Lukewarm Take #8: Professional Education

Posted on July 12, 2021

This is becoming more and more common amongst other software engineers but I might as well reiterate it here as well. Professional education, for engineers or otherwise, should be provided by employers, especially when said education is providing value for the employer.

My main professional experience is in software engineering and IT more generally, so I can only speak to that space, but the expectation that workers fill personal time with side projects and learning new tools and frameworks is absurd and an unwritten expectation for unpaid work.

I realize this sounds pretty hypocritical coming from someone who literally has a section on his website just for projects. I don’t think people should entirely drop side projects, plenty of folks spend time on these things because they get legimitate enjoyment out of them. I’ve used side projects as a creative outlet when work isn’t satisfying that or to have something to focus on when stressed out. This post is pointed at businesses that expect workers to find personal time for professional growth and employers that expect significant experience with very specific tools. For example, a posting that requires X years of rails experience instantly eliminates a significant portion of what would otherwise be excellent candidates with MVC experience. Worse, tribal knowledge of internal systems in a company is going to take much longer to pick up on than knowledge of the expected industry tooling, at least the tooling is documented!

Let Work be Work

One way I’ve seen teams address this is allowing a day every month for a worker to knock off from regular work to work on whatever they want to without the expectation of an outcome. This could be a side project for the team, paying down technical debt, learning something new for the team, etc. Typically this isn’t a requirement for each worker but something they are allowed to do each month. When respected this can really pay off for the team, workers can come out the other side of the day with documentation for an easy way to upgrade projects, or a presentation on a new industry tool and why it’s cool, or maybe nothing at all but at least the team might now know there something they were thinking about doing is a dead end.

The whole point here is that professional education is still work and should still happen as part of our daily activities. Maybe it’s not constant, or consistent, but it certainly shouldn’t be expected to happen outside the office. Holding this expectation obviously hurts work-life balance but also implies folks with family, interests, or obligations outside of their profession are “less qualified” or “less committed” than their peers and colleagues with more time, energy, or interest in spending their free time building up their personal portfolio.

If building side projects or portfolios brings you happiness then go for it, more power to you! We just shouldn’t expect all of our colleagues to fill their free time this way.