Andy Kelk

Building a learning culture on a budget

This is a paraphrasing of a talk given at the 2015 CTO Summits in Melbourne and Sydney.

Think about the last day you spent at work. What did you learn? We usually reflect on what we achieved, what we completed, what we delivered. But do you make a habit of reviewing what you learned? For me learning is an indicator of how happy I’ll be in a job; if I feel like I’m learning every day then I’m likely to keep coming back for more. Once I’m not learning any more, I’ll soon be moving onto a new challenge.

study by the University of Warwick showed that happy employees are 12 percent more productive. In a survey in the US, three quarters of respondents said that opportunities for growth were the top reason they stay in an organisation. Decreasing employee turnover and helping people advance their careers makes good business sense.


I don’t need to tell you that the pace of change in technology is accelerating; if you work with JavaScript frameworks you’ll be all too aware of how quickly skills and knowledge can become outdated. If you’re investing in keeping everyone’s skills up to date, there’s a better chance that you’ll be able to respond to change and get products out to market faster. If, every time a new challenge comes up, you’re having to spend getting to know a new platform, you’ll always be behind. But if you invest early and often in education, you’ll be able to respond.

I’m a big fan of helping employees get to conferences which are relevant to their work. Conferences tend to gather high quality speakers together in one place and can provide great learning opportunities. On top of that, they can be very inspiring and give the attendee a burst of energy when they return to work.

But the market is crowded. The number of top tier conferences on the calendar each year is huge – I counted at least 8 major paid-for tech conferences in Australia alone in November 2015; at $500 to $1000 a head the cost can add up very quickly.

And here in Australia we have the added disadvantage of being so far away from the truly global events which often take place in the US or Europe. Sending one person to a conference can add up to thousands of dollars.


If you’re working in a small startup, you’re unlikely to have a massive training budget to spend. Yet if you’re in a large enterprise, you also probably won’t have much more to spend. Larger companies often spend large amounts on employee training programmes, but they’re also usually very broad and don’t cover the specific skills that are required by niche areas of the technology organisation.

In my current role, all of these are challenges I’ve faced. There’s a number of things I’ve done to promote learning that I’d like to share with you and hopefully you can implement some of these too and get people learning without breaking the bank.


One of the very first things I did was to put in an order for books that I thought everyone in our business should read. I chose a variety of leadership, technical and other books which are relevant to what we do and where our gaps were. Once they arrived, I encouraged the formation of a number of weekly bookclubs. I took responsibility for the leadership bookclub and promoted it to anyone wanting to join in. Each bookclub chooses what they want to read, when they get together and how they run it.

The key here was to identify people who would be catalysts in getting the bookclubs off the ground. Early on I left it up to groups to self-organise and form, but they actually needed a push from someone committed to running it. The other lesson I learned is that it’s important to keep communicating as you move through books as people can be enthused by one but completely turned off by another. The total cost of this activity has been around $1000 to date. We’re about to put in an order for the next batch of books to refresh the library.


The other thing I noticed when I joined the team was that people across different teams didn’t seem to know each other. I lost count of the number of times I would speak with two people from the department and have to introduce them to each other. The issue here is that, without learning from each other, there were lots of different ways emerging of doing the same thing.

To fix this, I tried setting up communities of practice (or chapters to borrow a term from Spotify). These are groups of people doing the same kind of role in different teams. For example testing where every team had someone doing testing but they were generally isolated from each other. By bringing all of the testers together every fortnight they’ve started collaborating but they’ve also learned from each other – for example about automation practices. As with the bookclubs, the chapters are self-organising but they really need a strong shepherd to get them going.


The education industry is being disrupted by online providers such as udemy, pluralsight and; they offer a useful platform for companies to help keep skills up to date. Combined with eBook subscription platforms such as Safari Books, it’s easy to get hold of information from experts in very specific fields and for employees to learn at their own rate. But it’s important to be aware of different learning styles. This works well for some but not for others and you can’t force it on someone who won’t take to it. Even when we ran a free trial, only 50% of the people who said they’d participate actually took a course. Some people will take to it with a little incentive. For example, you may simply give someone some time to take an online course on the proviso that they present what they learned back to the group.

And it’s not all one-way. Some of the providers, such as udemy, also provide the tools for you to create your own courses. It’s an approach we’re going to trial with a core internal platform – rather than keep running onboarding for new staff, we’ll create an online training programme that captures the key information and can be kept up to date and which new employees can run through. It’s not a replacement for hands-on mentoring but it provides a significant leg up.


One of the easiest ways to learn is to attend a meetup; in cities like Melbourne and Sydney there’s scores of technical meetups happening every month. You could attend one pretty much every night of the week and never have to buy dinner – assuming you like pizza and beer. But I’ve often noticed that people don’t take up the free knowledge that’s available. The two main reasons are the location or the time of the meetup. They’re usually after work and they may be some distance from your workplace. To get over the distance objection, we’ve started hosting some meetups in our office – when it’s just downstairs, it’s much easier for our people to drop in.

Overcoming the time objection is harder and I won’t claim that we’ve cracked it. The simple fact is that many of us have other things we want or need to do in the evening. If a meetup has an invited speaker and you’re hosting, it may be possible to get that speaker to also address your own team during the day. But a general meetup which has participants from different companies requires an industry wide change to experiment with working hours events that anyone can attend. If more companies encouraged lunchtime learning or even a Friday afternoon, it would enable greater participation.


One of the events I’m most proud of was our internal mini conference about DevOps. It was inspired by the DevOpsDays conference which is like a meetup on steroids. We invited speakers from external partners (we had a keynote from Amazon Web Services) and encouraged them to represent their companies but not to pitch their products to us. This struck a good balance between participation and outright selling which would have bored the audience and benefited no-one.

We also ran an unconference-style open space in the afternoon with three tracks of open conversation on topics suggested by the audience. This was a little hit and miss. Some discussions were lively and well attended, others didn’t attract many participants. My theory is that, unlike at an external event, people don’t feel safe talking openly among people they work with.


One the opposite end of the spectrum from a full day conference, we’ve also had success running lightning talks. The aim of a lightning talk is twofold – one is to give a teaser of a subject to an audience so they can decide if they want to delve further. The other is to provide a low barrier to entry for people who want to present to an audience but don’t yet have the confidence to do a longer talk. We’ve been running a series of lightning talks on diverse topics called Lightning Lunches. The aim is to cover off any topic that’s of potential interest to the audience. We’ve had technical (semantic versioning), product (an update on our latest app build), culture (distraction-free work environments) and HR (an introduction to our new HRM system).

Because each topic is covered in five minutes, it’s just a brief taster – it’s designed to start a future conversation rather than answer every question. It also develops an important public speaking skill – the ability to edit down to the key points.


Of course, the one thing that all of these initiatives need is time. Even if you don’t spend a cent, you still need to give everyone the time and encouragement to learn. Quite often this is a cultural shift – the organisation is so focused on delivering now and on this week’s goals that setting aside time for the future falls by the wayside.

It’s important to set aside time but it’s also important to show leadership. Remember that, as a leader, you don’t know everything and you have a lot to learn. Take part in these initiatives yourself – even if you think you know it all already. Show some vulnerability and admit that you’re still learning too.

By encouraging and supporting small initiatives, you can reap the rewards that come from a learning culture. None of these should require you to get huge amounts of budgetary approval. So if you’re finding that funding is constrained, try a bookclub, a mini conference or running lightning talks.

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