64. Learning Culture

May 29, 2018

On today’s episode of the Rabbit Hole we are talking about learning culture and just how vital it is to a functioning and successful organization. In an industry such as tech, where things are changing at the speed that they do, without a productive learning culture, there is no way a group of people, no matter the size and experience, will not get left behind. So how to create and implement this all important learning culture you ask? The team starts by identifying the individual motivations of team members and how this is a foundational block for a culture to be built on. From there we look at the types of projects and challenges that encourage the correct attitude to learning, noting that an environment that doesn’t stretch its employees is not an inspiring one. After that we discuss failure, punishment and forums and the impact of these concepts. Lastly, there are a few suggestions for in-house events and institutions that can propel these ideals. So for anyone wanting to be on a energetic and advanced tech team, this episode is for you!

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Why a progressive learning culture is so important.
  • A culture built on the motivations of individuals.
  • Encouraging motivation through challenging tasks and projects.
  • The attitude to failure that aids a strong learning culture.
  • Why firing people for expensive mistakes is a bigger mistake.
  • Creating expertise through sharing knowledge.
  • Forums and open discussions to communicate lessons learned.
  • Facilitating an ‘open mic’ event for your organization or team.
  • The concept of ’20% time’ or ‘investment time’ geared towards outcomes.
  • Hackathons and group projects to build new expertise and innovation.
  • And much more!

Transcript for Episode 64. Learning Culture

[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast in fantabulous Chelsey Manhattan. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today.

[0:00:09.8] DA: Dave Anderson.

[0:00:10.8] MN: Our producer.

[0:00:12.0] WJ: William Jeffries.

[0:00:13.2] MN: Today, we’ll be talking about learning culture. Why do you want it in your organization and what are some of the ways to achieve that in your team?

[0:00:22.1] DA: Yeah, that’s pretty important. Especially in tech, it’s such a fast changing environment. If you kind of settle down, you’re like, “Okay, well I have learned how to program. I’m done learning.” Then you just keep on going, then that’s it, you’ll be done.

[0:00:42.0] MN: You never learn.

[0:00:43.7] DA: Then, you know, the world will move on without you. You’ll be coding Java 1.6 forever.

[0:00:48.9] WJ: It’s a terrible learning culture, you’re stuck on old tech, nobody ever grows. Probably have terrible turnover.

[0:00:56.2] DA: You may wonder to yourself if there’s a better way but they’re not do anything about it.

[0:01:02.5] MN: Tech is fast, change are fast, right under our feet. I mean, we can definitely talk about how there’s a new JavaScript framework every three months and some of them are better than the previous one and why you want to learn that one and what are the pros and cons and whatnot.

You know, you don’t want to be stuck maintaining something like backboned for example.

[0:01:28.9] DA: Or like, why did they create this new cons thing, why do I even need that? I just have bars everywhere. I don’t’ need them.

[0:01:35.1] MN: No, you do.

[0:01:36.0] DA: I don’t need cons.

[0:01:36.9] MN: You do. You definitely do. I think that like the more your team is learning, then the more up to date the technology is, the better it is for the organization to move forward with like faster technology and be able to implement these new features at the organization we ask.

[0:01:57.5] WJ: Yeah, I think you have a learning culture whether you know it or not. Every organization has certain norms around how they learn, right?

Maybe your organization is super supportive, maybe they’re supper not. Maybe everybody is walking around, thinking that everybody else already knows the thing that they’re supposed to know and they’re super embarrassed to ask for help.

Their culture of learning is that you do it on your own time and you don’t tell anyone.

[0:02:25.9] MN: One of an organization can have a learning culture that is, don’t learn on company time.

[0:02:35.0] WJ: Yeah, maybe your company culture is that all learning has to be done outside of regular work hours.

[0:02:40.0] DA: Right, it’s like, it’s not an asset to the organization. It’s a cost. For someone to be investing in time to benefit themselves.

[0:02:51.4] WJ: Yeah, that kind of company that only hires people who already know everything that they could possibly need to know in order to do the job and then that person has no room for growth because what else are they going to learn on the job?

[0:03:03.2] MN: Because it’s the one thing that they now know or that many things that they know and they don’t plan on learning anything else.

