Training Your Technical Staff When You Don't Have a Budget

When budgets get tight, it can be difficult to provide adequate training for your staff. Over the last couple of years, I’ve found some ways to provide some training even in the face of a shrinking (or non-existent) budget.

Regional conferences

If you still have some budget, but maybe just not as much as you are accustomed to, look to smaller regional conferences as an alternative to the larger national ones that are in major cities. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a city where a conference is being held, you might get out of having to pay for travel at all. This past year, the excellent No Fluff Just Stuff conference made a stop in our town, and I was able to send two developers plus myself to it for a fraction of what it would have cost to send them away somewhere and pay airfare and hotel on top of the conference cost. I personally attended the Windy City Rails conference this year which was a single day for only \$150. While the smaller conferences may not have all the speakers you would get at a larger one, I’ve been really surprised at the quality of the speakers that these conferences draw.

Books

My team has done this for the past year or so. I buy a copy of a book for each person, and we meet once a week to discuss a chapter at a time. Have people take turns leading the discussion. My experience has been that these are most productive if you tackle a topic that your team agrees is currently a pain point, as they can take the information they learn and apply it to their current project. We’ve read through The Pragmatic Programmer, Pragmatic Unit Testingin Java, and are going to move on to Don’t Make Me Think next.

Hashrocket has actually taken this a step further and broadcast these live.

Videos

It’s become commonplace for conferences to record their talks and make them available online for free. Additionally, a number of larger user groups do the same. There are a nearly endless number of videos on a wide variety of topics that are available online. Pick a video (maybe two if they’re short), watch it as a group, and then discuss it afterwards.

Here are a few sources I like:

Peer to Peer

We’ve done this even before our training budget shrank. Have people take turns presenting on a relevant topic that they are passionate about. This works well on a few levels: those listening get to expand their knowledge, and those presenting will often develop a deeper understanding of their topic. If a presentation is used, post it somewhere so that people who join the company later can benefit.

So what have I missed? What do you do to keep your skills current when you can’t get money for training?

How to Integrate Remote Employees

One of my “must-read” blogs, Rands in Repose has a post seeking advice on keeping employees who work from home (or any other remote location) in the loop.

I’m ready to learn and that’s today’s question, “How do you, as a remote employee, stay in the loop?” The converse, if you prefer, is, “How do you, as a co-worker or manager of a remote employee, keep everyone on the same page?” Work-from-home employees is becoming a bigger and bigger trend, and there are a lot of companies that seem to thrive in this environment. When it works, it seems to be a win-win for both the employer and employee. It does introduce a number of issues, particularly if only part of the team is working remotely.

There’s some good advice in the comments for the post, including advice on tools, as well as cultural issues.

Moving From Doing to Managing

5 years ago, I went from being a “doer” (ie, a programmer), to being a manager. This was not an easy transition. I suspect some people find this transition easier than others, but I think most everyone who makes the leap struggles in some way. If you’ve recently (or maybe not so recently) made this move, you may find an article by Dave Gray helpful. It’s entitled “The craftsman-to-manager paradox”. Dave defines the paradox as this:

As you move into management, the very things that made you effective as a craftsman are now deadly threats to your success as a manager. Your independence and self-reliance, which was an asset, is now a liability.

This is 100% correct, and I’ve seen it happen more than once; both to myself, and to the others around me who were promoted from the rank and file.

The article also includes a list he calls Ten Communication Commandments for Managers.

Number 8 is one of the things I struggled with the most:

Don’t avoid difficult conversations. As a manager it’s your job to initiate them when necessary.

I have often put off having those conversations, naively hoping that the issue would resolve itself. It never did, and putting it off only made things worse.

The other 9 items are equally valuable to anyone in a leadership position.

Another point to be made though, which Dave neglects to mention, is that great doers aren’t always great managers. It’s two completely different skillsets. I’ve more than once seen someone who was a really great developer/server administrator/router jockey get promoted into a supervisory position and then fail miserably. This isn’t a reflection on the individual, it’s more the fault of the person who promoted them. It isn’t that leadership and management skills can’t be learned, it’s just that some people just don’t have the aptitude (or often the desire) to do the job well.