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Tech learning cultures create professional development wins

Experts from Merck, DocuSign, and Tennessee Valley Authority explain how they build a continuous learning culture and develop advanced tech talent.

Feb 15, 2024 • 7 Minute Read

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  • Public Sector
  • Business
  • Learning & Development

When it comes to developing tech talent, we often think of upskilling as a tool for non-technical or junior employees. And while that’s true, upskilling can also advance existing tech talent and give them the skills they need to hit critical objectives faster and deliver greater customer value.

Sean Finnerty, AVP of Cloud & Infrastructure Technology at Merck; Ingrid Myers, Director of Global DEI Business Enablement, Strategy, and Innovation at DocuSign; and Rebecca Mott, Manager of Technical Training & Emerging Technologies at Tennessee Valley Authority, explain how they build advanced tech talent and a continuous culture of learning in their organizations.

Want to hear all their expert insights? Watch the full video now and learn how to build project-ready talent.

Table of contents

Collaboration between engineering, L&D, and DEI drives professional development

For Sean, Ingrid, and Rebecca, successful tech upskilling relies on collaboration between engineering, learning and development (L&D), and DEI. 

Sean explains what happens when teams don’t work together. “Historically, it would be our research division working with IT in the research division, two separate groups working together and trying to figure [something] out,” he said.

“And then if you extrapolate that out to get to my team, which is the underpinning plumbing of all this, we had this game of telephone tag going on. . . . The message would get lost. It would take six months. It was just way too slow.”

When all three functions work together, organizations build project-ready teams and achieve their DEI goals at the same time. “One thing I think we did well to advance this sort of intersect of technical skills, HR, learning, career pathways, and diversity and inclusion as a top‑level objective for us in our company is we recognized that right out of the gates, and we sort of tooled the strategy right out of the door to go in that direction,” he said.

Technology upskilling tips from the experts

Sean, Ingrid, and Rebecca explain how they collaborate in their organizations and what you need to advance tech skills in yours.

Get executive support for upskilling

To create a successful cross-functional tech upskilling program, you need to tie it to top-level organizational objectives. And to do that, you need support from leaders who understand training isn’t a cost center but a critical component of digital strategy.

Sean explains how executive support is critical to BlueSky, Merck’s enterprise transformation program. “The number one question I get asked about the program and the success we've had is, ‘How did you guys do it?’ The number one answer I give is that we have unambiguous support from the CEO of our company—and the board, for that matter,” he said.

Leadership support reduces resistance and makes it easier for program managers to engage employees at all levels. If the CEO asks people to upskill, they’ll be more likely (and more willing) to participate.

Set clear organizational goals tied to tech skills

Your organization may want to upskill employees to complete a cloud migration or diversify top-level leadership. You need to explicitly define those outcomes and break them down into achievable goals. 

“We have clear outcomes and goals that we're targeting to be able to diversify or change the complexion of our organization,” said Ingrid.

Provide employee enablement and learning opportunities

Once you know your desired destination, you can determine the training and enablement you need to get there. Rebecca shares how Tennessee Valley Authority enables continuous learning through a grassroots approach. “We rolled out digital centers of excellence that are empowering citizen developers across our company, enabling them to lean into some of the tools that they can use to innovate in their part of the business,” she said.

Support engagement with accountability and visibility

You need visibility to hold people accountable and track skill development success.

“We actually have created gamification on this,” Sean explained. “If you are not keeping pace with the aspirations of the company, you get asked some very uncomfortable questions in those [technical leadership] meetings. Like, ‘Hey, why are you only at 13% BlueSky Academy attendance, and everybody else is in the 40s?’ 

“You've got to create a mandate that's broad enough and create enough visibility to the leadership crew that corrective action will sort of naturally happen as you instrument and report out on the metrics.”

Data is also a powerful tool to improve visibility and understand accountability. “Last year, we benchmarked how much time we spent on training over the last year,” said Rebecca. “Can we improve that for the upcoming year? Can we dial it up? 

