Micro-Learning Opportunities

Cory Watson May 26th, 2022

This piece on “readiness to learn” by Laura Maguire spoke to the importance of learning in the hectic and capricious world of modern, cloud native computing. Deeper specializations, control planes, and internal platforms mean everyone is a bit more free to run their race—to focus on their part of the orgs most important goals. Laura points out that, in most companies, “continuous learning” must take place, but without a lot (or any!) official support from any sort of learning or development teams. How’s an engineer to keep up?

One of the opportunities Laura described, micro-learning, really jumped out to me as a key factor in my work — some that I got right, others that I wish I had — over the last 20 years. I’m going to flesh out some approaches that, in my experience, are easily folded into the average tech work day to increase micro-learning in your team or organization.

Two Tips: Learning and Success

Before we talk specifics I want to give two tips: learning is bidirectional, and successes are a great source of learning.

As a long-time operator, I’ve got a lot of experience to share. Fortunately, climbing up the hill in the snow both ways is no longer how we get to the finish line! Technology and practice have advanced, so I’ve always got something to learn from newer folks. Their experiences and backgrounds are different from mine. We’d do well to approach these opportunities as conversations, not lectures. Bidirectional!

Next, success is a great place to look for learning. As an industry we place a lot of focus on failure. It’s easy to see the outages and incidents as areas of focus. Failure is exciting! Safety, though, is happening all the time around us. There is a lot of good information in even a successful, seemingly mundane change. One might sniff out near misses in a deploy, spot a team using an old approach, or find out about a technique you’d never seen. Considering that the vast majority of changes go “right”, there’s often a lot more to learn from this corpus than just focusing on the errors.

Micro-Learning Opportunities

Here are some ideas for how you can, on a small scale, learn in interesting ways within your organization. Remember the above guidance—seek diversity in experience, background, and roles and focus on more than just failure. 

It Takes Two To Make A Thing Go… Wrong?

A focus of DevOps and modern systems is to decrease friction and allow engineers to build, deploy or verify actions without filling out a form in triplicate and waiting for approval. We know that every action is risky, but most go off without a hitch. Cook reminds us to appreciate something that we often forget: “successful outcomes are also the result of gambles”. If we had a friend working with us for what we consider mundane, how much more could we learn? 

Next time you’re about to make a change, put out a deploy, or debug a thing try asking around: anyone wanna pair up? In a past team, we had a policy of not deploying our own changes alone. Instead, we wrote them up and handed them off for a teammate. This created lots of learning opportunities as we realized we had different contexts, approaches, and knowledge. This didn’t even require pairing, just a handoff document!

Pairing with an engineer — synchronously or not — allows you to share thoughts and approaches, or merely to learn how they do things. This needn’t be a multi-hour pair programming session. And it’s worth it, as there’s lots to learn even from “mundane” operations.

Be A Fly On The Wall

Team meetings or standups are a fixture of every organization, but we rarely venture outside of our own teams. Volunteer (or invite!) someone from another team to hang out in your meetings from time to time. Encourage them to ask questions and tease apart jargon, assumptions, or other aspects of our communications that we get accustomed to.

As an example, if your weekly standup suddenly has a new friend visiting, you’ll need to pause and expand a bit to provide context. Why are we doing this project? What are the benefits? What’s that thing that’s holding us up? My father always told me that you don’t really understand something until you can teach it to others. Having a visitor can help put us in this mindset and open up a whole new way of thinking.

Channel Your David Attenborough

If you’ve never witnessed David Attenborough narrating the courtship process for birds-of-paradise then, well, you’re welcome. Don’t expect to be as polished or entertaining as Mr Attenborough, but spending a bit of time watching another person or team use your tooling can be illuminating. It might seem the same as the above pairing process, but it’s not: you’re there to observe and learn! For example, you might watch the user do something you know is incorrect or outdated. You can ask questions about why they are doing what they are doing. Maybe they jump to an action that you didn’t see a reason for. What did they see or know that you didn’t? These are great opportunities — and a leg up on David Attenborough since animals tend to run away. Or bite you.

This isn’t just an exercise for the shiny new tools you’re making. You can use this process for common practices or utilities that many teams use. You are likely to find differences across your org, all of which are great opportunities to learn.

Too expensive? Ask someone to do some tasks and record their screen with narrations. You can do this with most modern video-meeting software. This can be done totally alone!

Show, Tell, and Listen

No, I’m not suggesting you bring in that bit of kitsch you got from summer vacation (although we’re here for that too). By scheduling a bit of time to show off something you’ve learned, or something you do, can go a long way. These are convenient to schedule for team lunches or meetings and can aid the roll out of new features, the collection of feedback, or just spur conversation.

As an example, one of my past teams maintained a spreadsheet of “customer” teams. We tracked the date we’d last met and each week a few folks on our team would reach out and invite ourselves to their team meeting or volunteer to set up a demo of our latest tooling. We didn’t even need to prepare anything fancy—it was an opportunity to show up and say “hey, I work on X around here… anyone got any feedback?”

It’s A Wrap

These micro-learning opportunities are all chances to increase learning without pausing all the “ships” in the channel and spending hours watching videos or team building. 

We learn when we talk, share, and observe. Fifteen minutes of a standup, pairing for a few minutes of deploy, or spending some time understanding another team’s “normal” work can yield all kinds of “huh!” moments and foster information sharing throughout an organization.

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