Making learning conscious – how to build a learning culture

About this event

Jack: Good afternoon everybody, and welcome to our Made Tech Talks webinar. Today’s topic is “Making learning conscious – how to build a learning culture.” Our speaker today is the wonderful Clare Sudbery, one of our Lead Engineers here at Made Tech. Before I hand over to Clare, I’m just going to run down on how today’s going to go. It’ll be a 45 minute presentation followed by a 15 minute Q&A once the presentation is finished. So if you have any questions for Clare throughout the presentation, please be sure to add them to the Q&A function found at the bottom of your screen. Once the presentation is over, we will endeavour to answer as many of your questions as time allows. Once the session is concluded we will be sending out feedback forms to all of our attendees. They’re very short, they take about a minute to fill out, and they help us to understand what we can be doing to improve our webinars moving forward. We’ll also be sharing some information on our next Made Tech Talks webinar, so please do stick around at the end to find out more.

I should also mention this presentation comes with live subtitles. Information on how to access these can be found in our chat function. We’ll be posting that a few times throughout the presentation, if you missed it on the way in. You can also access these by pressing the ‘cc’ button found at the bottom of your screen to get them straight on Zoom. Last note: this session will be being recorded. And with that, I’m going to hand over to Clare. Clare, do you want to take it away?

Clare: Fantastic, thank you. So I’m just sharing my screen. I’m also getting it so that I can see the chat window in front of me – and this is one of the one of the things about speaking remotely is that I don’t get to see the audience. The way that Zoom works in webinar mode, I can’t actually see any of your faces, so I can’t get feedback from you while I’m talking to you – which I would normally rely on when I’m in a room, and it helps to give me a bit of energy. It also helps to give me a bit of a feel for whether people are falling asleep, so I’d really encourage you to just like put little bits of feedback in the chat, just to kind of give me a reminder that there are actually people out there and give me a bit of encouragement as I go along.

Okay, so I’m going to leap straight in. Learning is one of my favourite things, and I’ve never forgotten I used to be a high school maths teacher in Manchester, in inner city challenging schools, and I’ve never forgotten the time when one of my pupils complained because I’d just given them a piece of work to do, and said “Oh Miss, all you have to do is just stand there!” and I remember thinking – oh, if only you knew! There’s so much more to it than that! It’s so much harder. I don’t just have to stand here. But also I remember thinking that I was actually quite jealous. I wished I could be one of them. I wished I could be sitting in a seat and having learning poured into me. And I know that it’s a different experience for teenagers, you have a lot of other things to think about, but I love it when I get to learn stuff. It is one of my favourite things.

So, what I’m going to talk about today is about why learning is important. I’m also going to talk about why learning is inevitable. I’m going to talk about how you can recognise what good looks like and what bad looks like, and I’m going to talk about how you can find and make the most of all the different opportunities for learning that are available. Because learning cannot be avoided – you are all learning constantly, whether you like it or not. You’re learning purely by having your eyes open, because you are constantly interacting with your environment. You’re taking in information, you’re learning from that information, but also you’re learning from your colleagues, you’re learning from the work that you do. There is no avoiding it, but still people do sometimes try to avoid it. Why? Why would they try to avoid learning? Well, there are lots of reasons:

Time: It takes time. People are in a rush, they’re meeting deadlines, they don’t feel like they have time to stop and learn. Money: because it costs time, it therefore also costs money, and sometimes it literally costs money. And particularly if people leave their jobs and do a boot-camp and start a new career. But there’s also fear: so people can be scared of learning. And one of the reasons they can be scared of learning is if they think that they will expose themselves by doing it, because in order to learn you have to put yourself in a position where you’re acknowledging that there’s something that you don’t know, and that can feel bad. And that can particularly feel bad when we have cultures in our industry that encourage the idea that everybody should know everything, and if they don’t there’s something wrong with them.

But you can’t avoid it. You can’t avoid learning, so therefore you have to accept it, that learning is a thing that happens whether you like it or not, and it’s something that has to happen. So is that it? If we just accept it then will that sort everything out? Okay, accepting is good, but no it’s not enough. You might think – well if learning’s going to happen anyway, then let’s just let it happen and accept that it happens, and there you go, we’re learning. Great! But there are two problems with that. The first one is that if you ignore it, it won’t just happen – or some learning will happen but not as much as could happen; and because there are other pressures which will actively prevent learning, and if you ignore those pressures then the learning will be thwarted. Those pressures are time and money.

