Getting Trained in an Economic Downturn

I’m sure that, for the vast majority of the readers of my blog, becoming more productive with your programming tools is a desirable goal. Not all developers go out of their way to advance their skills, but the very fact that you read blogs means that getting better is of interest to you. And, for most companies, they would also like you to make better use of your existing tools. It’s certainly obvious that it’s in your company’s best interest for this to happen, even if they don’t go out of their way to explicitly advance your skills.

And this is the ugly truth for most companies. In the best of times, a large number of companies don’t provide any significant budget for formal training. Usually developers are expected to pick up any new skills on their own time. Or, worse, they are expected to apply new technologies without spending any ‘exploratory’ time with them. As most of your are aware, the first time you try a new technology, the result is usually only partially successful. Only after you have worked with it a few times does it become possible to take full advantage of it. And yet, management is reluctant to pay for training classes, tech conferences, or even a programming book that will help you get ‘into the zone’ for the stuff that would make a difference in your day-to-day efforts. Here's a few suggestions that might, possibly get your manager to approve educational expenses, even in the economic conditions that exist today.

Working with Books

Over the years, I have worked with a number of different companies. Each of them takes a slightly different view of what appropriate training costs are. For companies that have a large number of developers and a small educational budget, sometimes books are all that fit. For some companies, creating a library of programming books is a viable books. Your company could purchase well-reviewed (reviews are easy to find on Amazon) programming books on the relevant topics. Employees could then ‘borrow’ books that were appropriate to their current tasks. The books end up being purchased just once, but can be shared between developers as the need arises.

A more high-tech solution to the problem can be achieved with a solution to the on-line technology book site Safari. Safari allows for books to be searched electronically and even be downloaded (in a PDF format) or even printed on an as needed basis. This is a decent mix between the need to search for a specific answer and still being able to read a book cover-to-cover when called for.

However, a corporate library is not always the best solution. Finding answers in a book requires, in many cases, that you have some inkling of the solution beforehand. At a minimum, you need to frame your query appropriately, something that is as much art as science. And the pace of technology advances means that books are almost always going to lag new technology and best practices by a period of months, if not years.

Selling Management on Training: Speak Their Language

When you want to convince your boss to let you go to a conference or attend a course, the first thing to do is look at the expenditure from their perspective. After all, the cost of the training is an expense to them. If there is no corresponding benefit, it becomes difficult to justify spending the monies. And, ultimately, you need to convince management that the benefits that they will gain are more than the money that they will spend.

In general, you will find that the attitude that a company has towards the training of developers is dictated by how the company makes money and who is responsible for helping to making that money. Usually, companies whose product is technology-based tend to be better at providing and paying for skill improvements for their employees. When developers productivity is closely aligned with corporate revenues, it is easier to get the boss’ attention. However, if you work on an application that has no direct correlation with how the company makes money, you’re much more likely to face an uphill battle.

But regardless of where you fit in this spectrum, focus your arguments on what they get out of sending you across town or across the country. Make the conversation about their Return on Investment. Show that the training will have concrete and immediate value to the company and you’re a lot closer to getting approval.

One way that you might be able to do this is to offer to share materials and experiences with your team upon return. At ObjectSharp, we call these sessions ‘Lunch & Learns”. You many know them as “Brown Bag Training”. By offering to present such a session after your conference or course, your company gets to spread some of the benefits of sending one person on training across multiple people. And your team benefits from having the new technologies couched in terms that are directly relevant to your environment.

In some cases, it’s also possible to get the trainer to offer to help with these sessions. This is something that ObjectSharp offers to attendees of our courses. We’re more than happy to have one of our instructors speak to your company about the newest technologies. While any course is on-going, instructors work hard to make the content relevant to you. To accomplish this, we ask about the kinds of projects that are being worked on and where the technology will be applied. So by having an ObjectSharp instructor give the Lunch & Learn, you get a person who is well-versed in the technology, but who also has a basic understanding of how it will fit into your corporate development plans.

You might consider shouldering some of the burden of training yourself. I don’t necessarily mean to pay for it directly. But if you take your time to attend user group meetings and Code Camps (both of which take place in non-work hours), you show a dedication to improving your skills that might make a difference. At a minimum, you will get some insight into the latest technologies, even if it’s not quite the same personalized and intensive hand-on experience that going on a course might be.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with one final, and surprisingly creative, argument. One of the most common questions we get from potential training clients is 'What if I train our developers and they leave?'" Our answer is invariably 'What if you don’t train them and they stay?' This usually gets an 'Aha' moment from management, followed by a realization that perhaps investing more in staff development might not be quite the pure expense that they think.