How to maximize individual growth in a software team?

Working as a solo freelance developer, I used to have lofty ideas of how a group of people can grow so much more together. I imagined how a mind in the hive can grow at exponential rates. I made several attempts to build communities striving for this, a few were successful to some degree, most were not. Now working in a software development team at Trantor, I am revisiting these ideas.

I still believe that it’s a worthwhile general direction to move in. In this post, I am asking myself (and you) the question of “how”. How can we maximize growth of an individual developer in a software team?

What do I mean by growth? Software is about so much more than just writing code. It is also philosophy, psychology, mathematics, art and policy making. Growth as a software developer encompass growth in all these areas. Learning new tools and technologies is important, but so is the conceptual knowledge of software development principles, foresight about how decisions as trivial as naming a variable are going to impact the future of our code, to perceiving the perception of reader of our code, and also to make it elegant at many levels.

Why focus on an individual’s growth? I believe people are selfish by design. We think first for ourselves, then for our family, then for our closest community, and so on. Growing individuals help teams (and companies) directly as well. A culture of growth attracts good developers, more good developers are good for teams/companies than mediocre/bad ones. Optimizing for an individual’s growth seem like a good idea to me. I think it adds significant positive value to everyone involved in the process of writing software.

Now then, how do we optimize for an individual’s growth? I had a discussion with the team here and we came up with some points that we are going to try this sprint. Plan is to buckle up and finish our committed work a day earlier than planned. Then on the extra day we earn, we sit back together, analyze two weeks of our code, share peer feedback, and dig into one or more of following activities.

Interactive sessions of new tools/technologies

Topmost and shiniest layer of a software developer’s growth is knowledge of new tools and technologies. Some of us explore more technologies than others. It was proposed that team members present a tool or technology, and give an interactive session of something they find cool. This can be very helpful for knowledge sharing in a diverse team where different people might have very different roles. For example, I am also handling the dev-ops in our current project, using tools like Ansible, Terraform, Docker and Kubernetes. But rest of the team has no exposure to these tools. Me giving a session about these tools can be very helpful for me, rest of the team, and the company. It is also very much in alignment with my personal belief that every backend web developer should be familiar with devops.

I differ from the proposal by the team a bit though. I think it is cool to just “show and tell” bi-weekly, giving an interactive session is a good to have.

Collaboratively studying open source projects we use

Another very good suggestion was reading the source code of an open source project, and collaboratively make notes of the patterns that codebase has used, things they did right, things they did wrong etc. At the end of the sprint, we can all discuss the notes we took, if we can take something and use in our projects etc. We have picked chai.js for this sprint.

Put forward new approaches in forums

Often times there are disagreements in team regarding approaches that can be taken towards a problem. Or sometimes under the pressure of delivery we pick one approach on another. If the taken approach is too bad, a technical debt is created, but when it is “good enough”, we just move on. We don’t want to let this slide. We should reconsider these small improvements, and keep incrementally improving and challenging our current practices.

We decided that we create posts on Trantor Forums for this, the team should actively explore the alternative approaches, debate, reach a consensus and implement the approach into our project. An example of this is my proposal to bring mutation testing to our workflow. I raised it, and then higher priorities sent it so deep into the ground that I myself forgot about it. A forum post can be a healthy reminder in such cases, provide documented discussion and bring activity in our forums as well.

Day long Hackathons

Another nice thing that came out of our discussion was that we can utilize this extra day we earn ourselves as an internal team hackathon. We can decide on any idea, regardless of its relevance for the project/work, and the entire team spends a day hacking on it. Member whose idea is selected can lead the team.

I think this can be a great way for team members to develop leadership skills, learn new things, have some open-source portfolio, and most importantly, feel that rush of starting a new project, and the bliss of finishing one.

Above are few things we are going to start doing starting this sprint. Please put in comments below if you have opinions and/or suggestions!