Another reason, another problem with just accepting it, is that if you wait for it to happen to you rather than going out and seeking it, then you do risk being left behind. So for instance, if you have a legacy code base that’s causing problems, that you have technical debt, and for instance your code base is hard to change and you can’t fix problems when they happen – If you just ignore that, it will get worse. And just ignoring the fact that learning is not only inevitable but also useful, will lead to you having problems.

So okay, we want to accept it, we have to accept that learning is going to happen and that we need learning and it’s going to happen whether we like it or not anyway, but not just accept it – embrace it! Because if you expect learning to happen, if you celebrate learning and if you encourage it when it does happen, then people will feel good about it rather than afraid or insecure, and they’ll be more likely to do more of it, and they’ll get more out of it, and you as an organisation will get more out of it too. So that’s embracing it, but you can go further than that. You can seek it, because then you’re ahead of the curve and not only that: If as an organisation you seek learning, then you’ll attract new talent, because people want to go places where they will learn, because they understand – particularly in this industry – that the more they learn, the more they progress in their careers. So if you have a culture that celebrates learning, you’ll attract people who want to work with you. But not only will you attract new people and good people, good people who want to learn, but also you’ll improve the people you already have, they will become better at what they’re doing. They’ll become more effective, and therefore you as an organisation will grow.

One of the things that I often think that people get a bit wrong about recruitment, in fact, is – people have this idea that recruitment is about finding the good people and rejecting the bad people, and that’s basically it. So all of your interview process and any tests that you have, it’s all about finding the good people and rejecting the bad people, and it’s like this kind of magic. And sometimes it goes wrong because the ‘bad people’ manage to weasel their way in without you noticing; all the ‘good people’ don’t get noticed because you weren’t paying attention to the right things, and I don’t actually think that is the secret of recruitment. I think the secret of recruitment is, first of all, making yourself into an attractive proposition, so that people who are motivated and excited and full of energy come to you because they want to work for you.

Creating a learning environment gets you part-way through that battle, but it’s not just about being attractive, and again being attractive is not just about finding the good people. It’s about making people excited to work with you. And that turns people into ‘good people’ just by making them excited and motivated. And you can continue that process, because it’s not just about attracting people who are excited; it’s about creating people who are excited, and it’s about keeping that excitement and that motivation. Motivation is such an important thing, and if you can nurture the people that you recruit so it’s not about whether you’ve found a good person or a bad person, it’s about creating somebody who’s good at their job by nurturing them, by giving them what they need to succeed, by giving them what they need to feel confident, and a learning environment is a really important part of that.

So what does a learning culture bring to your organisation? If you have a learning culture, then one of the first things that you’re going to get is you’re going to get more innovation, because if you’re encouraging people to learn, then you’re also encouraging people to experiment, you’re encouraging people to take risks. If you’re giving people permission to learn, if you’re encouraging people to tell you when they don’t know things, then you’re encouraging innovation. Another thing that you get is collaboration, so a good learning culture will emphasise collaboration, so that people work together to learn. People teach each other, and that instantly enhances collaboration, and teams work much better when they’re collaborating within and between themselves.

You’re also going to be up-to-date, so you’re encouraging people to learn new skills, then your skills and your technology are much more likely to be up-to-date. Also, you’re encouraging deep expertise. So we talked earlier about time. When people feel constantly under pressure of time, then they don’t feel able to dig deep into the subjects that they’re learning and the technologies that they’re learning, and they only ever get a surface understanding. Deep expertise is really useful in actually building really good solutions, which then brings us to quality. If you have all of these things, then the quality of what you produce will be higher. Having a learning culture also increases flexibility because what you’re doing is encouraging people to not assume that they know everything, and not assume that everything is correct. You’re encouraging people to ask questions, and you’re also encouraging people to embrace the idea that things can change. So therefore when people embrace change, that makes them more flexible. It makes your organisation more flexible.

