037 - Perspectives on Technology Skill Development [Part 2]

July 14, 2020

As a continuation of our previous episode, this week we’re bringing you five additional sections from the audiobook of Perspectives on Technology Skill Development.

If you enjoy this episode, please consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

Please send any questions or comments to podcast@pluralsight.com.


00:00:06.4 Daniel Blaser

Hello and welcome to All Hands on Tech where, today's leaders talk tomorrow's technology. I'm Daniel Blaser. As a continuation of our last episode, this week we're bringing you five additional sections from the audiobook of "Perspectives on Technology Skill Development". If you're interested in listening to the complete audio book, you'll find a link in the show notes to access Perspectives on Technology Skill Development for free on a variety of platforms.

00:00:30.0 Narrator

Section 5 - Why learning is the next skill your team should master, by Stacey Rivers. 

Remember grade school when we had folders and subject notebooks for each course? If you're a parent, you're intimately aware of this because of money spent every school year on different colored folders. Teachers have a system designed to help students focus and retain knowledge for the specific subject area through organization and memorization. 

L&D and technology leaders also need a system to help their teams keep up with tech, build business critical skills and apply them on the job in record time. How effectively you acquire a new skill is specific to your learning style, which is the ability to retain information in a way that is practical and adaptable. Learning is not passive. It's a skill that requires the same retention process you endured as a child, just at a faster pace. With the advancement of technologies such as cloud, AR, VR, AI, blockchain and cybersecurity, the way we work is quickly changing. We have to proactively build the right skills on our team and build them rapidly enough to capitalize on these new trends and technologies. Learning how best to upskill your team efficiently is just as important as the act of upskilling them. 

If you're still not convinced, here are my top five reasons why learning is the next skill you should master. 

Number one: Technology will continue to advance and change the way we work. 

Number two: Jobs will require emerging skills for companies to stay relevant. 

Number three: Higher salaries are commensurate with higher level skills that are not easily obtained.

Number four: Employees enjoy their work more when they have the right skills for the job. 

Number five: You take your skills wherever you go. 

Once you've committed to focus on skill development at your organization, your next step is discovering the most effective way to do it, taking into account individual preferences, topics, delivery methods and consequences. Yes, "consequence" can be a motivator or stressor because some skills require exams to validate the required knowledge has been retained. The higher the stakes are for gaining a new skill, the more challenging it can be for the learner to process and apply it successfully. 

One way to account for each individual's unique skill development style and needs is to partner with a technology skills solution that provides a personalized experience for each employee. When evaluating solutions, ask yourself the following questions about how your team builds skills: 

What was the last skill an employee learned that they were able to apply regularly? 

Did they learn it from a formal course or an informal arrangement? 

How is the information delivered: online, in person, on demand? 

Was it a video, podcast, book or e-course? 

Did the employees attend with peers or was it self-paced? 

How long did it take them to apply their new skills? 

What were the steps they took to retain the info? 

How did they apply what they learned? 

Was the process easy or difficult? 

If difficult, how did they overcome the challenge or challenges? 

If employees could change how they engaged with new information to better suit their needs, what would this look like? 

Once you answer the questions above, you should have some sense of the kind of solution that would have the greatest impact on your team's ability to build, retain and apply skills efficiently. Remember, an employee's level of interest in a specific topic area is also a big factor in their learning process. The less interested they are, the less likely it is that they will retain the information. The payoff comes when the topic is interesting, the delivery method is engaging and the learner is committed to applying their new skill. Even further, continuing to research, refine and solidify their knowledge will take them from novice to expert. 

As an L&D or tech leader, your job is to facilitate your team's skill development. You are building the skill of upskilling others. With the right approach to developing skills and a personalized way to support each individual's learning journey, you can reliably build skills across your organization and guarantee you are prepared for the future.

00:05:19.1 Narrator

Section 6 - Improving outcomes through psychological safety, by Nate Walkingshaw. 

If you're asking yourself more and more often, "Why are we not shipping? Why are we not communicating? Why have we slowed way down?", then you're experiencing misalignment. And while it can be caused by a variety of factors, you should also know that misalignment is a strong indicator of an unhealthy team. It's likely you'll want to start rooting around for individual solutions to your team's misalignment so you can get back to a healthy dynamic. But without first creating psychological safety, you're unlikely to see results. 

Psychological safety is the key to creating an environment where people can grow and learn new skills. Whether by your company culture, experiences on previous teams or just plain human nature, your team has been conditioned to hide the parts of themselves that may put their employment or social status at risk. This is evidenced by the lack of team members speaking up, taking chances, asking questions and leaving room for the input and opinions of others. 

