Have you ever wondered how top businesses keep their development teams’ skill sets razor-sharp? Technology is always evolving, and fast. Trends and technologies come and go in a wink, and it can be tough to keep up.
Yes, it’s easier to stick with what you already know, than to embrace emerging technologies. However, that’s not how you remain an industry leader. The most successful companies continuously strive to keep their developers ahead of new technologies.
Read about 7 ways to help keep your tech team’s skills razor-sharp:
- Start the day with school
- Allow time to work on ideas during work hours
- Don’t give extra rewards for educating
- Ensure no one falls behind
- Don’t use the latest tech for the sake of it
- Take suggestions from front-line staff
- Pay attention to what your competitors are doing
1. Start the day with school
You always intend to explore that new technology that you think looks cool but other pressing issues (meetings, planning, fixing bugs, etc.) always end up taking priority… Sound familiar?
Ensure that everyone in the team regularly has time to continuously educate themselves. Have them complete an hour of learning every morning when they arrive at work. They will get an undisturbed hour to themselves which they might not otherwise find time for.
Make it known in your organisation that when someone arrives at work, they do not start work right away. People will not be expected to start their usual tasks of the day for the first hour. They will not reply to emails, review source control, or launch their IDEs.
They will use their hour to learn new skills that they think will be of great value to the business.
They might spend their hour watching a video tutorial series or seminar recording. They might scroll through official channels of the technologies you already use. They might go to interactive coding platforms, like CodinGame.
Allow team members to choose what they do during their hour, provided it is something that they think will be of value to the business. Giving freedom to explore new, relevant skills will result in your team having a more diverse skill set.
How will you fit all these extra hours into each week? “Parkinson’s law” is a common observation where work expands to fill the time given to complete it. Try out the morning hour of personal development. You’ll see that the same rate of progress is achieved while having one less working hour each day.
You’ll most likely even see an increased rate of progress. Everyone will be taking an hour each morning to self-educate. Their minds will be in full swing to attack the day’s problems with fresh ideas.
2. Allow time to work on ideas during work hours
Your team’s new skills may not be useful for your current projects. They may, however, be of value in the future.
It’s common practice in successful computer software development to allow technical staff one day per week to work on a project of their choosing. They can work on them alone or with anyone they choose. Staff have the freedom to apply their new skills by working on their ideas instead of on what management instructs them to work on.
One weekday is 20% of the working week, so these days are referred to as “20% Time”. The 3M, a multinational company founded in the United States, was the first to implement this idea, back in 1948. Since then, many have followed suit.
When a developer is given room to start a project from scratch and make all of the design decisions, they take ownership of its success. They often spend extra time outside of work, preparing to make the most of their “20% Time”. They want to be as productive as possible.
Understandably, some businesses are reluctant to spend 20% of computer software developer salaries on “20% Time”. These businesses see the value in letting developers work on anything they want, but they have these types of days only once per month or per quarter.
Is that the right way to go? To reduce your staff’s number of high-productivity days?
Some of the most successful products to ever come out of Google are a result of “20% Time”. Huge 20% products include the development of Google News, Gmail, and AdSense.
Staff are, generally, more productive and motivated on that one day than on any other workday. Daniel H. Pink in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us explains how “20% Time” results in highly motivated staff who continuously try to improve the business’s products with their ideas.
On top of productivity boosts, “20% Time” reduces staff turnover. Engineers don’t want to leave a job where they get freedom and fulfilment from implementing their ideas.
3. Don’t give extra rewards for educating
Studies have shown that extra rewards reduce creativity and hinder the desire to perform well on a task. The promise of extra rewards for faster work is effective for repetitive, menial tasks – not so much for creative tasks (like computer programming!)
Professor of Psychology Edward L. Deci explains in his paper Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education that “when money is used as an external reward for an activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity.”
It’s important to offer a decent, relevant base salary. However, offering incentives for self-educating can be counter-productive.
Jonmarshall Reeve, author of Understanding Motivation and Emotion, agrees:
“People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person’s motivation and behavior, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional and hidden cost of undermining that person’s intrinsic motivation toward the activity.”
You’ll find many developers are happy to learn complex new skills without extra pay when they see that it is contributing to a higher purpose.
4. Ensure no one falls behind
Robert Reeves, CTO at Datical, explains that going from engineer to leader:
“You have a bigger stage, bigger responsibilities […] but that doesn’t mean you should spend hours figuring out new technology alone. What I do is simply ask my technical team members what they think is cool and let them tell me how it works.”
Why not approach your technical team members individually and ask what they explored during their self-education time? They’ll teach you what the technology is and how it works. You, as a tech leader, keep up to date by leveraging your team’s research.
You can also invite your team to post the best content they find each day on a work community platform, like a dedicated Slack channel. Other team members can peruse it during their next self-education session, making sure no one falls behind.
5. Don’t use the latest tech for the sake of it
You’ll often see disruptive technologies that claim to be the next best thing. Don’t be too hasty to adopt these technos before they have become well-established and proved their usefulness.
Make sure that you’re choosing to use new technologies that are appropriate for your business’ strategic goals. Do not be influenced by fear of falling behind, or fear of missing out (FOMO). The functionality you need dictates which technologies you adopt; not the other way around.
For example, augmented reality is cool (very cool). However, spending time learning about it may not be a good use of your team’s time if your product is unrelated to real-time visualisation.
6. Take suggestions from front-line staff
No one knows what your customers want more than your sales, product and tech support teams.
Customers are always contacting front-line workers asking for help. They make requests for improvements.
These departments are brimming with suggestions for how to improve your solution. Many of these suggestions will require previously unutilised and unfamiliar technologies to implement, which your team will need to explore.
By hosting regular interdepartmental meetings, you and your technical staff gain insights into which new skills are most valuable to learn.
7. Pay attention to what your competitors are doing
Some businesses claim that they couldn’t care less about what their competitors are doing. They say that they’re only concerned with their own advancements and achievements. Meanwhile, their competitors have features that prospective customers need and want.
Why not take inspiration from your competition if what they’re doing is working? Customers move to competitors who more fully meet their needs. Take note of what technologies your competitors have implemented successfully.
Apple is heralded as a maverick of innovation, yet a lot of the components in their devices are created by Samsung. Apple could’ve had their engineering staff develop different solutions using different technologies. Instead, they took notice of Samsung’s successes and embraced them.
Be warned: there is taking inspiration, then there is straight-up copying. In 2011, for example, Samsung filed a lawsuit against Apple for “infringement of patents related to telecommunications standards.” Ensure that you have any necessary permissions before deciding to follow suit.
These practices all revolve around continuously educating and leveraging your team.
Stay on top of the latest technologies by making sure to carve out time to learn, and have your team share their findings. Don’t use new technologies just because they’re the hot new thing. Use them because they fit and serve your planned features.
Get feature suggestions from your front-line staff who speak with your customers every day. Model your competitors’ successful implementations of new technologies.
In time, these processes will become natural, part of your daily routine.
So, which of these practices are you going to try in your business?