August 19, 2017
Time For Learning - An Inconvenient TruthI've watched many tweet debates ("twebates"?) recently on the subject of finding time for learning in software development.
In the culture of the code craft movement, the consensus has been that you have to put in the hours. And by that, they tend to mean your own hours, outside of the day job. I've seen many job ads stipulating that candidates would need to show evidence of this extra-curricular commitment: blogs, speaking at conferences, OSS contributions, personal projects and all that.
The counter argument comes chiefly from people advocating greater diversity in software. Single parents, for example, have a lot on their plate that makes popping along to the Extreme Tuesday Club or speaking at a conference in, say, Norway, logistically difficult. Where's the time in their day/week/year to read all three volumes of the Art of Computer Programming?
My perspective on all this, I'm afraid, is cold and sobering. It takes a lot of reading and talking and sharing and experimentation (also known as "trying new stuff") to get good at writing software - and to stay good at it.
That's an inescapable reality. It's an inconvenient truth about software development. Everyone wants those skills, but nobody's willing to pay to develop them. Cui bono? Demonstrably, the employer benefits from more skilled developers. So they should make a contribution to bulding those skills. Simples.
What we're really debating is where does that time come from? Most employers aren't willing to support learning out of their own budgets. They expect developers to arrive fully formed, and that means that anything aside from direct on-the-job experience is down to us to learn in our own time. It's wholly inadequate to the task because we can only learn things that have immediate relevance to what we're doing.
Imagine if doctors had to learn everything that way. "Well, Mr Gorman, I'm afraid you have a burst appendix. This hasn't come up before, so I'm going on a course to learn how to treat it. See you in 2 weeks."
This also excludes people whose backgrounds and situations make finding those extra hours every week very difficult. This is why I believe offering developers "10% time" or "20% time" is really very necessary if we want a more diverse profession. This is another inconvenient truth about software development. Job ads that demand large amounts of extra hours of "elective" work are effectively restricting applications to people with not a lot else going on in their lives.
In practice, the code crafter landscape is still pretty homogenous. When I run public events, we still get about 85% men, and most of those are white. Very occasionally, someone with a disability comes along - and I always try to make sure the event's accessible, and advertise that fact.
But the fact remains that there are a lot of potentially great developers out there who, much as they'd like to, can't get along to a Saturday workshop, and whose employers won't let them take time out for learning during the working week.
Those are the people we in the dev community rarely see. But we shouldn't assume that they're not there because they don't want to learn.
If your job ads say you're committed to increasing diversity, and then demand a large portfolio of extra-curricular activities, you have a cognitive dissonance.
So, my question is this: how do we square this circle? My current belief is that we must adapt the very nature of our jobs so that time for learning and deliberate practice is built into the working week. I believe that this should become the norm, whereas today it's very much the exception.
I come from the school of "if this needs to happen, then let's just do it". We made the mistake, as professionals, of letting other people manage our time. If we're to move forward then that needs to stop. As "prima donna" as this sounds, we should take that time, and not ask for permission.
Because if we ask for permission, we know what the answer will be.
Posted 8 months, 6 days ago on August 19, 2017