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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Should You Encourage People to Learn?


A very interesting discussion followed one of my recent posts about people not willing to learn. There were a few different threads there but the one brought by David Moran is definitely worth its own post.

David pointed it is manager’s responsibility to create learning opportunities and incentives for people to exploit them.

At the first thought I wanted to agree with that. But after a while I started going through different teams and people I worked with. I recalled multiple situations when opportunities were just waiting but somehow barely anyone was willing to exploit them. The rest preferred to do nothing.

I believe most of the time it is not the lack of opportunities which is a problem but lack of will. Now the question is: whether a manager or a leader should create incentives for people around? If so what kind of incentives should it be?

First of all, I don’t believe in all kinds of extrinsic incentives which are aimed to encourage people to learn. If you set a certification or exam passed as a prerequisite for someone to be promoted people would get certification just to get promotion. They won’t treat it as a chance to learn but as one of tasks on ‘getting promoted’ checklist. You get what you measure. If you measure a number of certificates you will get a lot of these.

The results are even worse when you create a negative incentive, i.e. you don’t get bonus money (you’d earned) unless you submit your monthly article to knowledge base (seen that). What you get there in majority of cases is just a load of crap which looks a bit like knowledge base article. After all no one will read it anyway so why bother?

What options do you have then? Well, you can simply talk with people encouraging them to learn. “You may find this conference interesting.” “Taking language course would be a great for you.” “I’d appreciate that certification.Unfortunately it usually works with people who are self-learners in the first place and don’t really need an incentive – the opportunity is enough (and they probably find opportunities by themselves anyway). The rest will most likely agree with you but will still do nothing.

You may of course promote self-learners over the rest and most of us probably do it since people who feel an urge to learn are generally considered as great professionals. Unfortunately this mechanism isn’t completely obvious and is pretty hard to measure (how would you measure self-learning attitude?) so its educational value is close to zero.

Coming back to the point, I don’t think that it is manager’s responsibility to build incentives for people to learn. I think the role of a leader ends somewhere between supporting everyone’s efforts to learn and creating opportunities. Besides if learning is enforced it won’t build any significant value.

And yes, it is manager’s role to have a knowledgeable and ever-learning team but forcing people to learn is neither the only nor the best available approach.

in: personal development, team management

22 comments… add one

  • Joshua Lewis April 19, 2010, 10:42 pm

    “What options do you have then? Well, you can simply talk with people encouraging them to learn. “You may find this conference interesting.” Unfortunately it usually works with people who are self-learners in the first place and don’t really need an incentive – the opportunity is enough (and they probably find opportunities by themselves anyway).”
    This is exactly the problem I’m facing in my environment. And the worst part is its prevalent in all management levels. No-one is willing to take some time to sharpern their saws, they’re all too busy sawing. (Vent over).

    On another note, how do you assess ‘self-learning’ ability in an interview situation?

  • Szymon Pobiega April 19, 2010, 11:14 pm

    Maybe your poor manager should use an example? Maybe it is a good idea, not only for devs, but also for managers, to continuously improve? Why should any dev bother going to conferences and trainings when his manager doesn’t? I would be glad if one of my managers went, for example, to AgileCE.

    If you want your developers to learn their craft as software engineers you must (I know you do Paweł:)) learn your craft, as a manager.

  • Piotr Leszczyński April 19, 2010, 11:55 pm

    There was a keynote at NDC 2009 by Robert C. Martin “Are You A Professional?”. It turned my view to this case upside down. You workplace is not the place where you should spend time for learning. You should spend time for learning at home. Learning, reading, improving. I still don’t know if I totally agree with this point, but I start to understand people who don’t self-learn. They spend time on something else. They don’t love/like their job, it’s not their passion, it just gives money. It’s sad, but it’s true.
    What I do is to trying to show my colleagues interesting stuff. “Look, there is a conference. It’s totally free. I’m going there . Would you like to join me?” or “I’ve read this book – it helped me a lot with writing better code. You should try it”.
    The big problem for me nowadays is that I got myself stuck in learning. I can’t make a step forward. And reading blogs very often has nothing to do with learning.

