"Hey, George, I want to talk to you about training for my group," Andrea said.
"Don't start with that again," George said. “I know you have a group of developers who need training. Two years ago, when you ran testing, you had a group of testers who needed training. Why do all your groups need training?"
"Everyone needs training. Even you and I need training."
"I don't need training. I listen to books on tape—abridged books, at that. I get all I need in seven minutes a day while I drive."
Andrea was unable to hold in her reaction and doubled over in laughter. "George, did you just hear yourself? You listen to abridged summaries of business books? On your drive into work? No wonder you didn't understand my argument last week against forced ranking. You need to listen to the entire books, my friend. You are missing significant pieces.
"But let's get back to my problem," Andrea said. “I want to train everyone in engineering in hiring and influence skills."
"You have an engineering group of technical people," George said. "What the heck do they need soft skills for?"
"They are great at designing and testing. They are pretty good at feedback. But, they are not good at interviewing. They are lousy at the follow-up meeting and discussing how they can make a decision about a candidate. And, when they want to influence me or each other, they think the loudest person wins. Nope, they need better influencing skills.
"I know exactly the books and workshops I need, and I know when I want to bring them in. I want to start with a book study group, to set the stage. I don't want to go in cold to the training. I want to challenge the trainers. We have really sharp people, and I want to turn them loose on these problems. Once they understand the technical challenges of interviewing and influence, they will be like dogs with a favorite bone. Can't you just see it?" Andrea grinned and gave George a sheet of paper. "Here's what I need."
“When will your folks have time for training?” George said.
“Ah, that's the beauty of the book study group," Andrea said. "First, we study the book at lunch. We do a chapter or two a week. We get through the book in a quarter and post the discussion on our wiki. Then, people will have the discussion on the wiki so they can refer to it during the entire quarter. Some people won't read the book and may go into the training cold, but maybe they will talk to other people during the quarter and receive some informal training to get them going. Then, I have people sign up for training. Each training is only one or two days, so it won't impact the project much."
"But, what if we train them and they leave?" George said.
“George, what if we don't train them and they stay?”
George sighed and said, “Andrea, you drive a hard bargain. Where do I sign?”
Training Is a Necessary Part of Technical Work
It's never easy to schedule training. It always seems to interfere with "real" work— project work. But, if you want people to learn a new language, a new tool, or a new skill, whether it's an interpersonal skill such as Andrea described or some other skill, then you need to create training time. I like to schedule training time every single week.
You can schedule a lunch-and-learn every week and discuss a chapter in a book. You can have someone from another group present something she does at work. Every so often, at least once a year, you need to step back and take a strategic look at your team or group and ask yourself, "Is there something people should be learning?" Even better, ask the people in your group, "What do you need to learn?" They will tell you.
If you are worried about the frequency of imposing learning on people, ask them if it's too often. They will tell you if it’s too much. You have options, such as taking a break between books for a few weeks, scheduling lunch-and-learns biweekly or once a month, or not scheduling too many workshops too often. But, the longer you make the break between occurrences, the harder it is to make the learning happen and the more likely you are to stop learning and training entirely. It's easier to learn a little every week rather than have a huge hit once every six months. If you have to stop a project for one or two weeks every six months for a training course, then the course feels like a huge imposition. Instead, if you have a lunch-and-learn every week for forty-five minutes—where you might not even notice the time, because people need to eat lunch—then the training time is unnoticeable for the project but adds up for the people.
Make Time for Conferences, Too
Every so often, you need an injection of a wide variety of new ideas from many new people. That means it’s time for a conference. You might be lucky enough to find a local conference, so you don’t have to incur travel costs. Look for user groups, agile, open space, and professional group conferences. Yes, the quality of the conferences varies. You will have to see if the sessions are experiential or if you will be sitting in rows, bored to death by PowerPoint. I am a fan of experiential sessions.
But, no matter what kind of sessions you find at a conference, one of the best things conferences offer is networking. I find that when I meet people at conferences or introduce people at conferences—in or out of my sessions—they learn a lot, and the things they learn are different from what they learn in talks and tutorials.
When you network to find other people with similar problems, you learn not only how they have solved their problems but also what didn’t work for them. You can learn from their experiments and experiences, trade notes, and, depending on your geographic location, possibly exchange candidates or hiring tips.
Because you are face to face at a conference, you can learn more when you network than you can by email or any other electronic forum. If you have not been to a conference in a while, consider going to a local conference this year. Then, set aside time and budget for a national or international conference. I learn about culture and practices from my international colleagues, and both my international and domestic clients benefit from what I learn.
Capitalize on Our Curiosity
Many of us in the software field are curious. Use that curiosity to build in training as a weekly endeavor. You won’t be sorry. Yes, training can be expensive. Only you know the cost of the training you bring to your workplace, or the cost of sending people to a conference. In my experience, the value of the training significantly outweighs the cost.
But, what’s the cost if you don’t train people and they stay?
Read all of Johanna's Management Myths here: