I got a phone call the other day from a development manager who was not sure how to deal with a couple of issues and wanted to bounce ideas off a neutral party. We met for a coffee and chatted for a bit and she got a very distinct look in her eye – one that meant she was at the place she needed to be in order to ask the questions she wanted to ask.

“Why don’t people want to learn new ideas about making software?”

Oh my. I admit, that made me put down my coffee cup and ask what she meant.

“I don’t really know,and that is frustrating me.  Let me explain.  We talked before about how people are ‘motivated’ and I get your point that external motivation does not really work, at least not for the long-term. I understand and see now how the ‘threat-reward’ model I’ve been told to use really doesn’t do what we want it to do. It certainly did not work when I was a developer, why should it work on other developers?”

“OK, fair point,” I said. She smiled.

“I guess my problem is I don’t know how to encourage people to learn something new – how to try and look at their careers as being more than what their job is right now. I can offer classes and they aren’t interested. I offer to set up lunch and learns and bring in whatever food they want and no one is interested. I send out notices of meetups they might be interested in and no one goes to them. I offer to bring in outside instructors to teach cool new techniques and no one wants to be bothered. ‘It doesn’t apply to what we are doing’ is what they say. How do I overcome that?”

Ouch. Yeah, it reminds me of a shop where I worked where over half the folks writing production code wanted nothing at all to do with “new languages” or “new ways” of doing things. The new language in question was COBOL – yeah – that was the new language. Mind you, I was teaching myself VB and C at the time so I had no sympathy for people not wanting to learn new stuff.

There is an idea that I find troubling in the recurring theme of “you can’t make me learn new stuff” – until the jobs using the “old stuff” all kind of went away. (I know there are still a bunch of people doing COBOL, but as a percentage of all software development? COBOL used to be THE language for people writing software for businesses – it’s now a benchmark for how old you are in many shops.)

We talked on that a bit. We talked on the question of “how do I get people to go to GR Testers meetups” – the answer to that one is easy “Offer something they are interested in.”

We talked a bit on the number of developers and testers at the company where she worked – and the percentage of those who expressed a desire to learn more things – at the entire company, not just on her team.  There are some who are hungry for more knowledge, information and ideas. Then there are the majority of people who shrug and are not interested.

I warned her to be careful of rejecting the idea of learning new things because they “don’t apply” right now. I have learned so many things that can be applied in multiple contexts that they are amazing to me when I look back at them. If I had rejected things because they “don’t apply right now” what I really meant was “I don’t see an immediate application for this nor do I see how it will help me in the short term.”

That does not mean I will not seek out information or ideas I can apply or might be able to apply. If I have a choice of learning opportunities, one that has a direct application to where I am in my professional path and one that does not, at this time, have a direct application I can see, I tend to go to the first option – particularly if they are happening at the same time.

“But, Pete, you’re an expert. What is there really for you to learn?”

Oh dear, First I’m not an expert. I am learning all the time. There is much more for me to learn. When there is nothing more for me to learn, then go ahead and say I’m an expert. Until then, I need to keep at it.

At that point, the Unicorn at the next table cleared its throat and harumphed in a significant way. I was a little surprised to see him, this was not the usual coffee shop where I’d run into him.  I was a little taken aback. The nice person I was chatting with had eyes that looked to be bugging out.

“I can’t believe it! When did a Unicorn sit down here?”

The Unicorn smiled and said “I was here when you sat down. You finally noticed I was here, that’s all.  Forgive me if it seems I was eavesdropping, but there is something maybe you could point out to your team.”

At this point, I was not really certain what to expect the Unicorn to say.

“Remind them that all the people complaining about not being able to have a chance to apply for the new ‘technology’ jobs we keep hearing about in the news – the ones the ‘tech companies’ say need more visas to allow workers from other countries to come in and do – Many, not all, but many of those people had the opportunity to learn these new languages and techniques and chose not to. Now they want to be ‘given a chance’ and learn them, but I think for many it is too late.”

I jumped in (a fairly brave thing to interrupt a Unicorn) with an observation. “I don’t know if that is a fair summation of what is going on. There are many people who have been trying to learn these new things and find themselves pulled away for other responsibilities. Not everyone has the time or resources to learn and embrace these new technologies and techniques.”

The Unicorn smiled and said “But the things this nice lady here has been describing seems to me to be presenting these opportunities at little or no cost to her staff, other than time, and they are rejecting the chances. In 5 or 10 years when there is some cool new technology the company wants to put in place, how likely is it that the people who were offered and rejected an early start will get to work on it? How likely is it that they will find themselves relegated to ‘maintenance’ for the old system while the new system is being developed?”

I sat back and realized I had seen that pattern many, many times in the last 30 years. Suddenly, I felt very sad.

The development manager seemed deep in thought. She asked the Unicorn what she could do that might help her team – warn them from this path.

He looked at her and smiled. “Lead by example. Take a course on something new. Go to some of the meetups when you can – let them know you are going and offer to make an outing of it. Offer to pick up dinner for anyone who joins you.  I know you have kids and responsibilities.  How many nights do you work late at the office? What if you were to bring papers home and work on them from home after the kids were in bed instead? What if once every two weeks, or maybe a month, you came home after a meetup and tucked them in?”

“You could explain to the kids that you had to go to school to keep learning new things, too – just like they did. And sometimes the school class was at night. The children may learn something about always learning. Maybe your staff might learn something as well.”

As I drove back to my office that day, I thought about the Unicorn. He had said things I would not have dared say – and part of me wanted to reject as “UNFAIR!” Except I learned long ago that many things are unfair.

Baseball should allow 4 or 5 strikes before the batter is “out.” (I had terrible hand-eye coordination as a kid – that seems perfectly reasonable to the 9 or 10 year old self.) In (American) football, there should be 5 “downs” to advance the ball 10 yards for a first down. These would make it “more fair” by some measures – and then unfair by others.

We may not be able to change the way the world is, but we can change how we respond to it and how we act to others who are also struggling to respond.  We can lead. We can help others along the path, if they want help. We can continue lear

If you are reading this, I hope you are one of the people having a problem trying to learn new things. There is a possibility, however, that you wish to only get trained in areas where you are comfortable. I hope that is not the case. 

Learn and grow.