I’m a lucky developer.
Not because I tend to be able to escape from dangerous situations mostly intact (though that does seem to be a running theme) but because I have the good fortune to work for a company that actually supports the professional development of its employees.
I don’t mean the typical line of “yeah we support you, we totally have a training budget, but good luck getting even a token amount of money to buy Pluralsight to watch courses on your own time” that you usually get. I mean the good sort of support.
The only sort of support that matters.
Time Is Decidedly Not On My Side
When it comes to extending my technical capabilities, the last thing that I’m worried about is spending money. There are a endless ways to improve yourself in your chosen field without spending a cent thanks to the wonders of the internet, and even if I did have to part with some cash in order to get better at what I do, I would be crazy not to. Every skill I gain, every piece of experience I gather, improves my ability to solve problems and makes me a more valuable asset to whichever company I choose to associate with. More often than not, that means more money, so every cent expended in the pursuit of improvement is essentially an investment in my (and my families) future.
So money is not really an issue.
Time on the other hand is definitely an issue.
My day job takes up around a third of the average day, including some travelling. Combine that with some additional work that I do for a different company plus the requirement to sleep, eat and exercise (to stay healthy) and my weekdays are pretty much spoken for. Weekends are taken up by a mixture of gardening (which I tell myself is a form of relaxation, but is really just another way to indulge my desire to solve problems), spending time with my family and actual downtime to prevent me from going insane and murdering everyone in a whirlwind of viscera.
That doesn’t leave a lot of time left to dedicate to self-improvement, at least not within sacrificing something else (which, lets be honest, is probably going to be sleep).
I try to do what I can when I can, like reading blog posts and books, watching courses and writing posts like this (especially while travelling on the train to and from work), but it’s becoming less and less likely that I can grab a dedicated chink of time to really dig into something new with the aim of understanding how and why it works, to know how best to apply it to any problems that it might fit.
Having a dedicated piece of time gifted to me is therefore a massive boon.
Keeping Employees Through Mutually Beneficial Arrangements
We have a pretty simple agreement where I work.
Friday afternoon is for professional development. Not quite the legendary 20% time allegedly offered by Google, but its a massive improvement over most other places that I know of.
Our professional development is structured, in the sense that we talk amongst ourselves and set goals and deadlines, but it doesn’t generally involve anyone outside the team. No-one approves what we work on, though they do appreciate being informed, which we do in a number of different ways (one-on-one management catchups, internally visible wiki, etc). There is financial support as well (reimbursement for courses or subscriptions and whatnot), which is nice, but not super critical for reasons I’ve already outlined above.
So far we’ve aimed for a variety of things, from formal certifications (AWS Certifications are pretty popular right now) through to prototypes of potential new products and tools all the way to just using that time to fix something that’s been bugging you for ages. Not all “projects” end in something useful, but it’s really about the journey rather than the destination, because even an incomplete tool built using a new technology has educational value.
As a general rule, as long as you’re extending yourself, and you’ve set a measurable goal of some sort, you’re basically good to go.
Making time for professional development can be hard, even if you recognise that it is one of the most value rich activities that you could engage in.
It can be very useful to find a company (or cajole your current organisation) into supporting you in this respect, especially by providing some dedicated time to engage in educational activities. I recommend against using any time provided in this way to just watch videos or read blogs/books, and to instead use it to construct something outside of your usual purview. That’s probably just the way I learn though, so take that advice with a grain of salt.
Giving up time that could be used to accomplish business priorities can be a hard sell for some companies, but as far as I can see, its a win-win situation. Anecdotally, Friday afternoons are one of the least productive times anyway, so why not trade that time in for an activity that both makes your employees better at what they do and generates large amounts of goodwill.
Given some time, they might even come up with something amazing.