[0:03:08.7] WJ: They’re so perfectly qualified that it’s going to be incredibly boring for them.

[0:03:12.0] DA: Where do you even find that person? It must be such a challenge for recruiting to find the person who knows exactly everything that you know, who had exactly the same previous job and just – you just take that person out of the previous job and you put them on a new job and they never learned anything new.

[0:03:29.2] WJ: Then as soon as their job changes and they have to know something different, all of a sudden, they are given no support because they were hired to know everything that they needed to do to their job.

[0:03:41.7] DA: Then, they just quit and they find the exact same job somewhere else, I don’t think that’s a real scenario, this person’s very hypothetical.

[0:03:48.7] MN: Yeah, or Kobalt developer because that’s a thing.

[0:03:53.9] DA: Be a Kobalt developer, make billions.

[0:03:57.5] MN: There’s just technologies constantly moving and we – as developers need to make sure that we move forward with the time, unless we chose to stay behind and that could be very detrimental to your career path in the long run.

I’ve found that when I’m learning like a new language or a new framework that it expands the way that I think about particular problems because of the way that I’ve solved them a previous time before.

[0:04:27.6] DA: Yeah, that’s true. I define an experience and worry, you learn a new language or what have you and the way that you approach that problem is different there and you bring it back to where you’re at right now and you tell other people about it and it’s contagious.

[0:04:48.4] MN: Yeah. I think one of the things that’s necessary for an organization to have a strong learning culture is individuals who are motivated to learn. Because we know as developers that we need to move forward, technology as we mentioned before so we’re motivated to try and keep up with the pace.

What are some of the components that lead to motivation to that in the first place?

[0:05:13.6] WJ: I time manage purpose, right? That’s the model for motivation. I think you know, you have to have enough autonomy to be able to experiment for yourself and not just be implementing the wishes of someone else and you have to believe that there’s a reason for doing what it is that you're doing.

There is a purpose that it’s worth doing but I think the that is most that’s most relevant for this topic would be mastery. You have to have a path to mastery. Work is only interesting at the edge of our knowledge, you know, if you have to implement yet another CSS on the same page, day after day, it’s going to get boring because it’ too easy, you’re not progressing, you’re mastering anything.

And that’s where I think that culture of learning comes in, you have to be able to give people the opportunity to do work that that is just outside their reach. Something that’s going to push them that’s going to make them grow and you know, a consequence to that is that they’re not going to do it as well as the thing that they already have done a thousand times

And it’s worth it even though you’re going to get slightly lower quality output out of them because they’re going to be more motivated and you’re going to hang on to them for longer. Eventually, they’re going to become so experienced that they’re able to do really advanced things.

[0:06:31.8] MN: Yeah, I agree, I think that for someone to slowly learn something and get better at those skills, when it’s technology that’s like bleeding edge or like necessary in the organization and allowing that person to learn from that experience will lead to a invaluable contributor to your code base

[0:06:56.5] WJ: Yeah, also, it’s important for people to have some flexibility in terms of what kind of work they’re going to do. You know, maybe you’ll hire a UX designer because they’ve come up with, they came up with the mock ups that were used for your competitor company, let’s say you’re a sandwich delivery platform and they came from the number one sandwich delivery platform out there.

They did an amazing design job and you are hoping they’re going to do literally the exact same thing for your company. It turns out that your customer’s actually don’t want sandwiches, they want hotdogs. What you really need is for your UX designer to start doing some user interviews and figure out what it is that we really need to build for them.

You know, if you expect your UX designer to already have those skills and you don’t give them the room to grow into the position, you force them to learn how to do that in their spare time, they’re going to do the minimum amount of learning necessary and they’re probably going to burn out and be unhappy because you’re not creating a culture of learning, that’s not an environment that is welcoming to beginners who are learning how to do a thing for the first time. It’s a shame because –

[0:08:05.0] MN: Bobby had already made a number one sandwich platform, who is to say that he can also – he or she can create the number one hotdog platform?

[0:08:16.9] DA: The thing that confuses me a little bit here is like aren’t sandwiches and hotdogs the same?