Healthy teams are stacked with people who behave in ways that reflect and encourage psychological safety, a phenomenon first described by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson in the 90s, but now more critical than ever to the survival of modern organizations. Amy wrote in her book, "Teaming", "In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalize or think less of them for it. They also believe that others will not resent or humiliate them when they ask for help or information". She also says, "Psychological safety does not imply a cozy situation in which people are necessarily close friends, nor does it suggest an absence of pressure or problems". 

This dichotomy poses a challenge. Many leaders struggle with striking a balance between caring for employees on a personal level and upholding disciplines and standards. If you lean too far in either direction, the result is the same: you slow down. To avoid the common pitfalls on the way back to a healthy productive team and to create psychological safety, take these three steps: 

Number one: Really learn who you're working with. On healthy teams, every dimension of every person shows up to work with you every day. Yes, even in remote work environments. It just takes some groundwork. Learn how your teammates individually process feedback, solve problems and communicate. And be sensitive to what may be going on outside of work. For some, work may actually be their safe space, making them sensitive to changes to that environment. For others, prior experiences or situations playing outside of work will understandably impact how they show up. Be approachable. Know who you are and how you're experienced by others and encourage others to follow suit. Ask questions to identify their unique working style and celebrate authenticity. 

Number two: Encourage curiosity in your communications. It's your job as a leader to set the stage for psychological safety in your workplace. That means modeling the behavior you expect to see and being thoughtful about the way your words either encourage curiosity or stifle opportunities for collaboration. There are certain questions you can ask at every stand-up, or even during remote meetings, that will draw your team's natural curiosity. Say, "What am I missing?" or "What else should we consider?" to invite input. Recognize your own fallibility in your quest to see every angle of every problem. Someone on the team will be able to spot the gaps in your thinking which will move the whole team forward together, faster. Once you've created space for everyone to contribute, follow up on your team members’ input with both acknowledgement and action. 

Pro tip: Good communication requires more listening than speaking. Make it clear that even if someone already knows the answer to a problem, they listen to other people's ideas with a learner’s mindset and stay open to alternative perspectives. 

Number three: Take risks then reap the rewards. Psychological safety is an indicator of team performance, the thing we're all after. Get everyone on your team into the practice of being bold, speaking up, asking questions and admitting mistakes. A signal of reaching psychological safety in your team dynamic will be that people are empowered to say, "I don't know" or "I messed up" more often. This is a good thing. Only when people flag mistakes or identify gaps can they be addressed. By taking the risk out of these behaviors, the whole of your team becomes stronger than the parts. 

The main goal here is to remove the fear of failure from your organization. Tech leaders are the authors of what's to come. We need every voice to share knowledge, share stories, listen and include each other in order to really honor a learner's mindset. This creates psychologically safe environments where people can get the business of admitting they're human out of the way and move on quickly to creating powerful outcomes.

00:11:01.5 Narrator

Section 7 - Take the moonshots: 4 shifts to succeed with tech skill development, by KC Jorgensen. 

Talking about training is pretty much standard operating procedure in the tech industry. But training doesn't go far enough when it comes to upskilling technology teams and that's a big problem. You need to shift conversations toward tech skill development and focus on skill initiatives that are workforce driven, collaborative, ongoing and ultimately more creative. 

Number one: Shift from top-down training to employee and objective driven skill development. The interest in skill development in service of career growth continues to rise among tech employees. More and more people are pressuring executives and businesses to provide them with opportunities to acquire new skills on the job. They embrace the perspective of constant improvement and understand that tech skill development never ends. It's essential that C-suite executives champion skill development and understand which skills their people want to gain. What do they need to be effective today? Which skills will they need tomorrow? 

Filling the skills gap really comes down to; A) Understanding the strategy of your organization; B) Identifying which skills your people have and C) Identifying the skills your people need (and want) to meet company goals. 

As leaders, it's on us to implement the right types of programs and platforms to fill gaps and make sure people are quickly building the right skills. In short, how are you helping people up-level their knowledge to unleash their full potential? In my experience, these efforts cannot be solely top-down. Listening to your people and surfacing their suggestions results in more interest and higher levels of engagement. When you can tap into existing desires in a way that aligns with business objectives, you can create a solution where everyone wins and employees understand the "why" behind what they're learning. 

