Tips for managing technical people – How to both learn and deliver


25 April 2016, by

Galvanizing the geeksThe following is an excerpt from my new book, “Galvanizing the Geeks – Tips for Managing Technical People”. You can buy the full book on my website, here.

Being able to learn is a key part of being happy. It is also widely cited as a good reason to take a job – books such as the cheesily named The Start-up Of You by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman advise you to consider how much you will learn as a key criterion in deciding whether or not to take a job. My favourite maxim (probably because it involves a rhyme, as all good maxims do) is from Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi: ‘Learn in your twenties, earn in your thirties’.

On the other hand, it’s no longer acceptable to turn up to a job and expect to be trained. Competition in the technical job market is fierce, and even if you’re applying for a job that doesn’t require experience you may well lose out to someone who has been learning in their own time and has examples of websites or applications that they’ve produced on their own initiative.

There’s also the question of whether it’s the responsibility of your employer to train you. There’s no doubt that as an employer it’s useful to have people who continue to learn – but it is arguably more useful to the employee themselves. This is where we see a split between technical roles and other, more traditional jobs. Technical guidance manuals such as The Clean Coder by Robert C. Martin are very clear that training is not your employer’s responsibility. Martin suggests that, in addition to your 40 hours’ delivering for your employer, you should spend another 20 on personal development and training through effortful practise.

If a developer wants to get on, the more they take an interest in the subject outside their day job – getting involved with side projects, meetups, forums and discussions, or reading relevant books – the better they will do. As a leader, you should be clear with your team about this. Otherwise it can seem to those with the wrong mindset that some people learn and improve almost by magic.

Of course, there’s also competition among employers to attract and retain the best developers. As an employer, you would probably like it if you could employ a team of self-driven coders who do 20 hours’ training in their spare time – but in reality you are going to need to provide some training too.

A good balance is to ensure that people are always working just outside of their comfort zones. If you make sure that developers are being stretched by new technologies, domains, application types and roles, they can learn and deliver. It’s a fine balance. Being stretched just the right amount can result in improved delivery, as focus is required and boredom doesn’t have a chance to set in – but get too far out of your competency, and delivery is going to suffer.

If you’re the person in charge, constant stretching and learning also makes your job more difficult. The landscape is always changing. You can’t let your team get on and deliver in the same way that they have always done; you need to keep re-planning and adjusting. You also need to be on the lookout for anyone who has been stretched too far. Don’t forget that keen, ambitious people are often afraid to admit when they are in over their heads. Look for signs of overwork and don’t be afraid to jump in and give extra support.

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Categories: Technical, Uncategorized

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