Learning index

How can we know if we’re learning enough? Or if we’re learning the right things? How can we get some help and find mentors?

Training strategies

Continuous learning is very important for self improvement. We may learn new things at work, but sometimes we end up solving problems and challenges without learning new things, or not learning enough. Companies may have a training program, but from what I know about, that’s not so common. More common is for companies to provide some kind of training budget for employees to use.

However, people may end up not to using the training plafound, due to lack to time or because they actually don’t have any ideas on how to use it.

Why is investing in training so important?

We may be happy and satisfied with our job. We may like our challenges and really go along with our teammates. But if we’re not learning new things, at some time, we’ll start to consider other career options. This usually takes months or even years. Retaining talent is hard and having people that are not learning is very risky.

Learning new things gives us a bigger toolbelt to tackle challenges. This will make us more valuable and more confident.

We may invest in specialisation: training in things that we already know and go deeper. And we may also train in other areas the complement our own. This will allow us to gain insights that make a difference.

Example: see how Cosmology gives an edge to a data scientist.

Track learning

Once a month, on my 1on1s, I ask the following:

How much do you feel you have learned on the last four weeks?

This is usually very insightful. I track the responses over time to have a sense of how much learning is going on. If I notice that in a couple of months I have a decreasing learning index, I’ll push to change that. Tracking this have already brought to my attention some interesting scenarios.

I may assume someone is learning, but they may not feel like it. For example I had a new engineer on my team, and after the first month I met with her. On the first month on a new company we’re always learning and as such I actually don’t pay much attention to that. But she actually gave a very bad note to her learning index. It turned out that she was learning but she actually expected to be learning much more and to be having more complicated challenges. Having this information was crucial for me to push her and give her more complex tasks.

Another scenario is people thinking that they are learning a lot, but I may not agree with that. And I’ll have the opportunity to try and understand why they feel they’re learning. I may have missed something and this allows me to get to know my teammates better and understand what they value in learning.

Tracking perception of learning versus learning

This is something debatable. In my opinion it’s very hard to learn how much someone is learning. It’s hard to quantify it. But if we ask how much people feel they are learning, we can actually have a proper scale.

Most of my work on 1on1s is about growing people and motivating them. In that regard, it’s more important to me that people feel they’re learning and are making it a habit, than knowing how much they’re learning.

How can we increase the learning index?

If you’re a manager

People may not now what to learn or how. We can help here by finding training possibilities for them. We’ll need to know what motivates them and what are their improvement points. With that we’ll have some topics to cover.

Training plan

We can actually define a training plan. I try to set goals for each quarter, and work with my mentees towards an end goal.

For example, per quarter:

  • Select a technical book
  • Select a soft skills book
  • Search for an online course
  • Search for a conference
  • Search for certifications

I usually push for reading and try to incorporate that habit. But it’s not easy if someone doesn’t like reading. Fortunately, there are always other options.

Setting goals

A challenge I’ve faced is when line managing people from areas that I don’t have much context about. For example, how can I advise a designer when I know nothing about that? In these scenarios I try to change the mindset and pass over the responsibility with the following question:

Imagine that in 2 years you’re 10 times better than you are today. What does that mean? What would you require to achieve that? And what can you start doing today?

With these questions I aim to make my mentee consider how a top contributor on that area is built. And that may give me some information and hints on how to help.

Understand the end game

Another thing I like to ask people is in what position they would like to be in five years. Some may want to be managers, others may want to be specialised engineers, and others may actually want to change what they’re doing. Once I asked this to my team but before I registered my guesses. I failed for half of them.

I had a frontend developer that wanted to be a product manager. This changes the training approach. In this scenario I talked with him and we got to the following plan:

  • short term: focus on technical side of being a frontender, improve technical skills
  • mid term: start focusing on user experience, be more mindful of how the assets you’re doing impact the users
  • long term: transition to a product manager, with a background in frontend technologies and UX

Bottom line: we need to know our managees. Know their interests, what makes them tick. But also their improvement points and work with them for continuous leveling up.

If you’re managed

While you should demand from your line management an improvement plan for yourself, don’t ever forget that the responsibility of improving is yours. You need to invest in that and make it a priority. If you don’t have a mentor, try to find one. Or more than one. For example, I may pin point some awesome people working at my company and I may ask them for periodical 1on1s with me.

I’ve learned a lot from following this practice. I’ve had 1on1s with product managers, HR people, etc.

Also, don’t wait for your company to pay for your training. You should set a training path that you would pay for. It’s great if the company may chip in and contribute. But won’t be blocked waiting for that. Don’t use that as an excuse. All the money you invest in yourself will pay off.

Summary

Making a habit of learning things will make a difference on our evolution as better professionals. I was once at a place where I wasn’t learning anymore and I started on weekends learning completely new things. Functional programming, Clojure, new frontend frameworks in ClojureScript.

I did a board game engine and also learned about game AI. This gave me huge insights.

But I have also been in companies where I was learning so much that I didn’t feel the need to do extra things in my spare time. At the end of the day, it’s all about the mindset of being continuous learning anything.

Here’s the full list of indexes that I like to track on my 1on1s:

And you can also see how I bundle all this on my 1on1’s framework.