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Joe Mastey at Mountain West Ruby Conference 2015

A conversation with a co-worker today about the value of improving one's professional skills reminded me of Joe Mastey's talk he gave at the 2015 Mountain West Ruby Conference. That then reminded me that I had never finished my write up on that conference. Blogger won't let me install harp music and an animated soft focus flashback overlay, so please just imagine it's the day after the conference when you're reading this. "That reminds me of the time..."

I've just finished my second MWRC and I have to give this one the same 5-star rating I gave last year's. There were a few small sound glitches here and there, but overall the conference is well-run, inclusive, and packed with great speakers and interesting topics. Rather than summarizing each talk, I want to dig into the one most relevant to my interests. "Building a Culture of Learning" by Joe Mastey

I was excited to catch Joe's talk because learning and teaching have always been very interesting to me, regardless of the particular discipline. I find it incredibly satisfying to improve upon my own learning skills, as well as improving my teaching skills by teasing out how different individuals learn best and then speak to that. There's magic in that one on one interaction when everything comes together just right. I just really dig that.

Joe's work as the Manager of Internal Learning at Enova has gone way beyond the subtleties of the one-on-one. He's taken the not-so-simple acts of learning and training, and scaled them up in an environment that does not sound, on paper, like it would support it. He's created a culture of learning ("oh hey they just said the title of the movie in the movie!") in a financial company that's federally regulated, saw huge growth due to an IPO, and had very real business-driven deadlines for shipping their software.

Joe broke his adventure down into three general phases after refreshingly admitting that "YMMV" and that you can't ignore the existing corporate culture when trying to build a culture of learning within.

Phase 1 - Building Credibility

I would hazard a guess that most software development shops are perpetually at Phase 1: Learning is mostly ad-hoc by way of picking things up from one's daily work; and has little to no people pushing for more formal training. People probably agree that training is important, but the mandate has not come down from the CTO, and there's "no time for training" because there's so much work to do.

How did Joe help his company evolve past Phase 1? Well, he did a lot of things that I think many devs would be happy to just get one or two of at the their company. My two favorites from his list probably appeal to polar opposite personality types, but that's part of why I like them.

My first favorite is that books are all-you-can-eat. If a developer asks Joe for a tech book, he'll say yes, and he'll buy a bunch of extra copies for the office. I like having a paper book to read through to get up to speed on a topic, ideally away from my desk and the computer screen. I've also found that for some technologies, the right book can be faster and less frustrating than potentially spotty documentation online.

My second favorite is how Joe implemented "new hire buddies." Each new hire is teamed up with an experienced dev from a different team. Having a specific person to talk to, and get their perspective on company culture, can really help people integrate into the culture much more quickly. When I joined End Point in 2010, I worked through our new hire "boot camp" training like all new hires. I then had the occasionally-maddening honor of working directly with one of the more senior evil super-geniuses at End Point on a large project that I spent 100% of my time on. He became my de facto new hire buddy and I could tell that despite the disparity in our experience levels, being relatively joined at the hip with someone like that improved my ramp-up and cultural integration time greatly.

Phase 2 - Expand Reach and Create Impact

If my initial guess about Phase 1 is correct, it follows that that dev shops in Phase 2 are more rare: More people are learning more, more people are driving that learning, but it's still mostly focused on new hires and the onboarding process.

Phase 2 is where Joe's successful efforts are a little more intimidating to me, especially given my slightly introverted nature. The efforts here scale up and get more people speaking publically, both internally and externally. It starts with a more formal onboarding process, and grows to things like weekly tech talks and half day internal workshops. Here is where I start to make my "yeah, but…" face. We all have it. It's the face you make when someone says something you don't think can work, and you start formulating your rebuttal immediately. E.g. "Yeah, but how do you get management and internal clients to be OK with ‘shutting down development for half a day' for training?" Joe does mention the danger of being perceived as "wasting too much time." You'll want to be sure you get ahead of that and communicate the value of what you're spending "all that dev time on."

Phase 3 - Shift The Culture

It would be interesting to know how many shops are truly in Phase 3 because it sounds pretty intense: Learning is considered part of everyone's job, the successes from the first two phases help push the culture of learning to think and act bigger, the acts of learning and training others are part of job descriptions, and things like FOSS contributions and that golden unicorn of "20% personal project time" actually happen on company time. Joe describes the dangers or downsides to Phase 3 in a bit of a "with great power comes great responsibility" way. I've never personally worked somewhere that's in Phase 3, but it make sense that the increased upside has increased (potential) downside.

At End Point, we have some elements of all three phases, but we're always looking to improve. Joe's talk at MWRC 2015 has inspired me to work on expanding our own culture of learning. I think his talk is also going to serve as a pretty good road-map on how to get to the next phase.

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