How to make time for learning in tech

Everybody wants to learn more. But then sprints happen and you don't make time for it.

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Learning is a critical part of our work as engineers. The problems we solve are technical, complex, and ambiguous, but the tools at our disposal change and improve regularly. The code we develop requires time for ideation and advanced skills for implementation. Most days we are learning on the fly and experimenting as we go. Because our time is in such high demand, we rarely have an evening or a weekend to squeeze in professional development so our skills remain relevant.

Meanwhile, we’re navigating pressures from engineering departments. Company leadership wants us to have up-to-date skillsets and work with the latest tech. However, they may not allow us to learn on company time or are struggling to provide pathways for meaningful learning. Yes, we’ve heard phrases like, “Friday afternoons will be set aside for learning.” But those Friday afternoons are often spent wrapping up work to complete a sprint.

Even if the engineering organization offers a rich learning platform, the chances of getting through a course—while also keeping up with work, family, and other obligations—are pretty low. We’re left with the difficult choice between learning something new in our spare time or being with our friends and family—who we might have ditched last weekend because we had to work.

Despite full calendars and heavy demands on our personal time, there are ways to make time for learning. It’s tempting to believe that we need an hours-long block of time to learn anything, but that’s not the case. Learning in small increments is better and more realistic. Plus, it’s an important habit to develop for a long-term career in engineering. Like anything else worth doing, it isn’t easy and you have to be creative.

Determine what to learn and how you’ll learn it

Earlier in our careers, it may have been easier to pull all-nighters and spend a weekend learning C# (or C++, or C, or whatever). But the older we get, the more responsibilities we have and the more precious our time becomes. Suddenly it feels like learning is a chore because it’s so difficult to fit in with everything else.

Limited learning time means you have to really hone in on what to learn. That’s why knowledge needs to be distilled into what’s most important. When you can finally carve out the time to learn, you don’t want to waste it.

Here’s a few tips on how to maximize your learning time:

Don’t confuse the learning with the accomplishment. When people want to acquire new skills, they’ll sometimes resent the learning activity itself. Common blockers include feeling like the material is slowing them down or loaded with unnecessary prerequisites. However, activities such as proving concepts, understanding dependencies, and lab activities are vital for true skill-building. Merely completing a course or getting a certificate isn’t learning if you can’t recall or apply the material a few months later; it’s harmful to prioritize the accomplishment over the learning itself. Learning isn’t a singular event; it requires specific tactics that take time, repetition, and subconscious processing..

Look at learning as a key component of your career. Take a step back and look at learning as part of your journey, not just something you do for a job, project, or task. Learning is the primary skill of an engineer, so don’t hold yourself back by making it a low priority. It’s common for engineers who stop learning to end up stagnating in their careers and running into blind spots. They don’t move forward with technology and miss out on opportunities. In physical engineering, the laws are unlikely to change over time (though our understanding of them might). But in technology, the foundations on which we engineer are constantly changing with higher-level abstractions, improved programming languages and frameworks, and new practices. Learning is how we push through and evolve, so do what you can to find the motivation to learn sooner than later.

Hone your learning plan by building a taxonomy

Let’s say you’re a front end JavaScript developer who wants to learn more about asynchronous API calls. A taxonomy will help you to determine the order of importance of what to learn. Consider the example of async API calls, which are part of communication in browsers. When learning about this concept, the phrases, “APIs,” “communication,” and “browsers” should anchor your learning taxonomy to keep you on track and reduce potential distraction. The more precise the taxonomy gets, the more you can narrow your educational path and learn only what is relevant or interesting.

Learning for the long term

Knowing what you want to learn is a great way to grow, but investing in your unknown unknowns, are what support an engineer’s ability to evolve as tech changes. Ignoring unknown unknowns is how engineers develop tunnel vision, causing them to lose perspective of bigger problems and become frustrated as a result.

It’s understandable to get defensive about your engineering weaknesses. If you’re already working effectively, why waste time learning about anything new? Your tasks needed to be done yesterday, there’s pressure coming from management, and the business is still trying to navigate market conditions. How can you think about learning for tomorrow when you haven’t completely solved yesterday’s problems?

We recommend staying open-minded to learning, even when it seems like there’s no opportunity or reason to do so. Look into alternative ways of working and see what new tech is on the horizon. Ask yourself why new concepts are on the rise. The tools or methods might be better—or maybe they’re just different. Staying focused on yesterday’s problems might put you on the wrong side of history.

Develop a daily habit of addressing your unknown unknowns. It will make working in your role a whole lot more sustainable. Even a cursory understanding of alternatives and forward-thinking options can give you agility for a long-term career. You’ll avoid developing a reputation as “the legacy problem solver.” You’re also much less likely to burn out when you have a variety of new and old problems to solve. Strategically working through the gaps in your understanding will keep your daily tasks feeling fresh.

Establishing a daily habit of open-minded learning will put you on a path toward sustainable long-term evolution. When done in small time increments, sustainable learning will help you throughout the day. For example, if you encounter something new in the morning, the idea may continue to bounce around in your head in the shower or while you’re commuting. Having that idea percolate is a strong part of the learning process.

