Developers and lifelong learning: The challenges and opportunities impacting your team
Today’s leading organizations realize their developers provide a significant strategic advantage. In many cases, the ability to quickly create and deploy new solutions, often using innovative technologies, is what sets one organization apart from its competitors.
But many leaders struggle to keep their developers on a lifelong path of developing new skills; under the day-to-day pressures of business and operation, learning can be de-prioritized. This short-term thinking carries a heavy long-term price. Fortunately, organizations and their technology teams no longer need to make that compromise with a strategic approach to skills.
Skill development challenges
Many organizations feel they have to compromise when it comes to technology education. Leaders struggle to:
• Prove learning is effective
• Determine what skills developers should be learning
• Justify taking a developer “offline,” especially when there’s work to be done
• Find budget for expensive classroom training including travel expenses
• Deliver quality and up-to-date content thats relevant to their teams
These are legitimate concerns. But they apply to an educational approach that has remained unchanged for too long. Just as technology moves forward, so must technology learning. With this change comes new approaches and new opportunities.
Identifying the reasons for skill development
Before discussing how to meet your developers’ education needs, ask yourself: Why does our organization need new technology skills at all? Really understanding the drivers for skill development can help us think more broadly about how to deliver it.
Technology moves forward
Suppose that your developers primarily use Microsoft’s C# language to develop in-house applications or they use PHP for web applications. Neither of these technologies are static. They’re constantly evolving, improving and gaining new features. While developers can continue to be effective using what they already know, they can often be more effective when they keep their skills up-to-date.
Take database technologies for example. SQL Server, Oracle and other popular relational database management systems don’t typically experience revolutionary changes in new releases. They’re mature technologies and it'd be easy to ignore them when it comes to keeping skills on the cutting edge, because they don’t seem to change all that much. But ignoring them has an enormous cost, because each new release brings subtle, evolutionary change. For exampple, tiny changes in how to construct a query can fundamentally change how you think about performance. Keeping up with the latest versions of your tools can ensure your developers are taking full advantage of your technology investment.
Developers are a tactical asset
Strategic opportunities can present themselves to your organization in the form of a new market, audience, product, service and so on. It’s likely you’ll need some technology support to capitalize on the opportunity, and that’s where an educated developer becomes an important asset. A developer who has a broad skillset in the latest technologies can quickly identify tools and approaches that your organization can explore. These tools and approaches may be new to your environment, so additional skills may be required to get the rest of the team up to speed. But simply knowing which direction to go is a great start. An agile workforce is a strategic investment; there’s a business advantage in having developers who have a pulse on what’s new in the world of software.
Developers get bored
Good developers are hard to find, and there’s a good reason to try and keep them in your organization once you’ve found them. However, developers are at risk of getting bored. Working on the same project day in and day out can be trying, and a lack of variety can cause developers to get restless and start updating their resume. Providing ongoing developlment opportunities can keep developers engaged and interested in their jobs by helping them feel like they’re keeping up with their industry. Just as many companies offer a small allotment of “free time” for employees to pursue projects they find personally interesting, a little “open education” can make developers feel valued and help keep them interested even when their “real” job gets a little mundane.
Making education happen
For all the upsides of skill developlment, the challenges listed above are still present. However, developers’ unique work patterns and preferences for learning mean that you can tailor an experience designed to meet your developers where they are.
Making time for skill development
Developers often work in project cycles, and that provides a perfect opportunity to add learning to the mix. For example, as a development “sprint” wraps up and a release is shipped, most organizations take some downtime to evaluate the release and solidify plans for the next sprint. That’s a perfect time to drop in a day or two of skill developlment. It’ll provide a nice mental break in the project, help your team quickly update some key proficiencies, and show them that you’re just as dedicated to their ongoing career as they are.
Eliminating the classroom
Many of the downsides of professional developlment are tied back to the traditional classroom approach: time away from work, expenses, etc. So, eliminate the classroom. Classrooms attempt to cram information via a one-size-fits-all approach—it's not an ideal experience. Technology learning platforms provide content right in your office, and, with mobile capabilities, content can be accessed anywhere developers happens to be. Whether your team prefers videos, books, online courses or some other modality, the ability to “dip in” for a little bit of education and then return to work offers a critical balance between gaining new skills and meeting the demands of the production environment.
Identifying the right training
So what should your developers be learning? In most cases, you should let them make that decision for themselves, because simply figuring out “what’s hot” in the industry is part of the learning process. Unless there’s a specific project they’re skilling up for, selfdirected learning lets them explore the technology marketplace and develop the breadth of training that will make them a valuable tactical asset. Of course, effective self-directed learning depends on developers having access to a broad variety of training topics. Fortunately, today’s technology education marketplace is delivering that breadth through an enormous variety of training modalities. That marketplace also helps ensure developers are learning from the best instructors, using the most welldesigned classes. The ability to shop for, select and implement training over the Internet provides massive and healthy competition between training providers, something that benefits you and your team. You’re not restricted just to in-class offerings in your local area. You can literally choose from a world of options and select the best one for your organization.
Making training affordable
No matter how altruistic your organization, nobody can justify continual high-cost classes. Again, the emergence of a global marketplace for technology training has introduced more affordable options, without sacrificing quality. If you’re still thinking that $2,000 is the going rate for a week of education, think again: Options exist where $2,000 could provide unlimited training for an entire year—for an entire development team.
Verifying the training
Of course, it’s important to measure any investment and make sure it’s achieving what you hoped it would. That’s why it’s important to verify that your developer education program is achieving your goals. One way to do that is to have developers complete short cycles of training, and then pass that training on to their peers through “lunch and learn” presentations, internal blog postings and other forms of communication. Monthly education “meet ups” provide teams with an opportunity to identify new training subjects, and to pass on what they’ve learned in the previous cycle. Some training companies provide assessment capabilities that can be used to verify a student’s comprehension of key topics, and even to help identify learning opportunities going forward. Whatever approach you choose, “closing the loop” on training through discussion, internal pass-along and assessment is a vital part of the training lifecycle.
Technology education without compromise
At Pluralsight, we’re passionate not only about technology education, but also about making it available and effective. We know that companies have a difficult time paying enormous weekly fees for training, and that developers hate to feel like they’re falling behind. We don’t believe companies should beggar themselves to keep their staff skilled up, and we don’t believe that developers need to live without continuous training being available to them anytime, anywhere. We think that most business leaders fully recognize the value of ongoing, lifelong education for technology professionals, but that the traditional costs and downtime have simply made it impractical. That’s what we’re working to fix, by providing an enormous allyoucan- eat library of education, created by the world’s best educators, for a reasonable price. But we can only do so much. We also believe that business leaders need to recognize the changes that have happened in the world of technology education, and understand that the old classroom model has been superseded. We believe developers themselves need to focus less on getting that once-a-year, week-at-atime education, and instead look to models that provide on-demand, just-in-time training whenever they have a moment to dip in and learn a little. Together, we can create a more educated, more flexible and more tactically sound industry for software development. We can help our developers excel, and we can do it without compromise.