Another thing that a good learning culture can bring is psychological safety. Psychological safety is when people in your organisation feel safe, they feel psychologically safe. They don’t feel like the next interaction with their colleagues is going to make them feel anxious. They don’t feel afraid. They don’t constantly feel worried about blame. And when you’re encouraging learning, you’re encouraging people to admit that they don’t know things, to celebrate when they don’t know things, because it means they get to learn things, and learning is good and learning is excitement! All of that can build to an environment where people feel psychologically safe. They feel supported by their colleagues and they feel able to admit when things aren’t good without fear of repercussions. Paradoxically, as well as flexibility you also get stability, because when people feel comfortable with change, when people feel able to experiment, that actually gives you a stable base. It gives you confidence in your ability to adapt to change, and therefore you can actually feel stable because of that.

So how do we create the learning culture? One of the really important parts about this is recognising all of the different ways in which learning can and does happen. There are so many different ways in which we can learn, and there will be things that I’ve missed out, and this is already a long list, but one of my favourites is learning by doing. You don’t have to have extra learning resources, although I would recommend that you do, but simply by giving people stuff to do they will learn. This is this is really worth pointing out, because I know that people sometimes feel wary of bringing juniors onto their teams and are bringing on people who are inexperienced and training them on the job. But actually we all learn by doing, and when you give people things to do that they haven’t done before, then you’re instantly helping them to learn and helping them to be more effective. Also by having juniors on your team – there’s actually a great article about this by Tito Sarrionandia – so he’s written about how great it is to bring juniors onto a team. It’s not just because they can learn and you can build new talent within your organisations; it’s also that the senior people on the team will learn by teaching the juniors, which I’ll come on to later.

Another great way that we learn is by giving and receiving feedback, and having a feedback culture is a really important part of having a learning culture, so this is where you don’t just wait for once a year, you don’t even wait for once a quarter, you’re constantly asking your colleagues for feedback on all of the things that you’re interested in improving and sustaining, and therefore giving your colleagues feedback, not necessarily waiting to be asked either, but seeing that as a way that you can help your colleagues. So that doesn’t mean that you’re constantly criticising them, but it does mean that you’re aiming to help their growth by giving them constructive sensitive feedback.

Another way that we learn – and sorry, I guess I thought it was obvious – but because you’re receiving feedback, you’re learning about how you can improve. So that helps with the learning collaboration I’ve mentioned before, but when you work with your colleagues then you can learn from them and they can learn from you, and the more strongly you encourage collaboration, encourage people to work together rather than in isolation, the easier it is for people to learn.

Sharing is a similar thing, so sharing resources, sharing ideas, that’s another way that we learn. Trust is a really important thing – we learn when we feel safe and we feel that we are trusted to know what we need to learn. So actually people need to know different things at different times, and sometimes they might have to break off into a piece of work to research something in a little more depth, or find out about alternatives. If you trust people to do that, and be in charge of their own learning, you get much better results.

In our industry it can be tempting to focus only on tech learning. New technology is learning particular techniques, but actually it’s not just about that. You should also be teaching people what are commonly called the ‘soft skills’. I don’t actually like calling them the soft skills because there’s a bit of an implied judgment there that soft is kind of woolly and not really important. What people traditionally call the soft skills, which tend to be kind of people skills and the skills that you need in order to collaborate and communicate effectively, and work with other people and nurture one another. They are just as important, and they can also be taught.

Having fun is a very… so children learn by playing, and we can also learn by playing, and it’s not just that we can learn by playing. So when you make learning activities fun they tend to have more impact, people remember things more easily. But also just generally, if as a team you can have fun together – so for instance, particularly in this remote world, putting time aside at the beginning of meetings to deliberately have chat – that really helps people to relax. It helps them to feel safe. It helps them to feel motivated and excited by what they’re doing. And then they’re much more likely to be effective.

And then – I have touched on this but it is one of my favourites – learning by teaching. It’s a trick that’s used by teachers – when they have mixed ability groups it can be tempting to panic if you have a mixed ability group – which we do in our teams. We typically won’t all be learning at the same rate, we won’t all know the same things, and so you can’t just take a whole group of people and say “there you go, learn this thing at this rate, all together” because some of them will know it already, some of them will learn at different rates and in different ways. So instead, you can make use of the fact that some people know more than others by encouraging people to teach one another. And when you teach, you learn, because typically when you try to teach something to somebody else, you will discover the gaps in your own knowledge, and that will force you to fill those gaps. You’ll also find that you can’t quite explain something that you thought you understood, and you realised that you’d actually… there were things that you were kind of skating over or making assumptions about, that you’re not quite sure about. By teaching somebody else, it forces you to consolidate that knowledge and clarify it. I deliberately do this, so I once deliberately signed up to teach, to help out with a workshop teaching Clojure, and I didn’t even know Clojure. So what I did was I signed up – it was beginners to be fair, it was a beginner’s workshop. So what I did was I spent the day before going through the syllabus, and therefore I had to learn it because I knew I was going to be teaching it, and again in the process of teaching it I learned even more. I find that’s a fantastic way to learn.

