Ask Them How They Want to Grow

“We’re working on development opportunities for our engineering team including some of the most senior folks on the engineering team. What are some interesting things we can provide to help them with personal development?”

I get versions of this question a lot and I have some default answers that I list below, but I would be very interested in what others do to make sure they have credible growth opportunities for their team:

  • Let’s start with: sending folks to conferences is a fine idea and relative low cost, but I find conferences are a short term growth bandaid and don’t give engineers longterm fire/recharge. However, speaking at a conference is whole other deal that I highly suggest especially for the folks who think they are not good public speakers.
  • Vacation is never the answer to this particular question. Vacation is lovely mental opportunity to mentally wander and I’m a huge proponent of mentally wandering, but time off as a growth opportunity often translates to mental wandering that results in resignations.
  • Open sourcing an internal project is an easy short-term win, but the ongoing cost of maintaining said project needs to be factored into this program.
  • Work out an engineering exchange program with another company. Details here. I haven’t done this before, but it makes all sorts of sense.
  • Have an individual work on whatever the hell they want for 90 days. No constraints. Just their project. Extra credit for pairing them with other likeminded engineers. This is hard to pull off because there is always something urgent for these folks to do, but would you rather have them semi-absent for a quarter or absent forever?
  • Ask them what they want to do and how they want to grow. Like I’m doing right now.

What’s your power growth move for yourself or your team?

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6 Responses

  1. We are trying an internal exchange program, where engineers rotate to another part of the team and get a chance to work with different technology, people, and process. The hope is after that they can bring back and adopt some of these new tools and practices within their own team. It also builds new communication channels within the team.

  2. Stephen 2 years ago

    I’d like to expand on the “speaking at a conference” idea. Attending conferences gives you the feeling you are not alone, so it does build internal esteem for your vocation.

    Personally I get the most out of BARcamp-like events – even internal ones – where everyone does a presentation of a method or problem that they get a lot of use and benefit from.

    This forces me to do a deeper evaluation of my everyday work and because I have to present it visually to others, I also need to work harder on communicating my ideas and I also need to be able to communicate clear reasons for the decisions I make. I’ll admit that this last item has caused me pain in the past as sometimes when I go with the gut I have trouble knowing later why something just worked!

    This form of presentation builds empathy within a team and allows others in the team see how your design processes work and how you convert ideas into code or design solutions.

    One rule I sometimes use when setting these up is that it also must be PowerPoint-free. Real-time sketching and white-board listing of ideas also forces the presenter to fly a little blind, but also builds confidence for the times that they need to put their points across in a meeting or hack session.

  3. * Learn to do something out of my comfort zone with someone tutoring

  4. Georgi 2 years ago

    The fastest development for me has happened always when two things combine:

    1) quiet period where I have the time to dig deep into new area on theoretical/play level – distributed systems, functional programming, etc.

    2) serious real-world situation (e.g. Project) where I am given the space and freedom to experiment with the new skills. More often than not big part of the experiment has been failure, but always there would be significant advancement in my skills as well as valuable tech improvements for the business

    My personal experience shows that 3mo is good duration for learn/apply cycle.

    Looking at the teams I have managed, this type of situation has also benefitted my people, when I have been able to set it up like this.

    Real world project without the free space is inevitably executed in “this is how we have always done it” manner. I have been able to sometimes secretly sneak in experiments, but thats extremely risky and not very professional.

    Too much theory without doing something for real lacks the feedback loop, so quickly turns into pure waste.

  5. I’ve tried the “work on whatever the hell they want for 90 days” to great effect. I carved out space for one of my most creative engineers and he invented stuff I couldn’t even have imagined. Avoid stallions pulling plows at all costs and give your best people the chance to change how you do what you do!

  6. James 2 years ago

    At my last company, I led a team to build an experimental product I skunk-worked a few months prior. While it wasn’t the “90 days on whatever” freedom, I gave them the keys of responsibility for all aspects of the project. I took a back seat. I’d pipe in for a couple of high level meetings and keep other projects from infringing on their time as much as possible.

    For the project, it was an unbelievable success. The technology and infrastructure built went beyond my initial vision and the developers took to the project with gusto. Moral was high and development breezed by.

    Unfortunately I couldn’t stop management from bombarding us with fly-by-night projects. I say that literally. They came unexpectedly and left just as quickly. We operated in a perpetual 2 week fog of war; there were no plans/discussions over these projects (including goals) and completed projects were abandoned almost as soon as they were done. When these projects overwhelmed the original purpose and drive of the team, moral dropped like a stone until several members resigned.