  • Farol April 20, 2010, 12:19 am

    In my opinion manager should:
    a. as Simon said give example to his/her people. He need to improve himself, learn and seek new better ways of managing people
    b. Encourage your people to find better solutions. If someone done his task look at it and ask him:
    “What you don’t like about this solution? How would you improve it?”
    Manager should push people to find better solutions. Why don’t give someone task to research some technology? Also when you have some time ask your people technical questions, give them problem to solve etc. Build culture of self improvement. You will see results.
    @Joshua Lewis:
    “On another note, how do you assess ’self-learning’ ability in an interview situation?”
    You can:
    a. Ask what technical book he likes most?
    b. What conferences he attend?
    c. Ask about certificates?
    d. Give him some technical specification and some questions/labs to make?
    Above answers will give you some idea on who the person is.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 20, 2010, 1:01 am


    I have a couple of questions which can indicate how much one does to learn. I always ask about blogs a candidate follows. Pawel Lipinski gave me the advise to dig even deeper – ask about recent articles etc. I ask about last pet project someone built – the project which wasn’t enforced by the employer or university or something but was done as pure fun. And I’m also curious when it happened. You could ask about conferences and meet-ups a candidate attended recently (and why she chose those).

    This kind of questions can show you how much effort someone puts into self-learning, no matter how much time she gets from employer for that.

    Of course the system is far from perfection – you should be aware to catch out people who actually spend all time learning thus they have no time to do the real work. And you can rule out people who are just overworked and suspend their learning just to get a rest. But at least you can try.

    By the way I wouldn’t think long about self-learning in case of most people I meet with and discuss in the blogosphere. Regular effort to read, follow, comment, discuss and write (in some cases) is just to much to have it faked.

  • Alexandru Bolboaca April 20, 2010, 1:04 am

    I think the question should rather be “Should we keep team members that don’t want to learn?” I’ve long decided that it’s not worth it.
    The trouble with software development is that you need to learn continuously. I’m not talking about “new” technologies which are usually a remix of old ideas (which is why we should all learn the history of programming). I’m talking about learning techniques (like TDD, which is hard to learn), learning about each other (some call it team work), learning about the product you’re building (its market, its usefulness, its users, its functionalities etc.) and even about something as simple as learning to use efficiently the tools you use every day.
    I believe that most developers love to learn, because you cannot become a developer without having a drive for learning. What we miss is the integration of learning in the every day life of a developer, and there are two simple ways to do it: add restrictions (e.g. no-mouse Thursdays, 2 hours of pairing per day, ‘clean your code’ day) and social interaction (e.g. code retreats, performing katas etc.) The people who like them are the ones I would keep, because they love to learn but they forgot the fun of it.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 20, 2010, 1:13 am


    Yes, giving a good example is another approach you could use. But unfortunately this approach isn’t blatant and as such is often ignored. “My manager is obsessed with self-learning, so what?” Good example would work with people who want to learn anyway. It is more of creating an opportunity than incentive.

    By the way: how your personal effort to learn affects your colleagues and managers? Do they follow your example? Or how many of them do?

    And that’s my point – good example alone won’t ignite people.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 20, 2010, 1:25 am


    The same question as for Szymon: how many of your colleagues follow you and attend conferences and read books you recommend? Yes, it is a good approach and yes, you should continue doing this, but it works on self-motivated people in the first place.

    The longer I think about it the more I’m sure it’s close to impossible to ignite the urge to learn thus our effort to make people self-learners are pretty much doomed.

    Having said that I don’t agree with the point people should learn in their personal time. Actually most of self-learner would do it anyway, but they should be given a chance to do it at work in the first place. As you say, people have lots of interesting things to do in their personal time – they have families hobbies etc. Learning isn’t the sole thing to fill our free time.

    Regarding being stuck in learning, well, I can’t say I ever was in this situation but I can hardly imagine being stuck for long and not being able to move on. Look for interesting project to join or start one. Become an active member of one of local communities. Make your blog the best one in your niche. Write a book (this one is really hard). Switch technologies for a couple of months just for fun. Try to run a start-up after hours (you will fail but you will learn). Just don’t be lazy.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 20, 2010, 1:35 am


    Giving people time, and chance, to use new technologies is very important not only because of learning but also because of motivation. Engineers like to try new things out. In our team if we build an application which isn’t super-important, i.e. demo app for a client, developers usually are able to convince me to use some new framework. On occasions I even encourage them to do so, since the broader knowledge they have the better decisions they would make later.

    But I confess I do have self-learners in the team. And that’s the most important reason why it works. And the same reason works whenever I challenge the team to find a solution. You can pretty often hear me saying “I don’t know how to do this but I’m sure other people before had similar problems and they solved them, so there must be a way. Now go find it.” And I get the solution pretty soon. But again it is because there are self-learners in the team.

    Regarding verification of people will to learn – I don’t believe in certificates. Most of people get certified not because they want to learn but to make their resume look better. Generally speaking certificates mean nothing for me when it comes to check whether one is self-learner or not.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 20, 2010, 1:46 am


    That’s a hard question to answer. I’d love to say that we shouldn’t keep folks who don’t learn much in the team. But this way I’d stuck with just few people in the team and the rest would be rotating most of the time.