We learn by looking at data: We learn by paying attention to the data that we have available, and by deliberately generating data. So in software, we learn by the tools that give us observability onto our software. We learn by paying attention to that data. We learn by gathering metrics and then analysing that data, and actually using it to synthesise and move forward and make changes to what we’re doing.

A really important one is learning by mistakes – and this is a common mistake that gets made when people are trying to teach actually, is they think that they need to tell the people that they’re teaching everything, tell them what to do in great detail. The problem with that is that if you just tell somebody what to do, and first of all don’t give them the opportunity to do it themselves, but next of all to make mistakes while doing it, then they won’t learn anywhere near as effectively. We learn when we make mistakes, and we have to rectify those mistakes. So if you give people opportunities to explore and play with different technologies then they will make mistakes, things will go wrong, and the lessons that we learn from correcting those mistakes go so much deeper than if somebody just tells us what to do.

And finally, we learn by taking ownership – so something that I think is really important in teams is when people feel they have a shared ownership of the outcomes, and also that they have ownership of their own learning. So I’ve mentioned that before about being trusted, but being in control of the learning that you’re doing, but also feeling like you’re not just making somebody else’s thing that belongs to somebody else, that doesn’t really matter to you, doesn’t really have any impact on you. If you care about the outcome because you feel like it partly belongs to you, then you will learn much more effectively. And it’s not just about caring about the outcome either, it’s also caring about ways of working. If you allow teams to take ownership of the ways that they work, and to constantly review and have power to change the ways that they work in response to what they’ve learned, then they will care so much more about what they’re doing, but they will also be constantly learning in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise.

So the other thing that we learn by is by being kind to ourselves. Why is that important? The reason it’s important is because the range of knowledge in our industry is very wide, and I can’t emphasise that enough. The range of knowledge in our industry is gigantic, and there isn’t anybody who knows everything, and yet still it can be very tempting to feel as though you can and should know everything. And I’m not even just talking about the whole industry, it can be very tempting to feel like you should know everything in your sphere, in your particular technology or in your domain, and even that is very hard unless you’re talking about an extremely narrow domain or technology. Typically you can’t even know everything about a small subsection of this industry, and yet still we feel like we should. I’ve heard so many times, people come out of meetings or interviews and say “Oh my God, I can’t believe it, so and so doesn’t know about x” – and then they all have a bit of a laugh about it and they all agree – “Oh God, that’s ridiculous, ugh! How could they not know about x?” – and then I’ll feel a little bit superior, and get to laugh and judge the person who didn’t know the thing.

But actually it’s not surprising if somebody doesn’t know something, if somebody is a professional and doesn’t know a particular thing. Just because you know it, and maybe you’ve known it for a long time, and maybe you use it daily, there will be people who don’t, and are still highly proficient professionals, and have got to where they got to without knowing the thing, because there are so many different routes through this industry. But we do worry about it. I’m sure that we’ve all recognised the feeling of thinking “Oh God, I don’t know about x. I really ought to know about x. Why don’t I know about x? Everybody else knows about x!”

This is a series of slides that I made – actually when I was working for Thoughtworks, which is another company very similar to Made Tech. And within Thoughtworks we had an internal message board. And because Thoughtworks is a very large organisation, thousands of people, it was very active. It was specifically for technical topics, and there would be titles on all of these topics that would be just so wide-ranging, and sometimes you would see all of the threads flashing past and you would just think “Oh my God, I don’t know about any of these things!” – and this was a snapshot that I took on a day. These were some threads that were circulating at the time, this was a couple of years ago, and that’s me in the middle at the bottom there, looking at all of these people. So for each of these threads there’ll be people that are confident and happy and contributing and clearly know a lot about it, and it can be tempting to look at all of the threads on all of the people and think that all of those people know about all of those things, and actually that’s not the case. They don’t all know all of the things, and it’s quite likely that Andy is doing the same thing. He’s looking at all of the people on all of the threads and thinking “I don’t know anything about all of these things” – and it’s possible that Annick is thinking the same thing, and so is Ezra, and so is Georgia, and so is Ileana, and so is John, and so is Kirsty, and so is Mitchell, and so is Rob, and so is Scott! They are all worrying that everybody else knows all of the things, and not recognising that typically everybody just is confident and knows about some things but not all of the things. And everybody has the same worries, so you have to be kind to yourself. You have to acknowledge that there are going to be things that you don’t know.

