Lunch and Learn

Lunch and learns are an employee lead training that occurs over lunch time. This can be training on skills used in the offices, on learning how legacy systems work, or on building company culture and team growth. They are not formal and typically not mandatory. Many companies use these as alternatives or supplements to formal training. One or two employees may attend a training or conference and then share the knowledge they gained at one of these events. They are becoming a major part of many companies and work cultures. They come in all shapes and sizes and when done correctly leave employees feeling excited about the topic.

Building a culture around lunch and learns can be difficult if you don’t already have them. You have to get management interested or at least to allow you the space to host them. Then you have to get people to spend their free time in training. Selecting topics can be fun but you also have to get speakers to discuss those topics. It is challenging and hopefully this information can help you to build a lunch and learn culture at your work.

Episode Breakdown

08:40 Benefits of Lunch and Learns

Lunch and learn programs encourage growth of developers and the team. The ability to share ideas and interests with coworkers encourages them to explore and grow hidden talents. Coworkers are able to teach each other. They also encourage public speaking in a friendly environment.

They are a low stress learning environment. Going to a lunch and learn is not a mandatory thing. There’s no pressure to get something that you can immediately use on a project. Many times training sessions are very intense time learning to implement something new. Lunch and learns are about learning in a relaxed setting. One of the best things is they don’t take away from normal development time.

They can also increase transparency and understanding within the team. Even though they work together people don’t always know the details of what their coworkers do on a daily basis. Lunch and learns provide an opportunity to learn about other departments or teams. This provides a better understanding of others and their role. It can even smooth over tensions between departments. They can be a supplement to the onboarding of new developers. Learning all the ins and outs of a legacy system can be daunting. Existing developers can explain the decisions made when coding older systems.

They help to grow the community and improve work culture. Lunch and learns can be a way for coworkers to share their hobbies or toy projects. They increase engagement between teams or departments that may not otherwise interact. People are more willing to put in extra effort when they know and care about the other people in the company.

15:35 Different Types of Lunch and Learns

Brown bag lunch and learns are what most people think of when hearing the term. These are bring your own lunch to the office and eat while listening to a speaker. People that don’t bring a lunch can sometimes run out and pick something up before the session starts. This is what most people think of when mentioning lunch and learn. There is typically a regular organizer that follows a format. Speakers tend to be people from the company.

There are some meet up and user groups that will hold lunchtime sessions. They tend to be regional groups that meet regularly. Though, they don’t tend to be every week, more like once a month. It’s usually at a restaurant and less formal and may include a discussion topic but not a speaker.

Sponsored lunch and learns usually provide food to the attendees. These may be company sponsored training during lunch time. This may be to not take away from normal development time. Usually these are mandatory. They may be vendor sponsored. In this case a vendor will bring food into the office and demo a product. These may or may not be mandatory. Sometimes the user groups will have a sponsored lunchtime event.

Developer chats are similar to lunch and learns but without the lunch part. They tend to happen just after lunch in most places. This does eat into work time. If scheduled appropriately they happen during slower work times. They may even be mandatory. This can be a time for group training or announcements to an entire department or team.

23:45 Getting Buy-In From Management

From a cost/benefit analysis they are very little or no cost education for the team. When selling the idea to management they will like that it doesn’t cost the company money. Having current employees give talks means not having to pay someone to come in and educate the team. It also doesn’t pull time from regular work but gives the benefits of training. Lunch and learns provide a way to hold trainings while still getting work done during the day. Employees are able to gain knowledge while not falling behind.

“Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” ~ Tweet from Richard Branson

Regular training opportunities improve employee retention. People are less likely to get frustrated if they are aware of quirky things in the code. They learn these through lunch and learn events. This is also a chance for the developers to explain their reasoning behind some of the stranger bits of code. Doing new and fun things even if just as a learning exercise will make employees want to stay.

They can also provide a place for knowledge sharing/brain dump from longer term employees. This helps to mitigate the bus/lottery syndrome. For the pessimist what happens if some developer gets hit by a bus. For the optimist what happens if some developer wins the lottery. Having more people know the codebase means it’s easier for one to take a vacation. It also distributes responsibility so if one developer is working on something time sensitive another will have knowledge to fix a critical system.

33:15 Getting Coworkers Excited

Plan ahead and market the event. Prepare for these events and let people know about them. This could be flyers in break or conference rooms. Spread information about it through word of mouth. Send out an email reminder the day before so people know to bring lunch. Provide an outline or summary of the topic to be covered. This will let people know what you will be discussing. It also acts as a teaser to get them excited about the topic. Have a learning objective for each event. Create a consistent schedule for the events. If weekly have them the same day and time each week. If possible have them in the same location from week to week. Plan out your schedule of topics and speakers ahead of time. Speakers need time to prepare for the topic. You also need to have a back up or time to schedule another speaker if something comes up.

Make the sessions interactive for the audience. These are not classroom lectures or stuffy meetings. Speakers need to have access to multimedia options. Code alongs are fun but difficult while eating. Things like music, infographics, and videos make sessions more interesting. Break up presentations with questions to the audience and discussion time. This prevents people from getting bored or tuning out the presentation. Followup after each session. Have time and space for people to continue the discussion after the event. Send out surveys about the topic or speaker. Ask for topic suggestions or people to volunteer to speak.

