Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Hard Day's Workshop

I want to tell you about how we introduced one of our more recent practices: Workshops.

During one of our retrospectives this spring, it became apparent that some of our colleagues felt that there was room for more learning in our shop. People were sticking a bit too much to their usual tasks and their usual technologies. We're not a consultancy, so it's not really the core of our mission to use the latest and most hyped tools all the time. We still need to stay updated so we make the right architectural choices when considering doing something the old way, or trying out something new.

But we're too busy to learn new stuff!
For a software developer, the responsibility for your actions is split between what you choose to do, and what you're assigned to do. Of course, you can't run wild and smash all the latest open source tools and languages into the main product line, but at the same time, if you don't take initiative to do a little research on what's going out there, it's very unlikely that you will get any new interesting technologies to work with.

I believe that this research is something we have to spend some of our free-time on.  Many developers will disagree with me here, saying that work stuff is for working hours. Unfortunately, I only get 40 hours of office time a week, and this is not enough for being productive at work plus research. (There are a lot of things I want to keep up with for the sake of an interesting career in technology.)

Pick a card, any card
Now, for the purpose of this post, it's not really important which technology we set out to learn. Anyhow, The Pragmatic Programmer says you should learn a new programming language every year. Personally, I've long wanted to learn Scala, and use it for a pet project, either at work or at home. I see a lot of Norwegian tweeters are experimenting heavily with it, as well as a couple of my colleagues, and they're all boasting endlessly about how great it is to program with.

Seek allies
So, I asked three of my Scala-digging colleagues if they would be interested in us arranging a series of internal workshops for our colleagues, to further our own understanding of Scala (I had none at that point) as well as teach the rest something new. They were in. Being four people taking care to arrange the stuff is a lot more powerful and long-term than driving something like this on your own.

Blessing from above
After we had our new technology ready, and a team of people ready to push it, we went to the boss and explained: This is something we are going to do on our free time, but we want to know to what extent you'll be willing to "sponsor" the event. Obviously, us spending our free time on teaching and learning new stuff is something that will benefit the company, given a relevant technology at least. So we asked:
  1. Can we use the offices? (Usually this is a no-brainer)
  2. Will you buy us pizza? (Amazingly cheap compared to paying overtime, or using working hours)
  3. Can we dip into the regular working hours? (say, we start the workshops one hour before end-of-work-day, once a week)
Interestingly, in these situations you meet a compromise which reflects how much your company is willing to spend on learning, which is an important factor in your choice of place of work. This is something your boss/company should have in mind when they answer questions like this. A little extortion never hurt anyone :)

Implementation
Now, with clearance from above, the four of us got together and planned out the workshops. To minimize preparation work, we borrowed the Scala introduction course from the Norwegian scalaBin organization. We came up with a pet project we could aim to create (an internal problem database, a bit like stackoverflow.com), and pulled out an agenda where we'd do a 2-hour workshop every second Wednesday. We're now done with the 3rd of these workshops, and it's going well. About two thirds of our colleagues are participating, and I think it's safe to say we've learned a lot already, without intruding too much on private time, and not taking too much time away from regular work activities.

Future
I hope that even after we have mastered Scala, we'll continue these workshops for other things, handing over the responsibility to other colleagues who wish to arrange workshops in new fields. From management side, I hope they will see some business benefit in allowing more of these activities, and let it protrude further into working hours.

Summary
It didn't have to be Scala. It could've equally well be any other language, framework or tool. The point is to expand our skill set and knowledge, using our own time and company resources.

Just as you have to fight for your infrastructure, you have to take responsibility for your business using the right technologies, and spending enough effort on learning. I hope that the above experience can perhaps help you getting something started in your own shop.

PS: This is not the only knowledge activity we have at IP Labs. We also have an hour every Friday morning that we use for presentations, videos and retrospectives. I think the more interactive workshops compliment these knowledge meetings nicely.