So okay, when and where does learning happen? And then, you know, again I will have missed things off here, but there are lots of ways in which you can encourage learning within your organisations. One common way is 10 times or 20 times or 5% time where you dedicate a certain amount of the working week or the working month, and you say that time is put aside for learning. And it’s up to you whether you specify what that learning should be, or whether you trust people to choose what they should learn, which gives you people who are more motivated and more energized. But it’s a very good way of simply saying, you know, what we need to learn. So let’s just say we’re going to put time aside for learning, and that’s what we do at Made Tech.

Another thing that we do at Made Tech is that we have an ‘academy’ – and people have different names for them, people can call them universities or learning schemes, or there are lots of different words for them, but we call it an academy. And this means that we, every year, twice a year at the moment, so we’ve got one about to start in March and there’ll be another one in September. The two 12-week programmes, we recruit people who have minimal coding experience, they have some but not tons. Quite often they’re career changers. They’re people from very diverse backgrounds. They certainly don’t all have degrees, and they don’t all have degrees in Computer Science. And what we do is we put them in a 12-week programme where they’re learning full-time.

I’m one of the teachers on that programme, so I particularly know about it and love it. To be honest, I absolutely love it, we all love it! I mean it’s one of people’s favourite things about Made Tech, is even if you haven’t been involved in it directly, you will see the benefits. You’ll meet the people who’ve been on the programme, you’ll help out with the programme, which we encourage people to do, and it means that everybody gets involved in nurturing new talent, and it means that those people get dedicated time to learn the skills that you want them to learn, learn the ways of working that you care about. And then they can take those skills and spread them throughout the organisation and keep learning on the job once the academy is over. So these are people who are given a full-time job at the end of the academy and are paid a salary while they’re on the academy, and it’s a fantastic way of bringing new talent into the organisation. It’s also very popular. So what I was saying before about making your organisation appealing so people want to join, is a really good way of enhancing your recruitment. We’ve just had the very sad job of having to choose who gets to be on the next academy, and it’s always difficult. It’s exciting to see the new people coming up, but it’s always sad when we have to say no to some people because it’s so popular.

And a similar thing is apprenticeships. There’s a government scheme, there’s funding available for this, and this is where you bring young people in and you teach them on the job, and you scaffold that, and you them extra support. But that’s another way of enhancing learning within the organisation. There are different ways of teaching people that are classroom courses, and I’m often a bit sceptical of classroom courses, and I mean – effectively our academy is a classroom course – so let me qualify that. What I’m sceptical of is when you bring in an external trainer who says we’re going to take loads of people off the job for a week or whatever, and we’re going to teach them how to use a particular technology. And the tendency there can be, because you’ve paid the money for the trainer, is to pull loads of people off and shove them into this room, and then not give them a chance to use what they’ve learned. And then it just becomes a bit pointless because they forget it very quickly. It’s not useful. You need to be teaching people skills that they will be learning straight away, and generally I prefer to teach people skills that are more general and less specific. So, teach them principles, teach them ways of working, rather than teaching them exactly how to add a widget using this particular technology, because it will stick more, and it will be… they can apply it more generally and in more context.

And then there are ‘as-and-when’ courses. What I mean by that is things like Pluralsight or Udemy, or all of the many many things, or just finding a tutorial online, but things that you can do in your own time when you have a bit of spare time, that you can pick up and drop and just fit it around other things, and they’re really useful as well.