“[We’re] looking at that data as a key element of driving the engagement and making that data transparent to our executive leadership so that they can see the data and understand how to support the engagement across the organization.”

Build a culture of continuous learning to drive innovation

Even with the right employee enablement, people may be hesitant to start learning, especially when other priorities are competing for their time. 

“If you think of what's been happening in the industry and with the layoffs and so forth, people are operating from a place of fear,” explained Ingrid. “‘Am I next? Is it going to be me? Am I demonstrating my value?’ . . . Fear actually helps to restrict idea generation and innovation.”

When you address this fear, you empower employees to take the time to learn and encourage innovation. But how do you actually reduce these concerns? It starts by shifting the culture.

“One of the things that we're experimenting with is using challenges as a way to get people in the platform and get them to regularly consume the content and learn on a regular basis,” shared Rebecca. “So we hosted a 90‑day summer learning challenge. Our CIO kicked it off. It was great. 

“It was badge‑based, so we were having our learners try to get those badges. We were able to get 251 badges in 90 days across 103 learners. Our view time went up 300%. We tripled the number of Skill IQs that were taken.”

But it’s also important to bring mid-level managers on board. “In our first cohort, we had a lot of complaints from our learners that their boss doesn't know what they're doing and they're under a lot of pressure and they can't pay attention to [learning],” said Sean.

“So for the next cohort, we launched manager enrollment for the cohort. And that manager enrollment is very simply us telling the manager, ‘You're going to give your person time to learn. And if you don't like it, you can call me, and I'll tell you, you're going to give your person time to learn because that is a pillar of our strategy. And you need to do it. It's not optional.’ 

“And that has had a huge impact on the feedback. Our scores have gone way up. People feel supported in their desire to learn.”

Expand your tech talent pipeline and improve DEI

Upskilling is crucial to building advanced tech talent and improving DEI. What are Sean, Ingrid, and Rebecca doing in their organizations to grow their tech talent pipelines?

Work with local universities and create tech internship programs

Nearby universities can be a high-ROI way to fill your talent pipeline. “We have a strategic focus on getting into our universities and colleges in our region and recruiting heavily from those universities and colleges,” said Rebecca. 

“And we have a strong intern program. So, once the intern onboards, creating a specific experience for those interns so that they do feel like they are part of the culture when they onboard.”

Consider tech talent without college degrees

University degrees aren’t the only qualifications for a career in tech. “We're tripling and quadrupling down on early-in-career talent through programs like Year Up and OneTen, our talent rotation programs, and internships and outreaches to colleges and universities,” said Sean. 

“In my case, I don't have a college degree,” he added. “I started my career in a data center pulling cable. Find those people, give them those opportunities, and then support them to acquire the skills that they need.”

Ingrid added, “We’ve got the Year Up relationship, we've got Blavity, and the AfroTech organization and conferences, and we try to do a lot of sourcing throughout our partners that we work with. And so that's one mechanism. I think most of those partners, though, still are looking at college graduates. . . . We’re actually starting to [look at alternative pathways], too. Coding schools, boot camps, and giving the right enablement and support structure to these individuals when they come in.”

Provide professional development opportunities

Lack of career development is one of the main reasons technologists leave their current roles. 

“For any organization out there that is thinking, ‘Oh, I'm going to hire the best,' they're the best the day you hire them, maybe,” explained Ingrid. “A week from now, not so much. And so if organizations are not choosing to develop the talent, whether they're at the top of the ladder or the bottom of the ladder, they're doing themselves a disservice.” 

She also explains why underrepresented communities need ongoing support. “Many organizations are still struggling with retaining underrepresented populations because they don't have the right environment to develop them, [or there are] biases in the system, promotion rates are different. . . . We also have to strategically hire individuals, underrepresented individuals, in the upper levels of the organization. Doing it at the bottom is not enough.”

Build advanced tech skills from the ground up

As Ingrid said, “There is no technology without people, period.”

If you want your tech projects to succeed, your people need to succeed, too. To get all the expert insights from Sean, Rebecca, and Ingrid, watch their conversation on demand now.

Pluralsight Content Team

Pluralsight C.

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