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Influencing engineering culture beyond writing code

4-minute read

Mugurel Chirica

21 August 2020

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As software engineers, writing code is the mainstay of our professional working life. But what if more than just writing code, we also want to influence and improve how we work, our engineering culture and practices?

There are various ways in which you can achieve that goal, but I’ll focus specifically on the concept of communities of practice.

In this post, I'll outline ways in which you can build a community of practice, or a variation of it, by using practical steps that you can apply at your workplace. If you're a solo developer, you could apply them in open source and personal projects. It includes examples taken from projects I've been involved in at Simply Business or still am.

Why start a community of practice?

Improving ways of working by collaborating and developing ideas with colleagues will result in a better working life for you as a developer, as well as for those you work with. It can also focus your attention on developing any soft skills you may not get to use that much unless you're in a leadership role, which you can extend to other areas of your work, such as:

  • Planning a project
  • Constructing and selling a vision
  • Coordinating and working with multiple people
  • Sharing your ideas more clearly by using different communication channels, such as face-to-face or online meetings, presentations and documentation

What's involved?

A community of practice is a group of people who "share a common interest and a desire to learn from and contribute to the community with their variety of experiences" (Lave & Wenger 1991).

At Simply Business, we have communities of practice that are sponsored by senior leadership, including the CTO, as well as community groups set up by people with an interest in developing particular skills and areas of their work.

A great example of one of our community groups is Presentation Roulette. This is an event where volunteers get to practice their presentation skills on random topics for three minutes. With no time to rehearse, presentations are given on-the-spot without knowing the topic or seeing the slides in advance, often with hilarious results. On previous occasions, we've had presentations on topics as diverse as 'pasta history' and 'how to recognise a psychopath'!

It's been a popular initiative in tech and with other teams, and it's introduced an engaging and fun way of practising public speaking. The engineer who started Presentation Roulette was a Junior Engineer at the time, which makes the point that influencing culture in your workplace doesn't have to be determined by your role.

Simply Business tech events

How to start a community of practice

Identify a need or a problem you want to improve

This can often be the trickiest part, but a good place to start is by choosing an area of interest you want to explore with others, or pain points you identify that a group could work on improving. Once you've decided on a need, there is some preparation to do.

Prepare a pitch

Sometimes all you need to get a new initiative going is just a bit of luck or serendipity. However, in most cases, not much will happen without some preparation work upfront and then taking action.

To use an analogy from previous experience with these kinds of projects, this can be akin to rolling a boulder down a shallow slope. At first, it takes a lot of effort to budge, but then begins to move slowly of its own accord; to keep it going however, you have to give it a push once in a while.

In practice, that might mean spending around 5 to 10 hours upfront in preparing an idea and coming up with a pitch to generate interest from others who can support your initiative, and then sharing your idea with others. After that, you may need to spend 2 to 5 hours per week to keep up momentum on the actual project. As the initiative matures, the amount of time it takes up per week may reduce to less than an hour, or even just a few minutes.

Pick topics that appeal to a cross-section of people

By choosing areas or pain points that will benefit wider groups, you'll encourage more interest and participation to make things happen.

Communities of practice that continue to be a success at Simply Business are those where there is vested interest across multiple disciplines, such as in technical excellence, engineering and testing practices.

Tips for success

  • Have a clear goal in mind. Communicate this with the group and get engagement so that the whole group is invested in making it work.
  • Take action. Make sure you don’t just talk about a problem, but you also do something about it.
  • Generate interest from a cross-section of people interested in driving the group forward. On some of our less successful initiatives, there were too few people involved, often with conflicting priorities, which resulted in the group losing traction.
  • Gain support from senior leadership. Communities of practice are often run as sideline projects alongside people's day jobs, and time commitment is needed to make them work. Without support to spend small but regular amounts of time on these initiatives, it can be difficult to maintain momentum.
  • Share learnings. Communicate what the group is doing with wider teams for awareness and when proposing adoption of any change.

Case study

Starting a blog is a project that involves a level of serendipity and is a prime example of rolling a boulder down a shallow slope.

When I shared the 'innovative' idea that our company should start a tech blog, I discovered that we already had one, but that it was not as active as it had been (the last post was 6 months old). A few emails later encouraging our tech people to write articles for the blog was enough to get the ball rolling. One of our Heads of Engineering got involved and shared some great ideas to get more involvement from colleagues. Meetings were held, ideas were generated and implemented, and here we are today with an active tech blog. Sometimes just acting on an idea will set things in motion.

Although I'm no longer involved in the project, other colleagues have carried on this initiative, which is testament that a successful project is not wholly dependent on one person.

If your development team does not have a technical blog, starting a blog site to share knowledge and generate community interest is one way of raising the profile of tech within the company and with the wider developer community.

Takeaways

The most important lesson learned from the communities of practice I've been involved in is that if you have an idea that you're enthusiastic about, don't be afraid to try it out and see where it goes. Regardless of whether it succeeds or not, you’ll gain valuable insights and experience.

So if you have ideas that you're considering implementing at your workplace, why not give it a try?

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We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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