Number 2: Shift from one team’s problem to a company-wide journey. People often ask me whether the CIO or the CTO should initiate tech skill development or if it's dependent on HR seeking out opportunities to build tech skills initiatives. Honestly, it's neither, and it's both. Anyone at the C-suite level should be having regular conversations with other executives to understand the organization's pain points. The HR team can offer a different perspective on what the organization needs than the CIO or CTO. The conversation around new skills can originate in either office or from a different role altogether. Anyone who cares about the skills and education of the people who work within their org can start the process, but it helps if you also have someone fully dedicated to tech skills at your company who can build programs around the information. The most important thing to understand is that relevant productive skill development starts from a place of partnership. Having an open dialogue is much more critical than identifying whose job it is to initiate it. 

Number 3: Shift from emphasizing quick wins to the value of the long game. To build a successful tech skill development strategy, you should establish meaningful goals from the beginning. Every leader needs to identify the right measurements for their organization. Just as critical is setting benchmarks for progress. Where do you want to be a year from now? When will you stop and assess the changes you're implementing? The truth is that most successful tech skills initiatives are suited to the long haul. If your organization implements skill development with the goal of immediate returns, disappointment is likely. Mastering and applying new skills takes time and delivering results to customers requires even more. Skill development exchanges short-term costs for long-term gains, which is exactly the point. You have a knowledge workforce and you don't want to do just what everyone else is doing. You want to lead the market. You want to excel. That requires investment in your people and patience as their skills develop. You may not be able to measure the impact perfectly in either the beginning or the long-term. Accepting this fact is difficult in such a data-driven field, I'll admit. But if you have a firm grasp on why tech skill development matters to your org and to your workforce, having clear and adaptable goals becomes more paramount than precision. 

Number four: Shift from finite thinking to taking the moonshots. I'm often inspired by an idea from Simon Sinek's book, "The Infinite Game". He writes about the difference between an infinite mindset and a finite mindset. In business, we sometimes get stuck on doing X to achieve Y-results. That's a finite mind set. The rules are clear, the objectives defined. An infinite mindset acknowledges the open-endedness that exists in much of business. The real challenge isn't winning the game. It's to continue playing. When you realize how much the world of work constantly evolves, especially with a knowledge workforce, you understand the importance of an infinite mindset around constantly giving your people access to knowledge. It will have a positive impact on your business, however imperfectly you can measure it. Adopting the infinite mindset is perhaps the biggest shift of all. It can be terrifying to recognize that your plans may not happen when you think they will or that you'll accomplish goals you can't yet imagine. You should see the learning process as more of a hypothesis to be tested. Moonshots change an organization's direction, mold the expectations of employees and customers and sometimes uncover new lines of business. They aren't supposed to work. You'd never optimize for them because the economics don't line up. But in retrospect they look genius. 

How do you balance optimization with the need for creativity, innovation and room for growth and improvement? Remember that data is retroactive. You use it to make informed decisions, but you shouldn't follow the data just for the sake of saying you did. Data helps us predict the future, but it doesn't define it. Shifting from training to technology skill development is critical for organizations to thrive as the pace of change accelerates. But for a skill strategy to be productive, it can't be top-down. It should align employee career growth with key business objectives. It needs long-term championing throughout your org. And though identifying success might not be a perfect science, that can't discourage your efforts. This moonshot is one worth taking.

00:18:14.5 Narrator

Section 8 - The emperor's new skills: Sorting the real from the imaginary in tech skill development, by Isaac Strack. 

Until recently, I wasn't too familiar with the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes". I'd always dismissed it, or rather the people in the story, as kind of absurd. I didn't realize until I actually read it that the first person to pretend had a very logical reason for doing so, and once he made that choice, the rest of the plot fell into place like a set of dominoes. See, there were two con artists who cleverly created the ruse by stating that the emperor's clothes were made out of materials so delicate and refined that if you couldn't see it, you were either not qualified for your position, or you were a simpleton. So, person after person, not wanting to admit that they couldn't see or be called a fool, lied until people started to believe that something imaginary was real. 

Building skills in your organization is just like The Emperor's New Clothes. There is a difference, and not a small one, between those with real skill development practices and those with imaginary skill development who pretend their strategy will lead to real results. I've spent the last three years creating skills strategy plans for companies of all sizes, and I've observed distinct differences between organizations that make real progress and those that struggle. You'll identify with some of the real practices and also probably identify with a few of the imaginary ones, which are areas where you and your teams can improve. That's normal and to be expected. As you consider these scenarios, take inventory of where you are by grading yourself and your org on each topic.

As you take inventory, you'll see the exact areas where you need to focus, and you'll be able to better implement initiatives that will move your skill strategy from imaginary to real. Lifelong learning. A culture of learning is about the overall belief that there is no "Good enough" when it comes to skill development. 

