Why and how to implement lifelong learning for developers

By Don Jones

Today’s leading organizations recognize that 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 an organization apart from its competitors.

Still, many leaders struggle to keep their developers on a lifelong path of skill development; under the day-to-day pressures of business, learning can take a backseat. This is short-term thinking that carries a long-term price. 

Identifying skill development challenges

Many leaders feel they have to compromise when it comes to ongoing technology education. They may struggle to:

  • Prove learning is effective
  • Determine what skills developers should learn next
  • Justify taking a developer “offline” to learn when there’s work to be done
  • Find budget for expensive classroom training, including travel expenses 
  • Deliver quality, up-to-date content relevant to their business objectives 

These concerns are the result of an approach to skill development that has remained unchanged for too long. Just as technology evolves, so must strategy surrounding technology learning. 

Making the case for skill development 

Understanding the potential outcomes for your business will reveal how to deliver effective, ongoing skill development. Before you can meet your developers’ educational needs, ask yourself: Why does our organization need new technology skills at all? Reasons may include: 

Technology moves forward—so should you

Suppose 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. So should your developers’ skills. 

Mature technologies may seem easy to ignore when it comes to keeping skills on the cutting edge, but even this comes at a cost. Each new release brings subtle, evolutionary change. Keeping up with the latest versions of your tools ensures your developers are taking full advantage of your technology investment.

Developers are tactical assets

Strategic opportunities can present themselves to your organization in the form of a new market, audience, product, service and so on. You’ll need technology support to capitalize on these opportunities, and that’s where an educated developer becomes an important asset. A developer who has up-to-date knowledge of the latest technologies can quickly identify the tools and approaches that your organization should explore. An agile workforce is strategic investment; there’s a business advantage in developers who have a pulse on what’s new. 

Developers get bored

Good developers are hard to find and harder to keep when their day-to-day lacks variety. Ongoing development opportunities keep developers engaged and interested in their jobs, helping them feel valued for keeping up with the brightest minds in their industry. 

Making education happen—the right way

For all the upsides of skill development, the challenges are still present. Rethinking continuous education to meet developers where they are means taking a new approach to all facets of learning, including time, environment, subject matter, cost and measuring progress. 

Time: Dedicate to skill development

Developers often work in project cycles, which provides an opportunity to add learning to the mix. As a development sprint wraps up and a release is shipped, most organizations take downtime to evaluate the release and solidify plans for the next sprint. That’s a perfect time to dedicate to skill development. It’ll provide a mental break from the current project, help the team quickly update some key proficiencies and show them developers you’re just as dedicated to moving the needle forward on their career as they are.

Environment: Eliminate the classroom

Many of the downsides of professional development are tied to the traditional classroom approach, which requires time away from work, expenses, etc. Classrooms attempt a one-size-fits-all approach—not an ideal experience. So, eliminate the classroom. Technology learning platforms provide content right in your office or, with mobile capabilities, anywhere developers happen to be. The ability to dip in for a little bit of learning and then return to work offers a critical balance between gaining new skills and meeting the demands of the production environment.

Subject matter: Identify the right topics

Deciding what developers should learn is daunting. Each developer will have their own starting point, interests and skill gaps to focus on. Figuring out what’s trending in the industry is part of the learning process, so, in many cases, letting developers identify their own path to skilling up will alleviate your burden. Self-directed learning lets developers explore the technology marketplace and build the breadth of skills that will make them a valuable tactical asset. 

Of course, effective, self-directed learning depends on developers having access to a broad variety of ever-evolving topics. Fortunately, today’s technology education marketplace delivers breadth through an enormous variety of subject matter and learning modalities. That’s where you step in. You can choose from a world of options and select the best one for your team.

Cost: Make learning affordable

No matter how altruistic your organization, none can justify continuous, high-cost, in-person classes. Again, the emergence of a global marketplace for technology learning has introduced more affordable options, often 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 learning for a whole year—for an entire development team.

Measuring progress: Verifying technology skill development

It’s important to verify that your developer education program is helping your organization achieving its goals. Traditionally, leaders have encouraged developers to complete short cycles of learning and then pass their findings on to their peers. Now, some learning platforms provide assessment capabilities that verify comprehension of key topics even help identify learning opportunities going forward. Whatever approach you choose, being able to measure progress is vital. 

Skill up to keep up 

Keeping your organization ahead of the pace of technology change under a traditional classroom learning model is impractical at best and impossible at worst. Recognizing the tactical role developers play and sending them on a path of continuous, flexible, on-demand and relevant skill development is a strategic move you can make today that will enable your team to build and ship the products of tomorrow. 

About the author

Don Jones' broad IT experience comes from 20 years in the business, with a strong focus on Microsoft server technologies. He's the author of more than 45 technology books, including titles on administration and software development, and writes monthly columns for the industry's leading periodicals. He's an in-demand speaker at technical conferences and symposia worldwide, and is widely recognized as one of the top trainers in the Microsoft sector.