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In Praise of Autodidacts – The True Fuel of Software Development

One of the true joys of running my own training and coaching business is the people I get to meet.

I count myself very lucky to have a largely self-selecting audience, rarely coming up against teams who sit there with their arms crossed waiting for me to sell craftsmanship to them. I’ve long known that if folk don’t want to learn, they won’t learn.

Part of the reason I took the plunge (and the risk) of starting my own business was to try to find teams who genuinely want to learn – not just from me, but from each other, from books, from blogs, from meet-ups and all the other great sources of new ideas we have at our disposal these days.

This is a golden age for the autodidact developer; if you want to learn – pretty much anything – then you can. Games programming for the XBox? No problem. There are websites, books, screencasts galore. Data structures and algorithms? You’re spoiled for choice. TDD? The list of resources is mind-boggling.

Especially joyful for me are the weekend Codemanship workshops, like the Intensive TDD one tomorrow. Want to meet some really keen developers? Schedule an event in their free time and let them pay for it themselves.

I’ve been running them for 5 years now, and continue to marvel at the enthusiasm of the people who come along. We’ve had folk who have put themselves on some of the workshops several times, coming back for a refresher every year or two.

Some travel from far away. We usually have a contingent from Spain, for example. And we’ve had folk come from Russia, Canada and the US. The workshops are so affordable, compared to other similar courses (only 15% of what some of the competition charge), that it can make economic sense to book a cheap flight and a mid-price hotel and make a weekend of it. There’s a lot to do in London if you stay on for an extra day.

What this amounts to is a room full of smart people who want to be there , and want to learn. It’s my whole vision for Codemanship: to get to spend quality time with developers who love what they do and are open to learning and trying new things. Partly because it’s just so much more rewarding, but also because those are the developers who are most likely to turn out great (if they’re not already). They’ll do great things, and it’s a joy to share a tiny part of that journey with them.

Most of Codemanship’s business comes through these people, too. It’s very rare that a boss picks up the phone and says "come in and train all our developers", and I’ve turned down some big chunks of business when I’ve realised that it would be a top-down "do it or else" affair, where every developer is compelled to take the training whether they want it or not.

First of all, that just doesn’t work . Seriously, I’ve never seen it work in harumpty-three years of doing software for a living. Not once. Sure, you can create the illusion that it’s working, for a while. (One client recently described the process of trying to impose practices/processes from above as "sheep-dipping" everyone in the organisation in the new shiny buzzword.)

But in the long-term, that kind of positive organisational learning has to be exothermic . I should probably expand on that: it has to be powered from within , a warm-blooded process of change that draws its energy from the people in the team, not from an external source of energy (like a trainer or coach). An external point of view can start the reaction, acting as a catalyst. But there has to be the potential and the energy for change buried within the teams themselves, or it won’t be self-sustaining. I’ve spent too much of my career trying to start fires with damp kindling.

This is why managers should pay attention to the autodidacts in their teams. Who pays for themselves to go on training? Who blogs? Who buys and reads lots of books with their own money and in their own time?

As a consultant, I can help managers identify who these people are. It’s actually pretty simple: organise an internal event – say, a coding dojo – out of hours and see who turns up. You might be surprised.

Find our who cares, and find out what they care about. This is the dry kindling you’ll use to start that fire. People like me are just a match.

I won’t name them, for legal reasons, but I can point to organisations you’ve heard of, and to people you might know, and make that connection. Those people made positive lasting change happen at that organisation . Those people were the self-starters. The autodidacts. They didn’t wait for permission to learn or to try new ideas. They took control for themselves, bought the book, booked themsleves on the workshop, checked out the screencast, and did it themselves. Your organisation may well have benefitted from that. It’s worth knowing if you did.

So, I raise a glass to the autodidacts; they’re the core of my business, and the engine of our industry. From writing open source tools we use every day to write better software, to writing books that help others to learn, autodidacts are at the heart of pretty much every positive change that happens in software development. And they can be at the heart of positive change in your business, if only you’d let them!

Posted 59 minutes, 7 seconds ago on March 18, 2016

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