The challenge of bite-sized learning is that the ideas don’t always connect. You might not remember what you learned in the morning, so it’s hard to come up with next steps or questions. That’s where learning becomes more of a practice or continuous habit. Learning more often and regularly moves us forward. This applies to both individuals and organizations.

Developing a learning culture

It’s increasingly important for organizations to support their employees’ professional growth goals. By promoting learning as part of an organizational mindset and culture, leaders can help their teams exercise their learning muscles.

Think about it like a professional basketball player. If a player’s jump shot is weak, they work on it. But the coach doesn’t say, “We don’t have time for you to run on the treadmill! Just go work on your jump shot.” Treadmill time is just as important as the jump shot because it’s an investment in the future. Unfortunately, some organizations don’t view learning as an investment, and they’ll tell their engineers to get off the treadmill and only work on the jump shot. It’s challenging. However, there is no shortage of organizations that are enthusiastic about building a learning culture. The downside: company leadership often doesn’t know how.

Some companies try to hire their way into new skills, thinking fresh perspectives may change the culture. That strategy usually doesn’t pan out. Other companies can’t overcome their fear of training employees because the employee will inevitably leave. Leaders like Aaron Skonnard, CEO of Pluralsight, are encouraging companies to change from “consumers of talent” to “creators of talent.” This idea is a healthy step forward, but we need practical, sustainable ways of making that happen. Let's explore two methods that reliably work: feedback loops and grassroots efforts.

Feedback loops are critical for a sustainable learning culture

As we learn, we need to understand whether what we’re learning is aligned with individual and organizational goals. Learning as an engineer needs to be a shared value between employers and the individuals who work for them. Like any other discipline, however, learning needs to be focused and intentional.

There’s a practical reality of someone getting distracted and learning the wrong thing or learning something that’s not goal-aligned. This can be frustrating. Feedback loops, either from managers, peers, or subject experts can ensure that you are spending your time on subjects valuable to both your team and your overall skill goals. Organizations that value learning understand that it’s as much a discipline and skill as anything else, and it makes a huge difference for employee satisfaction.

Stack Overflow found that 56% of developers consider opportunities to learn when thinking about staying at their job. People want roles where they are supported in their learning journeys; if their current employer doesn’t give them that support, they may look for another job. They know it’s important for their careers, so they want to go where they can learn. When an organization is able to sense these indicators, they can respond, increase employee retention, and therefore increase sustainability and learn from their blind spots.

Grassroots learning culture development

The relationship between employees and organizations goes two ways. When it comes to building a “learning culture,” our default response might be “that’s the company’s responsibility, not the individual’s.” However, employees have much more control than they think. They can form communities of practice and centers of excellence, cross-functional learning groups, or even do something as simple as a lunch-and-learn. Here are some more ideas.

Build learning time into your estimates. When estimating the effort for a project task, we usually think about “how many hours will this take to complete?” Instead, we should think, “how many hours of learning and work will this take to complete?” We recommend that engineers mindfully build learning time into their estimates so there’s no competition for time in their sprints. You don’t have to be dishonest by increasing an estimate. Just say, “I think it’ll take eight hours, but I’ll need two additional hours of research time.”

Start a book club. Jeremy (co-author of this piece) was a consultant in a former life and helped implement a book club at several companies. One company was bewildered at the mere suggestion. “A book club?! Are you crazy?” They did it anyway, and the response was fantastic. They’re still doing the book club four years later. They started with the classic computer science book, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software by the so-called Gang of Four, assigned everyone a chapter, and shared what they learned with their team. Book clubs sound old-fashioned, but they still work very well.

Have software demos and show off. Demos are a great opportunity to show off new work and ideas to a broader audience. Stack Overflow, for example, has monthly demos from the PDEC team (Product, Development, Engineering, and Community). The demonstrator gets praise and that feels good, but the demo also encourages other people to demo their work. They start thinking, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we did that too?” Engineering teams of any size can easily set up frequent demo hours to provide teams the opportunity to share. This creates a positive feedback loop and the potential for cross-pollination of ideas.

Companies want to learn and they need your help

More organizations than ever want a learning culture that supports employees and facilitates the adoption of tomorrow’s tech. They are budgeting for it and trying to figure it out, but it’s not their core competence and they don’t know how to encourage people to learn. Managers and leaders frequently want their teams to learn, grow, and succeed. Sometimes they’ll find solutions that people don’t want, so it’s our job as engineers to provide specific requests for growth. Going to our managers with vague requests like “we need to learn more” won’t give them much to work with.

Pluralsight has spent a lot of time understanding how to make learning possible at organizations of every size. One of the ways we stand out is not having 10,000 courses or 100 courses just on ReactJS. That’s confusing and users shouldn’t have to figure out how to learn as they learn. We have taxonomies, quick learning sessions you can fit in your day, learning paths, skill paths, and certification paths—all of which are optional—to give engineers line of sight on a learning goal. You know that as soon as you take five courses, you can get things done in React. (Or you can take a la carte classes all day long.) We give people the chance to test their progress as they go. And by popular request, we now have in-depth lab exercises.

The more you learn, the better your future choices will be. You’ll learn what’s important to you about learning, have discernment as you learn, and learn better over time. We are here to help engineers and their employers develop a lifetime practice of learning.

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