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InfoQ Homepage Articles Developer Learning Isn’t Just Important, It’s Imperative

Developer Learning Isn’t Just Important, It’s Imperative

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Key Takeaways

  • Continual learning is imperative throughout a developer’s career.
  • Developers value their time, which requires learning to be customizable, hassle-free, and personalized.
  • Developer learning promotes diversity of skill and thought, resulting in products that target a more extensive customer base.
  • Creating well-defined learning paths for onboarding developers opens the door for new pools of recruitment.
  • Developer upskilling reduces technical debt and prevents business disasters.
  • Companies can measure the impact of developer learning through retention rates and promotion rates of underrepresented employees.

Developer learning is not just important. It’s imperative.

I often think about my journey to become a developer—and how different that journey may look for the millions of people pursuing their career goals in software development every day.

My curiosity for computers, games, and technological hardware nurtured my career path as an aspiring developer, but that was only the first step. While I became employable through the culmination of my learnings, I quickly realized that developer learning was a career-long journey. 

I learned first-hand—sometimes the hard way—that to stay on the cutting edge, developers need to upskill continuously.

Every week brings new languages and frameworks that make previous skills less relevant. This blistering pace has only intensified in our increasingly cloud-focused world. If developers aren’t constantly learning, simply put, they don’t have a career.

That’s why I became passionate about developer learning. It isn’t just important to a successful career in software development; it’s imperative.

Developers need hands-on training.

Developer learning has traditionally depended on books and videos. But as growth-minded developers ourselves, my Educative co-founder Naeem and I found books too dry and theoretical, and videos too passive and superficial.

Like learning how to swim or skateboard, Naeem and I understood that you can’t meaningfully improve your coding skills just by watching YouTube videos. You have to actually get your hands dirty and code. You need to make mistakes along the way and learn from them.

Make learning less tedious.

Given the state of developer training platforms at the time, we found ourselves forced to scour dense books and documentation. The only other option was video, which unfortunately required tedious installations and inefficient scrubbing in order to accomplish any meaningful learning. These inefficiencies transformed learning from a thrilling opportunity into a demoralizing slog.

Quite simply, developer learning needs fewer roadblocks.

Developers shouldn’t have to worry about installation steps, or switching back and forth between multiple platforms. Naeem and I started asking ourselves an important question: how can we make developer learning more streamlined?

That’s how we came up with the idea for Educative. Our desire for a more streamlined learning experience was our springboard. And for developers like us, we dove in to build a solution.

What is the current state of developer learning?

Learning is a career-long journey.

Learning new technical skills and non-technical skills provides a foundation for developers to progress in their careers. Even the broader topics of study are changing for developers. 5-10 years ago, new programming languages and frameworks were the main focus; now we’re seeing a shift towards learning APIs, security, and compliance.

Learning is frequent.

Developers need to keep themselves updated constantly. Surveys conducted by Stack Overflow found that 75% of developers learn something new within a year. They also found that more than 50% of developers learn something new every few months.

In my experience, the highest performing developers spend even more time actively learning than that.

Learning should be efficient and personalized.

Considering that developers are continually obligated to learn, time spent learning is of utmost importance. I often represent the variable of time spent learning through a simple equation:

Frequency of learning x Hurdles to learning = Time consumption

In this equation, the hurdles to learning are just as important to the output as the frequency of learning. That’s why it’s essential for developers to have a learning environment that minimizes hurdles, hassles, distractions, and inefficiencies.

Learning should be personalized.

Every developer’s learning path should consider these three variables:

  1. Learning style
  2. Starting point
  3. Pacing

To this end, I always see the same few shortcomings whenever I look at videos; coverage of most topics is only superficial, the content isn’t personalized or customizable, and learners waste valuable time scrubbing for relevant info. 

I get so excited about customizable learning paths can act as the glue that fills in the gaps of more traditional media. This way developers can learn at their own pace, on a program that is tailored to their specific needs.

How does developer learning impact organizations and businesses?

Avoid technical debt.

Every company that isn’t consistently upgrading its codebase or shifting to new frameworks is facing a serious business problem.

If your codebase is getting older and older, you face the risk of massive future migrations. And if you’re not moving to new framework versions, you’re missing important benefits that your team could otherwise leverage. 

Technical debt naturally increases over time. The longer it goes unaddressed, the sooner you’ll get stuck paying high costs in migration, hiring, or massive upskilling efforts that take weeks or months. Like saving for retirement, incremental upskilling pays dividends in the long run.

Turn silver medalists into gold medalists.

Every industry leader I’ve talked to worries about the scarcity of high-quality software engineers.  That means companies feel serious pressure to constantly hire new, better developers. But rather than looking externally for a solution, what if companies looked internally?

Here’s the reality: meaningful developer learning helps companies convert silver medalists into gold medalists.

What if we shifted the mentality around developer hiring to emphasize bringing on coachable people with small skill gaps? If your company has well-defined developer learning paths in place, the whole world opens up; your company can now dip its toes into new pools of talent that were previously off-limits.

In a competitive world and ever-shifting tech landscape where exceptional developers are a rare commodity, you have to ‘think outside the box.’ Hire intelligent and coachable people with a strong foundation, and methodically fill in skill gaps via new developer learning tools.

Filling skill gaps fills job roles.

Bootcamps are a hot commodity for aspiring developers. Companies often hire bootcamp graduates not just because they have a baseline of employable skills, but because they demonstrate ingenuity and tenacity. But in all honesty, these new grads often have glaring skill gaps that still need to be addressed. You hired them as junior developers, but you want them to grow. For engineers of any level—but especially for junior developers—learning resources fill in critical skill gaps they need to progress in their careers.

