Ask Your Technical Talent what They Want to Learn

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If you haven’t asked your technical talent what they want to learn, you could be missing an opportunity to customize your learning strategy, and more importantly, to build your business. Your technical talent is often closest to problems that will produce cost savings and or increase sales, service or efficiency if solved. Therefore, they often know what they need to learn – so ask. You may miss out on opportunities to correct issues if you don’t.

On the other hand, according to Daniel Milham, outside chief technology officer for, it’s not uncommon for technical employees to express their training desires, and have management shut them down. “If you have a technician in a call center or help desk, for example, and they need to learn Windows Active Directory and they’re requesting that knowledge if the employer doesn’t agree, it doesn’t happen.”

Take a Pulse to Determine Technical Training Needs

Listening is probably the best – and the easiest – tactic when it comes to identifying technical training needs. Your developers, engineers and technical or IT support staff may communicate network or system problems that translate neatly into a training gap that needs to be filled. They’ll say:

“Oh, we have tickets coming in because the users aren’t trained enough on their tool. Or, we’re inundated because the system is processing responses too slow. These are low-level ways of communicating high-level problems,” Milham explained. “If you’re an executive in charge of a team, and you’re not receptive to that you’re going to handicap the team. Listening and catering to those needs where possible is the secret sauce that makes any tech team evolve and not just disband into other companies.”

Unfortunately, too many leaders don’t listen because they perceive these statements as complaints, rather than missed opportunities to enhance or build the business. According to the 2017 Developer Learning Survey from DevelopIntelligence, 68% of developers are motivated by curiosity or a desire to improve their skills, indicating a deeply personal motivation and enthusiasm for their craft. In other words, they care about the work.

“These are not complaints,” Milham said. “They’re voicing concerns and needs because they care about their role in the company. It’s the way systems work. The human system creates the tech system; if we’re not treating both sides of the line fairly in regards to communication, you end up being one of those sad cases that can never figure it out.”

Don’t Just Train, Train Well

It’s also common for technical talent to receive training, but the training is not of sufficient depth or scope. For instance, when you’re learning Python, if you’re not learning dc circuits and python, Milham said you’re not really learning Python because that language interacts with machine languages and other physical devices. “They’re not making the use case connections,” he explained.

Organizations can’t just teach or outsource training the skills that people have identified as critical to their jobs, they have to ensure training provided teaches technical talent how to think as well. “If we teach the language but we don’t teach the methodology of thought behind it you’re not really learning the language,” Milham explained. “I could teach you how to make a bootstrap based web site in 15 minutes, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to think like a developer when you talk to a client and start building out a workflow.”

Development never stops in a technical career. It’s a continuous cycle of identifying business and training needs, and developing strategies to address them. According to the aforementioned survey, on average, developers spend seven hours per week of their own time learning new skills necessary to do their jobs. On the other hand, they spend an average of just two hours in formal training opportunities.

This suggests that developers don’t receive enough on-the-job time to learn about the current and future technologies they need to successfully complete their job tasks. Learning leaders should acknowledge this after hours learning investment and replace it with regularly scheduled, meaningful topical training opportunities.

However, that formal training must have depth. It must connect to the business. Some of that comes naturally with experience, but it also speaks to the quality of training an organization provides, whether that training is internally developed or comes from a trusted vendor.

“You could be a python coder or engineer, but if you don’t understand the physical architecture of silicone on die processors you don’t know that the code you’re writing is truly matched to the system that it will run on,” Milham said. “If technical talent has this deeper level training, they will be able to see there’s an intimate connection between the pseudo code on their note pad, the hard code in their terminal and its performance on a hardware-based environment. If you don’t acknowledge these intimate relationships as a leader you can hinder the team in ways that you don’t even understand.”

Finally, when technical team members express their training desires or discuss problems that may indicate training gaps, it’s important that leaders listen without prejudice. Or, as Milham said, “don’t color the conversation with anything other than cause and effect.” Once the team reveals systems problems, for instance, acknowledge them and dive in. Have them recreate the experience to facilitate your understanding if need be.

Then comes the strategic learning part. “I’ve absorbed the need from my tech team member and now the job becomes correlating this problem to issues that the company might be having because of it,” Milham said. “If I do that it gets my executive staff to pay attention to the exact need of my tech team member without even mentioning who it is.”

Leaders can use that need to make the business case for any training required – cause and effect. That’s why it pays to ask your technical talent what they want to learn – or where they’re experiencing difficulties. It makes sense to take advantage of that direct line to business problems as well as potential training solutions.