Paul Eldridge at Salesforce has created one of the most comprehensive and thorough cloud skill development strategies I have ever seen. Guess what he's busy revising at this very moment? Guess what he'll revise again next month and the month after that? The company's cloud skills strategy. Technology doesn't sleep and neither can your strategy. It's easier to stay on top of a subject than it is to try and catch up. 

Intensity and regularity. The difference is in the intensity and regularity. Do you learn something new every day? Do you or your team watch courses on your commute or during lunch breaks? Your competitors do. I know because I work with them. And not only that, but they've also made learning new skills a habit. We all have priority lists, and the list of critical things is short. Companies with truly great cultures put time to learn new skills on the short list. What does that look like? It could include tying manager compensation to 20% time, or extending timelines on projects to allocate time for learning. A company could also regularly sponsor hackathons, learning lunches or internal conferences. When it comes to prioritizing skill development, you have to mean it. If leadership takes it seriously, so will your teams. 

Flow of learning. There's a lot to unpack in this one. Protecting formal skill development time is critical to success. An organization committed to skill development also recognizes that not all learning happens in such a formal manner. Learning happens in real time when one colleague helps another, or when a developer performs a Google search. On demand, tribal knowledge, guilds, pair programming - there are a large number of modalities and quick wins when it comes to learning. And orgs that recognize and cultivate learning flow stand the highest chance of success. 

Measurement. It's difficult to accurately measure skill progression. But whether you intend it to or not, the things you measure send a clear message about the things you value. Over the years, I've observed that in organizations where it's all about completion (checking that box at the end of a course), employees aren't truly invested in developing themselves. This is ineffective. Mature organizations measure skill progress by using assessments and analytics that show growth by an individual over time. 

Skills autonomy. Focusing on time spent learning drives activity; focusing on skill development drives outcomes. You can't document a forest fire. It grows and shifts too rapidly. Sounds obvious, doesn't it? But how would you describe the impossible pace of technology releases and the ever growing skills gap that results? And how do you approach this skills gap? In an effort to identify skills gaps, some companies try to document every skill, at every role, at every level. They create skills frameworks and other documents that are outdated the moment they're published. On top of that, even though they aren't trying to, they wind up telling employees with 10 years of expertise in their craft what skills they should be acquiring. 

Great companies see technology for the forest fire that it is and empower their teams to solve this problem. And this is the fundamental principle of Agile. They trade control for results. This too may sound obvious, but removing the traditional top-down control model and replacing it with trust and empowerment is easier said than done. In my experience, companies that do this successfully involve their people in the decision making, rather than inform them about a skill development framework built by L&D. 

Reduced complexity. The key to creating a manageable skills architecture is to make skills modular. Using org structure to organize skills makes them rigid and complex because it assigns a skill (Python, for example) to a single role. But skills don't belong to roles. They are definitely associated with roles, often many different roles. Organizing skills by org structure creates duplication, overlap and overly complex hierarchy. The best skills architectures start by aligning skills to objectives via a skills matrix. No rocket science required. Simply lay your functional areas, roles, teams, areas of responsibility across the top. Lay your major skills areas down the side, and presto: You've got a skills matrix. The visualization seems simple, but it's important because it allows you to assign skills in a modular way, making it easy to apply them to roles afterward. For example, Python spans multiple functional areas: data, scripting, web development, etc. The skills matrix captures that, so you only have to build one content track for Python, usable by multiple areas. 

The tipping point. Healthy skill development is contagious and, within your organization, 15 to 20% of your people are early adopters. Great companies know this and strategize to infect those adopters with a fantastic and healthy skill development experience. They know that if they do, the rest of the workforce will see it, develop a bit of FOMO and in no time, your entire org will be looking for skill development opportunities. Still, 20-30% of your employees will likely account for 80% of your skill development. This is a law of nature. Having a use-it-or-lose-it policy when it comes to learning resources will only hurt your culture in the long run. Activity will decrease and the psychological safety of your entire org will take a hit. Conversely, companies that allocate learning resources to everyone regardless of usage create a culture of abundance, where innovation can come from anywhere and small bets pay off. 

Separation of goals. Successful performance management, career ladders and role levels have specific characteristics. They must be generic. They must be objective. They can't change frequently. Successful skill development models also have specific characteristics. They must be specific. They must be flexible. They have to change frequently. Building an architecture that tries to meet the requirements of both defies logic. Great companies recognize this and separate these initiatives. There is definitely still a relationship, and an important one, but treating them separately via process and architecture is critical to long-term success. Developing a real, effective skills strategy and a healthy learning culture is hard. But getting to something real is worth the effort. The above-mentioned patterns and practices can serve as a starting point to the larger conversations and work that needs to happen. I encourage you to take these patterns, add your own and close those skills gaps.