If your company lacks learning resources, you are simply not setting your junior developers up for success. Skill gaps will eventually limit their growth in your company, which may push them to look elsewhere. If your company doesn’t develop and promote junior engineers, the result is a culture of low morale and even lower retention.

Developers want to feel fulfilled in their careers. They will join and stay at companies that invest in them and provide them with resources to grow.

Prevention is the best medicine.

Throughout the pandemic, everyone has gotten quite a bit better at washing their hands and wearing masks in public. Prevention is sometimes the best medicine.

Among tech industry leaders, I often hear the same two complaints come up over and over again: recruiting is difficult and retention is difficult. Companies must help developers advance in their careers. This means helping them learn new tech industry standards, as well as non-technical skills.

We’re getting better at shipping code with fewer bugs every day, but now more than ever we also need developers who can write code that is safe and secure. Between GDPR and new legislation in California, compliance is becoming more critical every day.

For example, suppose a developer accidentally puts a password in a log file for debugging purposes, and that code ships to the public. That small slip could cause a massive security disaster with countless business implications. Similarly, your developer can unknowingly mishandle Personally Identifiable Information (PII), inadvertently incurring huge fines from unions. In short, helping your developers learn helps your company prevent future disasters.

As a useful tip, ask yourself this question: how do I provide my engineers with the right resources to ship out high-quality products that are also compliant and secure?

Keeping Up With the Evolution of Technology

A Whole New (Developer) World

A decade ago, the most important things for developers to learn were new programming languages and frameworks. Nowadays, our increasingly cloud-oriented world brings with it a whole new set of challenges.

Many newer applications are built by stitching APIs. For example, if you’re building Uber, you’re leveraging Google Maps for directions and mapping, Twilio for text messages, Auth0 for authentication, and Stripe for processing payments. Using APIs to stitch an application together via various technical frameworks multiplies the complexity of development significantly.

What does this mean from a developer learning standpoint? Mostly, it means that things have gotten a lot more complicated.

Developers are faced with new standards of learning because applications are no longer siloed. Instead of upgrading new frameworks every six months, now they’re needing to leverage new APIs every couple of weeks.

We need developers who are willing and eager to constantly upskill in this new normal—and we need the right learning resources in place to support them.

Exciting Possibilities from Better Learning

Better and more efficient learning resources open the door to underrepresented communities. 

Learning to code is more accessible today than it was 10-15 years ago. Launching a career as a developer typically used to require formal education. Now with the advent of high-quality, affordable learning platforms, (and broader access to technology), the traditional gatekeepers are becoming less and less important by the day.

Better and more efficient learning resources help solve the problem of deficient software developers.

Thanks to a great new crop of well-designed learning resources, it is easier than ever for developers to fill holes in their knowledge. As a result, companies are able to connect with more diverse and qualified candidates than ever before.

The diversification of software developers is impacting the next generation of consumers.

It can be easy to lose this perspective in the developed world, but most software engineers are still building for the early adopters of mobile technology. The reality is that more than half of the world’s population—four to five billion people—still lack access to this technology so many already take for granted.

As we develop into the future, building new products for an array of new customers with differing needs and priorities, we’ll start to see massive innovation in localized spheres as access to technology increases globally over time.

Tech Leadership Needs a Mind Shift

The technological resources to support deep, efficient developer learning are already here. But we still need to see a shift in perspective from our engineering leaders in order to fully enjoy their benefits.

The consequences of developer skill gaps will continue to bite back every year, every quarter even, unless tech leadership starts investing seriously in filling those gaps today.

Fortunately, this necessary mind shift will begin to take root as more tech leaders establish thriving cultures of growth, constant learning, and support.

Culture of Growth

If the leaders focus on growing developers, developers will focus on growing the company. 

Culture of Constant Learning

Constant learning supports developers’ careers, while preventing sudden company and industry-level overhauls stemming from antiquated technologies and systems.

Culture of Support

Developers don’t merely need learning resources in order to grow—they need institutional support to encourage deeper, more focused learning. Companies can and should cultivate this culture of support.

How can tech leaders measure developer learning?

For tech leaders, there are two key metrics to look at as leading indicators of developer learning:

1. Number of employees being promoted

Leaders can also look at the number of engineers moving to different levels within the organization, as well as the number of employees from underrepresented communities and the promotions they receive.

2. Retention

If you’re an employer that is actively trying to upskill your engineering team, developers will stick around. Roles will feel more fulfilling and growth paths are well-defined. Employees invest in companies that invest in their employees. 

Conclusion

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer became something of an Internet meme thanks to his speech at the Microsoft Developers Conference in 2000. The image of a sweaty, middle-aged executive in a button-down shirt repeatedly chanting "developers, developers, developers" is both humorous and iconic. But that moment is pulled from a speech that emphasized an essential truth: the future of Microsoft, and the future of business, was built around supporting and empowering developers.

While largely criticized during his tenure for Microsoft's foundering stock price, that relentless focus on developers, along with a few business initiatives, laid the foundation for Microsoft to become one of only two companies with a market capitalization over $2 trillion today.

It is exciting now to see the explosion in learning resources as other companies learn that same focus. This trend is deeply validating to me and Naeem; it is why we got into this world in the first place. Giving developers the tools they need to learn skills and grow their career is a business imperative. Empowering software engineers to share their knowledge across the organization creates redundancies for existing products, and prepares your business for the next step as digital transformation takes even deeper hold across all sectors of the economy. It really is about developers, developers, developers - and it's why we at Educative are relentlessly focused on helping developers be and become better engineers.

We welcome you to join us.

Happy learning!

About the Author

Fahim ul Haq is a software engineer and business leader with a relentless passion for finding better, more efficient ways for developers to master in-demand skills. This pursuit led him to create Educative, the world’s leading upskilling platform for and by developers.

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