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Continuous Learning

October 9, 2003

Continuous Learning

by Jim Shore

Editor's Note: I saw a post by Jim Shore on the topic of Continuous Learning on a newsgroup and asked for his permission to reprint it. He did a light edit of his original post that is reprinted below.

Back in 2000, I saw a post John Brewer made to the Extreme Programming
mailing list. Every week, he said, his team took half a day to "play."
They could use that time for anything they wanted.

I saw that post and thought it was a great idea. I was leading an XP
project at the time, so I went to my manager and proposed it. She
thought it was a great idea, too. She felt that the team wasn't that
interested in extending their skills and she thought this would be a
good way to help that along. She even volunteered to bring in lunch the
following day so we could talk about what we learned.

Eager to try it out, I told the team that I had convinced management to
give us free time. Every Thursday afternoon, we would experiment with
any technical concept that interested them. The only rule was that it
couldn't be project related. Using spike solutions to demonstrate the
concepts was highly recommended.

I thought the team would jump at the opportunity. Instead, they balked.
"That's a waste of time," they complained. "We're here to write
software for our company, not play."

I pushed the issue anyway, and the team grudgingly agreed. People went
off and learned about XML, XSLT, JavaMail, and other technologies. The
effort paid off within weeks as we incorporated the new knowledge back
into our product. For example, we used our newly acquired JavaMail
knowledge to start sending HTML email.

It took a month or so, but people's objections to continuous learning
faded. One interesting result was that the team insisted on pairing.
Originally, they were reluctant to pair, and I suggested that "play
time" be done solo as a way to help them embrace the idea. But by that
point, people were so used to pairing that they insisted on working
together.

I think the initial reluctance to play time came from a sense of being
lost. There's so much to learn... how do you pick the right thing?
Half a day isn't really all that much time to learn something entirely
new. Working in pairs helped people get over the hump, as did plain old
pushing from the coach. Once people got used to it, they liked it.

I've heard companies claim that they allocate 20% of their time for
training. Half a day every week is 10%. Doing all 20% in one chunk
would be ten straight weeks of training. (Yeah, like that's going to
happen.) If you're serious about that much learning, the only practical
approach is continuously.

Learning doesn't have to mean classroom time. Sometimes, the best
approach is to just help people follow their fancy.

Jim Shore is the founder of Titanium I.T., a Portland, Ore. consultancy
specializing in Extreme Programming. Contact him at
jshore@titanium-it.com.

Jim Shore is the founder of Titanium I.T., a Portland, Ore. consultancy specializing in Extreme Programming.