    It is because I don’t agree most developers love to learn. I consider probably one out of every ten people as self-learners. Which unfortunately means vast majority of us don’t want to learn. And note I base on observing developers mostly.

    In this situation I agree I will work with people who won’t like to learn. Unless you’re Google and you’re flooded with resumes there aren’t enough great candidates to hire every time you need one. And that’s the problem I’ve seen in virtually every organization I worked for.

    One way to avoid the problem is to have a small company and keep it that way. And that’s basically the reason why I love my current team – just a few cherry-picked folks who have no problems with learning. And to be honest don’t really feel like building this team huge – we would lose this attitude.

  • Arne Åhlander April 20, 2010, 4:34 am

    Something I have learned from reading:
    * “Does your Leadership reduce learning?” http://www.schwarzassociates.com/docs/leadershipLearning.pdf

  • Laurie Young April 20, 2010, 6:40 am

    I don’t agree that it is not possible to stimulate people’s ability to learn. Just ask any motivated self learner where it came from and they will cite an example teacher or parent who first inspired them.

    However that does not mean it is easy, or that a simple trick can do it. The only way I know of is to understand what the person in question really wants (their motivation) and the provide them with learning opportunities that make it easier for them to reach their goal.

    Then it is a matter of finding and working with people who have similar (or at least) compatible goals with you

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 20, 2010, 6:47 am


    The link doesn’t work, but there’s something screwed at their site – I found more of broken links there too.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 20, 2010, 7:14 am


    You make a good point – in each case somehow our urge to learn was started, usually by someone giving us a good example.

    But it doesn’t work in a systemic way. I’m not even sure if it can be enforced on everyone in a way that you take someone, looks hard for his “launch learning” button (whatever it is) and push it.

    I just look at tens (hundreds?) of developers I worked with. What I’m interested in, from a professional point of view, is whether they want to unwind themselves as developers. I leave aside situation where they want to switch to another role for this example. Now, ways they can use to become better developers are pretty numerous but basically every single one of them has to do something with developing software. Pet projects, software development related books, conferences, trainings, relevant blogs, forums and news sites, meet-ups of user groups, trying new technologies out or you-name-it. Vast majority of these things cost nothing or very little (i.e. books) so employer is likely to give them to developers.

    And what to do developers do? Most of them nothing.

    What else you could do to ignite their urge to learn? You may go and ask what Mark Badcoder would like to learn. And he’d say that Ruby on Rails. If you ask why he didn’t borrow the book about RoR which is covered with a thick layer of dust or why didn’t he wrote a single line of code in RoR you’d be answered with silence (most of the time of course).

    You may even have totally open attitude toward conferences and trainings: “we sponsor every single relevant event, just come and tell where do you want to go today and you got it” and it is very likely Mark would never come to ask you to invest 100 euros to which is a price tag of local RoR conference, which is by the way cheaper than cost of a couple of days of his work.

    My point is I think that some of us are just capable of being ignited to become self-learners and our teachers, parents, leaders, colleagues or friends just trigger this attitude. And the same people don’t enable the same feature among vast majority of others. Of course I don’t have any scientific proof for that and I’m not going to look for one. It’s just my gut feeling and my attempts to explain what I typically see.

    But even if I am wrong and you are right, which would be a very good news, I still think it isn’t a manger’s/leader’s responsibility to create incentives for people to learn. There should be of course a good example set by the leader and there should be opportunities in place but if people are still reluctant, well, I might have looked for different means than you.

  • Allison April 20, 2010, 7:36 am

    Learning is a very strange thing when it comes to workplaces. At the last several small start-ups “brown bag talks” were put on. These really were the place for someone to come in, teach something (anything really) to the rest of the people and then allow for private deeper dives. Or they allowed for reading relevant papers and having round table discussions.

    In all cases, they typically died in a few months. The ones that lasted longest offered free food.

    I’ve been at several places that offer tuition reimbursement – only a handful of people use it. Typically, those that do are your near stars to stars (so it is good to offer that).

    A manager, in my mind, should try to encourage learning. A company should offer incentives (tuition reimbursement, conference costs, ACM/IEEE/etc membership costs) but they really can’t be enforced. At the end of the day, it’s the person’s responsibility to learn and the managers responsibility to encourage it. This also means she has to allot time for people to go to classes and conferences.