[0:08:23.7] WJ: You cannot start this debate guys.

[0:08:27.1] MN: We’re going to have to take that offline, on the recording.

[0:08:31.8] WJ: Hot dog is not a sandwich.

[0:08:33.8] MN: Grab a whole after hours –

[0:08:35.7] DA: The user interface, aspect’s completely different. Yeah, how can we – what are some other ways that we can introduce like a learning culture into our organization?

[0:08:50.6] MN: I think it needs to be established in the organization that people will learn and people will fail by learning. Like that is just the number one thing. I think we’ve mentioned it before, we had the whole episode, toast to failures.

Which I find very helpful when learning because I gives me the opportunity to learn things and everyone’s aware that we’re going to fail along the way and we can observe some of those failures and learn from them and then be able to express that to the entire organization.

They also learn from that, it’s pretty cool.

[0:09:26.7] DA: That kind of goes with what William was saying before about learning best at the edge of your ability. Which is where you’re going to fail more often if you're very comfortable then you’re not going to fail and you're going to be proficient at that one thing but you're not going to be growing and you might just become stagnant.

[0:09:47.9] WJ: It reminds me of a story that I heard, there was this guy, I think he was working at one of these big CDNs and he was working on caching solutions that we’re being used for some of the biggest websites in the world with the most traffic in the world.

You know some, all the top news sites were being, we’re using this cash, I don’t know if it was CNN or MSNBC, one of these really big players, a lot of these really big players and he broke everything.

It was a massive outage, the site was down and the company lost millions of dollars and clients left over it, it was a disaster.

[0:10:28.7] DA: God.

[0:10:29.2] WJ: What he did was, well, obviously, first you fix it but then, at the next company meeting, he did a presentation in front of the entire company, and he walked through slide by slide and said, “Here is exactly how much money we lost, here are exactly how many clients we lost over it. Here is exactly how long we were out for and here is exactly what caused the book. Here’s the change that was made, here is what it was intended to do, here’s what it actually did, here’s how we fixed it and most importantly, here’s what I learned from it. I want everybody in this whole company to have that same learning,” and that is a powerful thing.

[0:11:11.9] MN: This person still had the job to be able to give this presentation so you can only imagine the trust that the organization have for this person even after it cost millions of dollars, that’s insane.

[0:11:25.6] DA: You’re going to mention that guy is going to be like a lot less likely to make mistake like that too. He’s going to be very careful and more aware of the limitations of the system.

[0:11:36.9] WJ: Yeah, can you imagine someone firing someone who has that kind of knowledge now? That was an incredibly expensive lesson, keep that person, my god.

[0:11:46.0] DA: Yeah, it was like that, toasting to failures, doing retros or postmortems in the same vein. I think those are all good ways to share learning that lead to growth as an organization as well as a person. 

I think it’s also important to hire at many different levels of experience. So that way, not only do people have opportunities to learn themselves like in a self-directed way but they can also learn by teaching because I feel like that’s a way that people tend to really crystallize what knowledge they have and identify exactly what gaps are there and find a true path to mastery.

[0:12:32.1] MN: Yeah, I definitely find that when I have to teach someone at like, if I was iffy about something and then had to teach someone, if I didn’t completely know that particular topic, I would go and make sure that I’m sharing the right information and it solidifies the fact that I know this thing.

[0:12:53.4] DA: Right, it’s like, why you asking me and teach you this? I’m not an expert but then in the process of doing your due diligence, you often end up becoming an expert.

[0:13:02.5] MN: Yeah, one of the things we had mentioned before in time is also a culture that has like the opportunity for developers and other individuals to attend or have lunch and learns. We mentioned this many times before that it’s a great opportunity for people to showcase some of the things that they’ve learned, whether it’s on their off time or with the work that they’re currently doing to spread the information of the things that they’ve learned.

I think one thing that I’ve seen before that works very well is not calling it a lunch and learn but a particular place I’ve worked at called it an open mic. It lends to people just wanting to share something. It’s not a full blown discussion or Power Point presentation about say, GraphQL but it could literally be hey, I learned something.

