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Level Up Learning to Engage Your Team, Boost Development, and Compete in a Fast-Changing Environment

07-05-23 Ben Goshow

Web development is an ever-changing field, so how can you and your team keep up? By encouraging your development team to consume information, create personal projects, and collaborate with team members, learning can become part of their everyday.

According to the 2023 LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report, professional development is one of the most important workplace assets an employee is looking for as well as one of the strongest ways for an organization to remain competitive in a rapidly changing industry.

Three of the top five factors that people consider when pursuing new jobs reflect their desire to stretch, grow, and develop new skills. The No.1 way organizations are working to improve retention is by ‘providing learning opportunities.’ Empowering employees with career development tools and internal mobility options engages learners and expands workforce skills. The ultimate benefit is an organization that can act quickly on valuable opportunities. –LinkedIn 2023 Workplace Learning Report

There are so many entry points to learning about web development—which is part of what we love about this field—but learning a new technology or programming language can be intimidating, time-consuming, and difficult. As a manager, how can you provide the best opportunities for successful and impactful learning that will help your team of developers grow in their knowledge?

Cumulative learning strategies—practices that build on themselves—can help prevent developers on your team from getting stuck or stalled while creating a safe space for learning and promoting connection among your team. Let’s examine some common approaches to learning and explore some key practices you can introduce to level up the learning process—and even unlock some bonus power-ups along the way!

Level 1: Consume

Consumption is the most common approach to learning something new. Whether it’s watching a video, reading a book, or taking a class, the first step in learning a new skill is often to observe the efforts and follow the advice of others. There is great value in this approach because it allows the learner to identify their preferred learning style, progress at their own pace, and hone their self-management skills. Unfortunately, without a systematic approach and some level of accountability, it’s all too easy to start down a path alone and struggle to reach a place of satisfactory improvement.

Level Up: Permission and Practice

As a manager, it will help level up your team if you provide a safe space and some structure around individual learning with the following behaviors:

  • Permission: Allow and encourage professional development within the workday. Setting an annual education budget gives your devs the resources and access to the information they need for personal growth and sends the message that ongoing learning is valuable to the company. Scheduling regular learning sessions gives your team permission to use that time for their own personal development.

  • Practice: One of the keys to learning is repetition; doing the same or similar tasks over and over helps by creating well-worn paths to store and access the information in your brain. Sites like Codewars or CSSBattle turn this repetition into a game and make practice fun. They also include a community of others to compare and compete with. Block out time for your team to dedicate an hour or two per week to “repetitive learning” where they can reinforce familiar coding patterns.

Power-Up: Hit Pause

Another key to retaining information is “spaced learning” or repeated lessons spaced out over time. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghouse pioneered this approach to memory activation with his discovery of the “spacing effect.” It should no longer surprise me, but a good night’s rest almost always helps my brain absorb new information or find a new solution to a problem the next day. For individuals on your team, encourage timeboxing to set a limit on the time spent working on a problem before moving on to something else.

Level 2: Create

Gaining knowledge by consuming information is often the first step to learning, but documentation, tutorials, and courses are all abstract by necessity. Building something of their own with that new knowledge will instill ownership, help developers cement concepts they’re learning, and hopefully make it more fun along the way!

Level Up: Personalize and Pair

  • Personalize: Encourage each developer to start an individual “pet project” that piques their interest. While their personal project doesn’t have to have a “practical” use, it will help bring some significance to the project if it meets a need identified by the developer, team, or organization. Advise your developers to set smart goals to hit small attainable targets and then iterate over time to add new features or improve functionality—just like they would on a real project.

  • Pairing: Even when working on a personal project, developers shouldn’t feel like they are stuck on a deserted island. Managers only have so much time, and shouldn’t be the only ones on the team available for problem-solving or brainstorming. Encourage developers with more experience–not just managers and directors–to have their own “office hours” publicly available and easily accessible for the team to learn from and with each other. If you use an internal messaging platform, another option could be to suggest that developers list technologies they’re familiar with on their profiles, allowing others to easily find the right partner to ask for help.

Power-Up: Present

The best way to ensure you understand a concept may be by explaining it to others. Try creating a cadence of regular demos for your team to share what they’re learning or working on with you and their peers. Demos create deadlines that build momentum and accountability while inspiring continued production. Presenting should require some preparation, but internal demos should ultimately be a safe space for developers to share what they’re working on and ask for feedback, no matter what state their project is in. Remember, “perfect is the enemy of good”–normalizing the practice of sharing work-in-progress before it’s complete can help identify pitfalls to avoid before significant time is lost and keep the ball rolling—kinda like an MVP.

Level 3: Collaborate

Now that your developers are in the rhythm of learning and building on their own, it’s time to work together! Learning in a vacuum can lead to uncertainty or incorrect assumptions, so it is critical to foster a culture where it is safe to ask questions and receive feedback in a public forum without shame. In a learning-friendly environment, asking for help and working together can become invaluable tools for demonstrating best practices, setting expectations for how teams are run, and modeling company values. As Sparkbox Tech Lead Mandy Kendall says, “Empathy and humility are really important as we build fluency in a new skill set.”

Additionally, working on an internal project can be an excellent way for devs to “get reps” in areas they may want or need more experience with before being tasked with similar responsibilities on a client-facing project. Especially for a distributed team, collaboration can help to increase team unity and bolster morale by providing a shared positive experience of moving together towards a common goal.

Level Up: Cohort

  • Cohorts: At Sparkbox, cohorts are built from groups of developers with similar skill sets, experience, or knowledge and are led by one or more senior-level developers or managers. These bi-weekly meetings vary in content and style but share the goal of moving developers along a career growth path and preparing them for future projects or roles. Getting comfortable with “learning in public” will help developers reinforce skills and provide opportunities for input from peers.

Power-Up: Give Back

Identify and work together on a group project that will have some public-facing elements and generate something useful for other developers or teams. This can be a chance for your organization to showcase your team’s skills while highlighting your commitment to and involvement with the greater community. An example of this is the Sparkbox site Trivia11y, an accessibility quiz and learning tool. Our Accessibility Guild worked together to build an online learning tool and publically launched it on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, an annual event all about digital accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities.

Bonus Level: Celebrate

Celebration is critical to creating and maintaining a learning-friendly workplace culture! Be sure to find ways to demonstrate the growth your team is experiencing and acknowledge the milestones individuals are crossing. Sparkbox has an “#awesomeness” Slack channel for just this intention: to publicly celebrate as individuals and teams do awesome things that propel the organization forward towards shared goals.

Achievement Unlocked

Learning is hard! It takes time, it can be uncomfortable, and it can often be an afterthought in the workplace—especially one without structure and permission. However, professional development benefits not just the individual, but your entire organization. Creating space for effective learning in the workplace can help level up your entire organization by increasing development efficiency, boosting production output, and allowing you to definitively position yourselves as experts in the rapidly-changing tech industry.

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