00:28:09.9 Narrator

Section 9 - Coaching and skill development that puts employees in the driver's seat, by Hope Gurion.

Skill gaps, the ones that keep teams and individuals from accomplishing goals, need a critical eye. As a leader, your job is to decide which skills are most important to your business objectives and how best to develop them. That's pretty obvious. What may be less obvious is how to foster your employees' intrinsic motivation to invest in improving. They may have different ideas about how to spend their time, resent being told how to work and either passive or actively avoid the deliberate practice required to develop the skills your company needs to succeed. Guiding the strategic development of skills while supporting an employee's own learning objectives is critical to your ability to lead well. 

Though it may seem convenient and efficient for a leader to develop prescriptive training experiences for the team, nothing works as well as empowering the employee to take the initiative and follow through. The more say an employee has in creating options for how to close the gap (for example, through on-the-job experiences or projects, courses or training, teaching others via a lunch and learn, etc), the more invested they'll be in fully committing to the upskilling effort. 

To that end, when discussing skills or knowledge gaps with your team it helps to ask the question: "How can I help you become even more effective in this area?". If they choose not to follow through despite having your support, you'll know they're not committed to improving in that area. The effort and discussion at that point will focus on finding a different approach to their development, a role that's more suited to their current skills and knowledge or path to a different role that aligns with their career goals. Figuring out how to help employees grow isn't always easy, but watching them gain confidence in their new skills and abilities is endlessly rewarding. 

Here are five practical tips to help you engage employees in their own skill development in ways that align to organizational goals. 

Number one: Define and communicate the skills and roles you need to achieve your goals. The first, most important step in a skill development program is outlining a clear path from junior to senior roles, from individual contributor to management or from beginning of project to intended outcome. Then, communicate what's needed to the individuals on your team so everyone is aligned to a common goal. 

Number two: Formalize skill development, evaluation and conversation. Your organization should have a way to measure and index skills on an ongoing basis. This is the foundation of your skill development strategy. Measuring and indexing the skills of each person on your team will give you a firm understanding of the skills they have and the ones they need. Use this information as the starting point for discussions with employees on how they'd like to approach their development going forward. Review individuals' skills progress throughout the year to identify where the perceived gaps were and decide how to create experiences over the next six months to improve upon those gaps. Doing so can surface disconnects between the employee and manager. It can show where an employee might perceive they're doing well and the manager wasn't seeing it, or if the manager had a different perspective on what the employee could do to improve. For teams and functional roles, identifying low skill proficiency or slow skill development progress for multiple people in a similar role can help leaders pinpoint where to invest to upskill members of the team. Without this rigor, it's easy to be blind to the deficiencies that exist within your team and have them linger too long, doing a disservice to the employee and the company and the customers experience of the products. 

Number three: Make continuous improvement a continuous expectation. Too often, leaders conduct employee development conversations only during the annual review. Not only is that too infrequent, but it can bring a lot of emotion and surprise into the evaluation and neglect the important teachable moments that happen all year long. Hold formal progress checks at least twice a year using a skill improvement report and then add agreed-upon areas of development. Use this as the guide anytime you meet with the employee to check progress and identify where support is needed. 

Number four: Determine how you'll measure success. Enabling an employee to improve on a skill or knowledge gap that they're motivated to address is only half the battle. Often the step that is skipped is determining whether the employee has developed the skill or sufficiently addressed the gap. Perhaps a certification or test for a technical skill will suffice. Better yet is seeing that the newly acquired ability is becoming a habit the employee practices. That's where self-assessment and manager-assessment tools can help measure whether the employee has improved in the specific area of development over time. Self and manager assessments can provide qualitative insights into skill development. When these insights are coupled with quantitative data, the picture becomes even clearer. Not only will you feel aligned, but you'll also be able to measure those skills in practice. 

Number five: Make feedback a two-way street. Seek ongoing feedback from your team about your company's skill development programs. Annual employee survey feedback isn't frequent enough. Conduct quarterly exercises for a fast and simple way to get a clear, prioritized to-do list that incorporates everyone's unmet needs. Encouraging feedback more often will help your employees feel like they play a bigger part in their own skill development and the company's success as whole, rather than if you steamroll them with a strictly top-down approach. By building a clear path to successful development and using simple, effective tools to check in regularly on progress, leaders can be more effective at growing their teams. And, as workforce shortages continue to grow, employee development has never been more important.

00:34:42.6 Daniel Blaser

Thank you for listening to All Hands on Tech. As I mentioned in the intro, there's a link in the show notes to access the book "Perspectives on Technology Skill Development" for free on a variety of platforms. 

Thanks for listening and have a great week.