Roots conference back in 2009 and had a fairly profound impact on me. If you have the opportunity to attend an open space, I highly recommend it.
For more info check out OST on Wikipedia.
Coding exercises are a general term for writing code following a format lead by a presenter. There are many different subsets of exercises including design, gamified, and code katas. All of these have value, but I’m going to focus on the latter.
If you aren’t familiar with the term code kata, here is what Wikipedia says: “A code kata is an exercise in programming which helps a programmer hone their skills through practice and repetition.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kata_(programming). I like to compare it to a martial arts kata where we work to develop the equivalent of “muscle memory” for certain coding techniques. Coding dojos are specialized meetups of people who perform code katas as a group. Participating in a coding dojo is something I look forward to every week. I always learn something new and almost always have the opportunity to help others do the same.
I have a future blog post queued up about my experience with starting a coding dojo at HealthEquity over the past year.
It turns out I have too much to say for a 2 part post. In the third and final part of this post I will cover more in-person options for learning. It focuses on larger groups and formal training. Find it here: Part 3.
Also, be sure to check out Part 1 if you missed it.
I’d love to see your thoughts and comments below or to @dubmun on Twitter.