A NorDevCon Review: Building Learning into Team Life

Team Life

For the second year running, I enjoyed NorDevCon last month. One of the sessions which particularly inspired me was Rachel Davies‘ talk on the subject of building learning into team life. Rachel works as an agile coach for the online video promotion company Unruly Media.

During the session, Rachel discussed the personal development and team-building initiatives that she has introduced within Unruly Media in the 2 years she has worked there:

  • Gold card time – This is very similar to the 20% learning time offered by major tech companies such as Google. It enables employees to work on personal development and experimental initiatives in company time, as long as it’s related in some way to the company’s line of business. The main difference from 20% time is that gold card time is completed during the week, rather than at the end of the week. People must feel that they are “allowed” to take the time, so measures are taken by management to make sure it sticks, as explained later. The name “gold card time” comes from XP (eXtreme Programming) tradition.
  • Ceremony around sharing – Each Friday afternoon, everyone shares what they’ve done during the week. Employees can also give a short demonstration of what they did during their gold card time that week.
  • Team tracking – At the regular team stand-up sessions, everyone updates the whiteboard to show what tasks they’ve been working on. Various symbols and stickers are used to represent different types of task.
  • Monitoring – Screens on the office walls show the current status of projects and builds.
  • Retrospectives – These are completed at the end of a project. Staff take it in turns to facilitate these meetings, and the purpose is to reflect on how the team is doing and to identify areas for improvement.
  • Tech talks – Fortnightly lightning talks are a popular initiative at Unruly Media. Some of them are only 10 minutes long. These can take place at lunchtime or after work, and people attend if they are interested in the subject. At the end of each talk, you should agree on who will do the next one.
  • Coding dojos – Coding dojos are a technique for practising programming skills in a group. These are held weekly, covering new languages and frameworks.
  • Reading material – Unruly Media provides an allowance for books and magazines plus a space in which people can read, such as a break-out area. One possible way to expand on this idea could be to suggest that people could bring in books or magazines they’ve read and are happy to lend to the department.
  • Team swaps – This enables employees to work with another team temporarily to learn how other parts of the business work and to improve relations between the teams.
  • Developer exchange – This is similar to a team swap, except that the employee swaps with someone from another organisation. The chosen organisation shouldn’t be a direct competitor, and a non-disclosure agreement needs to be signed. For example, in 2013 Unruly ran a developer exchange with digital music company 7Digital – the aim was to provide a mutual learning experience and pick up some ideas for improving working practices by seeing how another company does things.
  • Tech Academy – Tech Academy is a 12-week induction programme for new starters to the department. The idea originally came from 7Digital. Previous graduates are asked to help organise the next course.
  • Conference club – This is an occasional lunchtime meetup for anyone who wants to learn more about the steps they need to take to present at industry conferences. It is also an ideal way to find a colleague with whom to partner for delivering a talk at a conference. Several of the people who came along have since submitted sessions to calls for participation and been accepted as speakers.
  • Encouraging employees to attend local tech meetups – In addition to this, Unruly Media opens up its office as a space for tech meetups in the evening.       This helps enhance the company’s reputation within the local IT community.
  • Pair programming – Pair programming is used on all production code. It is recommended to rotate pairs each day.
  • Rotate ownership of tasks.
  • Mobbing – This consists of gathering round a big screen to discuss potential solutions to programming problems. It is particularly useful for tricky tasks.
  • Lone ranger – A developer goes to sit with one of the business teams for a day. They sit on a support desk with the business, so they have more contact with users of their systems and a better understanding of the issues faced by these users.

Rachel then summarised the advantages of Unruly Media’s approach to building learning into team life. The main benefits are that staff are more knowledgeable and therefore build better products. Mastery and more autonomy are deeper advantages to this approach.

However, as with any major personal development initiative, there are challenges involved; most notably finding the time, getting started with implementing the learning initiatives and then keeping them going.

Possible solutions to these challenges include: having visibility of the time being used – particularly for gold card time (via use of whiteboards etc), knowledge sharing, and taking turns (for example, to facilitate meetings and deliver lightning talks). Management support and the provision of learning sources are also important factors.

At the end of the session, an audience member asked how people can go about implementing these ideas in their own organisations, and how to get management on their side. Rachel responded that you could discuss the initiatives with your manager, ask your fellow team members if they would be interested in any of the ideas, and then start off by holding lightning talks and coding dojos at lunchtimes or in the evening after work. Additionally, you could organise a sharing session where you talk about what you learnt at NorDevCon, and highlight the benefits of these methods of building learning into team life.

Overall I found the session very interesting, and it was good to learn about another company’s way of doing things. I left the session feeling inspired, and I shall certainly attempt to get some of these initiatives implemented in my own workplace.

by Victoria Holland

[Photo Credit: opensourceway]

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