Sunday, November 25, 2018

Talking Shop

It can be tempting to confuse training with learning, with skill acquisition, or with the ability to recognise situations in which training material could be used. Attending a workshop is, in general, unlikely to make you an expert in a thing, equip you to apply the thing in your real world context, or even necessarily make you aware that the thing could be applied. Attendees would do well to remember it (particularly when sending me a CV!) and their managers would do even better.

I'm an attendee and a manager: do I do better?

I hope so. In the test team at Linguamatics we spend our training budget on the same kinds of things that your teams probably do: books, conferences, courses, subscriptions, workshops and occasionally something different like an internal conference or escape room. Crucially, as both manager and attendee, I try hard not to mistake having and doing for knowing and being confident in practice.

It's important to me, as a manager, to participate in training and to demonstrate ways that I think it can be a productive experience: training shouldn't be something that's simply done to others. From the attendee side, training isn't about just turning up, listening up, and getting skilled up. Training, I've found, rewards a positive mindset and active participation rather than passive attention and the sense it has to be got over with.

Training is an opportunity to step outside the bunker and the usual mindset, to get exposed to new perspectives or tools or ways of working. It's a place to inspire, challenge, and compare notes. It's often a place to get a broad view of some field, rather than a deep one, and to identify things that might be useful to follow up on later.

Providing training sessions is one way that, as a company, we can show that we care about our employees, and making an effort with our training is one way that I can show that I care about my team mates. We organise in-house workshops for the whole team to do together, at work and inside regular working hours. These are the topics we've covered in the last five years:

  • Experimentation and Diagnosis: a workshop on design and interpretation of experiments (James Lyndsay)
  • Think on Your Feet: strategies for reporting, particularly when put on the spot (Illumine)
  • A Rapid Introduction to Rapid Software Testing: highlights from RST in one day (Michael Bolton)
  • Workplace Assertiveness: remaining calm and getting your point across whatever the situation (Soft Skills)
  • Web Testing 101: introduction to HTTP, REST, proxies, and related testing tools (Alan Richardson)

Quite apart from exposure to those topics, bringing training to work has other advantages. I don't underestimate the value of team-based exercises in building esprit de corps, encouraging collaboration, and promoting empathy through shared experience. I also want to be sensitive to my teams' personal situations where, for example, family commitments can make travel to outside events difficult.

From a practical perspective, whole-team training can be financially worthwhile; it tends to be lower cost per person than the same content at an external location, there's usually more opportunity to customise it, and questions about your specific context are easier to ask and have answered. It's also a convenient way for me to satisfy my personal goal of providing a training opportunity to everyone on the team every year.

But still there's the question of internalising the material, practising it, finding ways that it can work for an individual, team, and ultimately company. (Or finding that it doesn't.) Again, we probably do the same kinds of things that you do: those attending conferences might reinforce their learning and understanding by sharing aspects of their experience back to the team; those with subscriptions to resources like the Ministry of Testing Dojo often summarise articles or organise lunchtime video watching; as a team, after a workshop, we might each verbalise something that we felt was a valuable takeaway to the rest of the group.

Afterwards, taking the training into our own context can be challenging. When work needs to be done, it's not always easy to find time and opportunity to practice, particularly in a way in which it feels safe to fail or just take longer while unfamiliarity is worked through.  There's an often-quoted (and also widely-disputed) idea that 10000 hours of practice are required to become an expert in something. The truth of the claim doesn't matter much to me — I rarely need to be ninja level at anything — but my own experience dictates that without any practice there's little likelihood of any improvement.

I try to pick an aspect of the training that I think could be valuable to me and apply it pretty much everywhere there is a chance to. This way I learn about the tool or approach, my aptitude for it, my reaction to it, the applicability of it in different contexts, and its inapplicability in different contexts. I wrote about eagerly using the Express-Listen-Field loop in conversations after our assertiveness training last. This year, after Alan Richardson's training, I focused on making bookmarklets and now have a handful, largely as efficiency tools, which I've shared back to the team. They are not pretty, but they are functional, they have cemented the idea in my head, and they are delivering benefit to me now.

Pretty much every training session I've ever attended has some kind of key points summary at the end, so it seems appropriate to finish with something similar here.

  • care to find quality training to offer your teams, and attend it
  • don't confuse attendance with expertise and experience
  • demonstrate ways in which value can be taken 

  • take a positive mindset into it
  • be alert for things that you can take out of it
  • seek to experiment with those things quickly and regularly afterwards

Naturally, if any of that sounded interesting simply reading it is insufficient to extract its value to you.

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