Have exciting and excited presenters and speakers. Nothing is more boring than a speaker reading from a powerpoint. Why not just email out the slide show? If it’s the person’s first time speaking they may need some coaching. Try to find the most interesting speakers at your company. Use them to bring people into the lunch and learn. Spread them out so that you can get other speakers in without losing interest. Mix up the type of speakers and the topics. You’re not going to please everyone all the time. Mixing it up will get the majority of people interested. They may even come to something and discover a new interest.

Choose topics of interest to fellow developers. Look at what talks are chosen at local and common conferences. These do not have to directly associate with what you are doing or the tech stack you are using. There are a lot of things that you can learn from other languages and frameworks that can be applied to what you are doing. They don’t even have to be topics around software development.

48:15 Selecting Topics and Speakers

Anyone can present on just about any topic. Senior developers can use this as an opportunity to share knowledge and common practices. Junior developers are able to show off newer technologies they have learned. Those that have been with the company for a while may present on legacy code and how to deal with common problems that have come up. Newer employees may show off techniques they learned at other companies that can improve the quality of the code or the development process. You can also bring in someone from outside of the company to give a talk. This gives a whole new perspective than is already in your company. You may get more buy-in from coworkers by having someone outside the company speak.

Topics do not have to be about development. They should vary to address a wide array of interests from your coworkers. Time management and other business and process skills are great topics for lunch and learns. This might be a talk on using the Pomodoro technique. Or it could be about managing change and transition at work. Even topics like overcoming the afternoon “slump” can be useful to your team. Also this can be a time to address life skills. These topics can be things like great first impressions. Or talks on managing your finances and getting what you want from life.

Lunch and learns can also be used to cross train teams. They help developers understand sales process or how the Business Analysts get requirements from customers. Show sales how the development process works and possibly explain why some things are not possible. Other development teams could come in and explain their process as well. If back end and front end teams are separate this is a time to bring them together. Have QA explain their process and how they go about creating test cases then testing them. These should not be used for company trainings though. They are volunteer events. Use it to provide better understanding between teams.

Topics don’t have to be relevant to everyone all the time. Typically material that everyone needs to know is part of the onboarding process. New information for everyone may be passed through official channels. If you’re lucky this means an email about the change or update. It could mean a mandatory training or meeting with the entire company or department. Change up the topics to address different groups at different times. This allows different people to come to the sessions based on the topic. Dev chats can get boring if talking about topics not interested in.

Finally, the time doesn’t have to be about training or learning. It can be about team growth and cohesion. Topics and speakers don’t always have to be about work or development. You don’t always have to have a speaker at the event. You can use lunch and learns to plan activities that your team would enjoy doing together. Think beyond corporate retreat icebreakers and team games. What do the people in your office enjoy doing in their free time? Having fun topics about what people enjoy will increase participation. This may include a lunchtime book club or gaming group. Find out what things your team enjoys doing and plan something for them around that. It doesn’t always have to be the same each week, especially if you have a larger or varied group.

55:55 Common Obstacles

Including remote employees can be an interesting challenge. In our field we are continually moving toward a remote workforce. You don’t want to exclude anyone simply because they are not physically there. When scheduling a location make sure you have the ability for video and audio conferencing. These can get tricky when trying also find a place that will allow you to eat food. You’ll also need internet access to connect to them, especially if screen sharing. Don’t exclude them from the food as well. If you’ve been provided a meal then send the remote employees something. Gift cards and food delivery services are great for this.

Finding speakers or those willing to talk can be difficult especially at first. Most software developers are shy and don’t want to present. It can be difficult to convince a shy introvert to get in front of a group of people. Get them talking about something they are passionate about. Sometimes finding a co-presenter for the more shy developers helps. You may have to get someone from another department the first few times. A good way to get coworkers to speak is to ask them for help explaining something. People like to help each other out. They will also like looking like an expert.

Lunch and learns become tedious when technology breaks down or doesn’t work right. Remote employees are relying on the technology. They are using it to see and hear the presentation. If the connection goes down or the hardware fails they will not be able to continue. People will lose interest in coming to lunch and learn events if there is always a technical delay. If it happens on a consistent basis they will just stop coming at all.

Not having a goal or objective for the learning can lead to chaos. It helps you decide which topics are worth scheduling. You want to give those in attendance enough so they feel it was worth their time. But you also want to leave them wanting more. You want them talking about it well after the event.

Expect to start with a small group. Your first few times scheduling them you’ll get your friends and people really interested in the topic. Go ahead even if you only have one or two people show up. Consistency is key, people realize that you have it regularly will show up just to see what’s going on. Having a smaller group may help to get speakers that don’t want to be in front of a large crowd.

IoTease: Article

Art + Technology: New Art Forms, Not Just New Art

This article in makezine is about how the world of technology and the world of art are influencing one another. It’s written by an artist turned maker who runs a makerspace in Philadelphia. In the article she describes several different ways that art has been influenced by technology. She also talks about new art forms that have been created because of technological advances. There is even a timeline of art influence by technology.

Tricks of the Trade

Don’t be afraid to start a new trend at work if it is helpful. These things have a tendency to grow on their own and you won’t be stuck with them forever. They can often make it better for everyone at your work, without really costing you that much time, especially if you get buy-in from the team. They only need someone to put the time in to start them.

Editor’s Notes:

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