    Anyway that’s my 2 cents. Great topic and one I’m really interested in (for my own selfish reasons as I’m debating on taking up my company on its tuition reimbursement program)

  • Anna Baik April 20, 2010, 5:15 pm

    Why do so many people express an interest in learning, but then fail to follow through, even when it’s free, and easily available?

    You know – maybe they’re just afraid? People generally won’t say this, even to themselves, but for many people, choosing to learn something new is actually threatening, because it comes along with the risk of failure. So they may talk a lot about how great it would be if they could do this or that, how much they’d like to go on a course, and they really do seem to want to do this – but actually do very little or nothing about it. Because when it comes to the moment of making a commitment to do something about it, that little bit of fear of making a fool of themselves (esp. in front of colleagues) creeps in, and suddenly the work on their desk seems so much more urgent… surely they’d be letting down colleagues/family/friends by taking up this opportunity now? Maybe next year? When it’s less busy…

    This mindset may be utterly alien to you if you’re the sort of ebullient personality who says “Failure? So what! I’ll just try again! I’ll get better!” But for a lot of people, they’ve grown up believing that failure is unacceptable, and worse, that it proves that they just weren’t ever all that good in the first place – and key – that *they never will be*. Some company cultures reinforce this. Having your manager scrutinising you and your work for signs that you’re “one of the 10%!” (or that you’re NOT one of the 10%) reinforces this. And this makes it feel a bit risky to try something new that might “prove” that you’re not worth employing.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 21, 2010, 12:40 am


    I believe it was Paul Graham who said that if you want some practice like ones you mention to last you just have to bring food. But failures of this kind of events present exactly my point – usually it is just a small group of people who started the thing who keep coming, but then they see the same few faces all the time and become tired. Hundreds of their colleagues never join.

    Coming back to the point – I don’t treat tuition reimbursement or cost return as an incentive. This is more of opportunity creation. Let’s face it: if we had to pay for our courses/conferences/trainings by ourselves vast majority of events would be utter failures as no one would attend. If you had to pay for the event, travel and possibly hotel we would resign from at least 9 events out of 10.

    But I agree that learning cost return is seldom a bad idea. In vast majority of cases it will be used by these few self-learners in the organization who you’d like to help in their efforts anyway.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 21, 2010, 12:45 am


    You raise an interesting point. I haven’t thought about aversion to learning that way.

    On the other hand there is hardly something to be afraid of in regular conferences. You can just sit there playing with your mobile phone all the time and no one would notice. Especially not your boss sitting at her desk.

    With all exams and workshops where interaction with trainer is much more direct fear of failure can play an important role though.

  • Piotr Leszczyński April 21, 2010, 6:23 am

    @Anna and @Pawel
    I haven’t seen people being afraid of learning new stuff. But I’ve seen people being afraid of asking for permision to learn/using new technology/attending a conference. According to Stephen Covey, they aren’t proactive.
    I try to visit many conferences and I often ask for refundation. Usually it is accepted by management. Sometimes it isn’t, but even then I can go for this conference in working hours and get refund for travel costs.
    It’s better to do something and ask for forgiveness that ask for permission :).

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 21, 2010, 6:47 am


    With conferences it is easier. Your knowledge isn’t really challenged in any way. Exams/certifications are different. Workshops are different. And this is the place where fear may kick in. But I agree that doesn’t explain why people don’t attend relevant conferences or meet-ups which fell into the first group.

    Management support is seldom a problem. People actively looking for opportunities will get costs refund way more often than not. But you can’t really judge people by yourself – you’re a self-learner while most of people out there are not.

    And I repeat – it isn’t so because of lack of opportunities but because of lack of will. Which is sad.

  • Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin April 21, 2010, 11:22 am

    In my experience, the question: What are you reading right now? is extremely revealing. Sadly, the answer for many people is: “Not much. Too busy.” There have been several studies in the past couple years that show people no longer have time to think (and this of course, includes reading time, which stokes the intellectual fires) and our organizations are suffering for it. I’d say management has the responsibility to create workplaces where people have time to think (or which don’t eat personal time) so that the self-directed learners WILL read and learn. The rest? … well, those are the horses you led to water.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 21, 2010, 12:53 pm


    “Don’t read, don’t have time” is usually an excuse for “don’t read, don’t learn, don’t care.” Yes, it is management responsibility to maintain work environment where willing people are able to find time to learn but I find it pretty rare when people work in constant emergency and there’s virtually no time to spend on sharpening the saw.

    And even then it’s usually enough to ask management and time/money will be granted for your learning effort.

    By the way it’s really frustrating when you lead horses to the water and they refuse to drink.

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