I learned this command in R Spec that I want to share and I think everyone should learn from this or we should have a discussion about his one thing. Be very small, it could be very big. I think the open mic calls to any size of learning for your team.

[0:14:12.5] DA: Yeah.

[0:14:13.1] WJ: That’s cool, you can just walk up to the open mic and talk for two minutes?

[0:14:17.4] MN: Yeah, you can sign up for it, you sign up and then you can say how many minutes roughly what it is if there is no discussion, yeah, you’d be like “Hey, I like to share something that I saw recently,” and you can – you have the time to do that which is great.

[0:14:30.4] DA: That’s awesome, yeah. I feel like even as a new developer can become enough of an expert in something that they can share in two minutes that is insightful and helpful for a lot of people.

[0:14:43.8] MN: Yeah, it’s really cool. Like I mentioned before, you learn this one thing in R spec and I want to share this one thing that I learned and I want to – you know, funny enough, oftentimes, you may not have known that that was a thing that you can do and you’d learn something in the two minutes, too.

[0:15:04.1] DA: Nice. Mike, if I wanted to start off a open mic at my company right now, what’s the overhead in that, how much time do we set aside and who has to organize that and all that?

[0:15:16.7] MN: Well, I’ve seen work is it can be an individual or a group of people, a group of people where in the even that one person is out, another person take over for a particular time.

You can choose the iteration, whether it’s bi-weekly or weekly, if you can find the room that can fit the amount of developers that - in your organization or your squad can fit into this room.

Just like send an email to the individuals, say “Hey, we have an open mic on Friday at two to three,” or, “Brown bag lunch, right? Come through 12, bring your own lunch and we’re going to talk about these things, you can sign up here or you can just ask to talk on the microphone.”

I think that what’s really cool about it is like often times, even if you’re – if there’s no topics, the developers are all in that room and they can still share information, like “Yeah, I’m working on – what are you working on?”

“I’m working on this thing, this feature,” and you can like cross pollinate informational stuff that people working on if they’re not in the same squad as you or they’re in a completely different team. But having those people in the one room will spark a conversation that someone may have learned and then everyone can learn from the conversation itself.

[0:16:33.5] DA: Cool, that sounds pretty easy actually.

[0:16:35.9] MN: Yeah, it’s just like scheduling it, finding a room, brown bag or if your company allows buying pizza, that’s always a plus. People show up for pizza. People will show up to pizza.

[0:16:47.1] DA: Yeah, I think that’s like, that’s one way that it’s kind of formal but I think also, something that is good to be stressed from all levels of the company as maybe the fact that learning doesn’t have to be something that you have to set aside time for, we talked about this a little bit before about player but just the idea that you should be continually investing in yourself and learning.

Even if you just googling things, that’s still learning and that’s something that’s awesome and should be celebrated.

[0:17:21.2] MN: I think like if the organization allows, I’ve heard places that have like 20% time or set time for individuals to learn professionally like professional development for example is one. It’s a great way to use that opportunity to learn and grow and you know, you may learn something that is completely outside of your tech stack or something that’s relevant to this stack that you currently have in the organization but when you come back, you learn something new and it’s refreshing and coming back to the code base feels nicer. It’s like almost taking a break from what you currently know to learn something else.

[0:18:00.4] WJ: Yeah, I think 20% time has been a bit maligned because it didn’t really work out so well, at least for Google, from what I hear, people don’t really take 20% time anymore and the reason is because it didn’t really produce a lot of stuff of value and I think one thing they can help there is just rebranding it and putting some structure around it.

[0:18:23.5] MN: Right.

[0:18:24.2] WJ: I’ve also heard it called ‘investment time’ but it’s still, you know, 20% of your time and the rule is that you have to be investing in yourself for the company in a meaningful way. That I think is much more useful approach.You’re specifying that there needs to be some kind of an outcome.

[0:18:45.2] MN: Yeah, it’s just like I’m going to take this time to learn something completely different, if it’s useful to what you do in the workplace, I think it’s important to invest in that.

[0:18:57.9] WJ: Yeah, it’s an investment, there’s going to be a payoff. Either the individual is going to be a better developer or a better employee or they’re going to leave the organization better equipped for the organization’s needs.

[0:19:12.3] MN: Right.

[0:19:12.8] DA: Yeah. I like how it kind of has like a very strong like businessy case to it. It’s an investment, of course, if you have extra time then you invest it and then you know, you’ll get something back.

[0:19:26.3] WJ: Dividends.

[0:19:26.6] DA: Which is money, yeah. Piles of money.

[0:19:30.6] MN: I’ve seen another thing that’s really cool where people will work on some open source stuff after hours and you’re going to work with a group of people and it could be different projects all together but working together on something new could be very fun.

I would just be cautious about burnout if you're constantly working and then you have – you’re obsessed with open sourcing as well and you spend a lot of hours programming, you can burn out so you might want to be careful with that.

[0:19:59.4] DA: Yeah, although sometimes like you may set a side like a monthly or quarterly time where people can – across the company can do that as a group.

[0:20:07.9] MN: Right.

[0:20:08.5] DA: During the day, and I have a mini hackathon trying to come up with ideas that open up the company or contribute to open source or what have you.

[0:20:17.2] WJ: I worked at a company where they had a lab week. Was one entire week where you know, people would, just like a hackathon, pitch an idea in the beginning, get selected in some way and then have the entire week to work on building out their thing and then presenting it at the end.

I had a coworker who was frustrated with how long they had to wait for an elevator and so they ended up building a program that would input the camera feed from the elevator to estimate how many people were in it. Then if the elevator was full, it would just skip floors.

[0:20:54.5] MN: That’s awesome.

[0:20:55.7] DA: What? In the building?

[0:20:56.8] WJ: In the building.

[0:20:58.6] DA: Wow.

[0:20:57.7] MN: Wow that’s awesome. You know, like the elevator knows, all right, just go straight down, let this people -

[0:21:03.2] WJ: Don’t bother stopping because nobody knew it’s going to fit into this elevator.

[0:21:03.2] MN: Right.

[0:21:08.2] DA: Woah, efficiency!

[0:21:10.0] WJ: Machine learning man.

[0:21:12.4] DA: That’s like the classic interview problem. That person probably would have really knock it out of the park to answer for that as well. “Well, it’s easy, I had to choose cameras in machine learning.”

[0:21:24.0] MN: There you go.

[0:21:24.6] DA: Done.

[0:21:25.5] MN: Yeah, I think the no roles hackathon is, as William mentioned is, pretty cool to have it available in your organizations so that people can come up with really I interesting projects such as express elevators. When the elevator’s packed.

[0:21:37.9] WJ: Now you have expertise in your company in machine learning.

[0:21:41.1] DA: Yeah, nice.

[0:21:42.0] MN: Which is the new hotness.

[0:21:46.2] DA: I think a theme that’s kind of emerging here is that there’s a lot of different options that you have and there’s no real one strong way or best way to do it but people learn in different ways so it’s good to have a basket of options and just encourage people to do whatever works for them because everyone has different learning styles.

Some people might be horrified by doing a hackathon, find it to be like a waste of time or really exhausting but you know, having so investment time to work in a project, that’s going to be longer lived. They might be more invested in that or what have you.

[0:22:24.2] WJ: Diversify.

[0:22:25.2] DA: Yeah. Financial. It’s all of the financial metaphors. Buy buy buy!.

[0:22:34.4] WJ: Exponential growth.

[0:22:36.5] DA: Hockey sticks of knowledge.

[0:22:39.9] MN: Of knowledge! Yeah, I think there are many different opportunities for your organization to adopt this learning culture and there are extreme benefits when your organization does – it cultivates developers to learn new things, whether it’s something that will be beneficial to the organization directly or indirectly, like an example would be, try to figure out a framework that would work better to the features that you’re currently building or figuring out what it takes to make the elevator run express.

Then learning how to use machine learning to your advantage and then try not to use that in your organization as well as another way. That might help the organization indirectly in that aspect. I think it’s pretty cool that as long as you're learning and you're staying up to date with technology, you’ll definitely be beneficial to the organization and the organization should adopt those learning practices.

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On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries, and my amazing cohost, Dave Anderson, and me your host, Michael Nunez. Thanks for listening to the Rabbit Hole.

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