Other ways that you can facilitate learning is by having dedicated workshops. These can be really short, and they can be mixed into the working week, and they can be really effective as well. Learning on the job – so all of those other things I’ve talked about were kind of learning outside of the job – although apprenticeships are effectively learning on the job. But there are loads of different ways in which you can enhance learning within teams while they’re doing their jobs. So for instance, pairing, which is one of my favourites. So this is where people sit together work on the same piece of work at the same time, the same piece of code at the same time, and they learn so much from one another by watching each other work. And one of the things that they learn which is incredibly valuable is that everybody googles stuff. It can be very easy to be intimidated by your colleagues and feel like they know so much more than you, they’re so much more proficient than you, and then you sit next to them and you find that you know something that they didn’t, you’re able to help them. But you also see that a lot of the time they’re googling stuff, and that is okay, and it levels things, it levels the playing field when you’re pairing with your colleagues.

I’ve mentioned workshops, but ad-hoc workshops, where you recognise that everybody in the team wants to know more or discuss more about something, and you say “Right, okay let’s have a workshop tomorrow.” You don’t need to know anything in order to put a workshop together, you just need to learn some basic facilitation skills and you can learn together. ‘Lunch and Learns’ are where people do talks at lunchtime or other dedicated times. We actually have what we call showcases on Friday afternoons, where people present topics to one another and anything goes. People can talk about anything, and by encouraging that idea that people can present information to one another on any topic, then you’re encouraging people to teach, to share information, to celebrate information, to celebrate knowledge. They’re really effective, and also you’re just helping people to bring together, come together and spend time together.

Mobbing is like pairing, but instead of having two people working on the same piece of work at the same time you have more than two, and you can have a whole team working on a particular piece of work, and it means that everybody’s in the same room at the same time. You’ve got the knowledge of the QA, you’ve got the knowledge of the business analyst, all coming together at once. Some people do this all the time. I think probably for most people it’s used when it’s when it’s helpful, but it’s something to be aware of, and it can be really effective.

‘Tech time’ is the idea that – particularly for a team of engineers – you get together at a regular interval. So I generally think one hour a week is really good, and you simply discuss what you’ve learned that week, so it will vary. People might say “Oh, I discovered this really great thing that I can do on the command line, let me share it with you all.” Or this really useful set of commands, or I found this really useful tool, or I want to talk about what we’re going to do next with this particular technology. It means that you’re putting time aside to talk tech, and it can be really useful because you’re giving yourself permission to have those conversations and elevating them. You’re saying “these are important”.

Deep dive I’ve mentioned before, but encouraging people to do those deep dives when they need to explore further and learn more about the technologies that they’re using. And then retros or retrospectives: This is where the team gets together, again at a regular interval, I would say at least once a fortnight. People who work with Agile ways of working will be very familiar with retrospective, but when it’s handled well, when you make sure that people are in a safe environment, that they feel safe to share, that it’s a no blame culture, it encourages people to take ownership of the output and the ways of working of their teams; and it allows everybody to learn from one another, and encourages people to learn from what they’re doing, rather than just assuming everything has to stay the same.

And then highlighting examples is something that’s really useful. So, this has happened to me loads of times that somebody has asked me about a particular technique or a particular technology, and I’ve done my best to explain it, but I felt like “oh, I’m not sure that’s really gone in. I really wish I had a good example.” And then what I do is I keep my eye out for examples, so anything that we’ve been talking about as a team or that I’ve talked about with somebody I’ve been pairing with, or that we’ve talked about during tech time. As soon as I see an example I make a note of it – and ideally an example in our own code base, but maybe not – and then the next time we get together, I say “Here’s an example of that thing I was talking about before” and people learn so much better when they can see concrete examples of what you’re trying to teach them.

What stands in the way of learning? There are plenty of things that can help to prevent a learning culture, and I have touched on it very briefly, but I want to really talk about it now, and that’s blame. If you have a blame culture, where you are in the habit of blaming individuals or groups for things that go wrong, and particularly if there are significant negative consequences attached to that blame, then what happens is people find ways of avoiding it. And the most common way that they do that is by hiding their ignorance, because if they feel like they’re going to get told off if things go wrong… so it’s two twofold, if you get told off when things go wrong, then they won’t take risks and they won’t experiment because they’ll be worried that something might go wrong, and that inhibits learning. You have to be able to experiment and explore and take risks in order to learn things. You have to be able to make mistakes, but if you think that you will be blamed if things go wrong, then you’re not even going to try.

Also similar is – not blame so much as judgement – but when you judge people for not knowing things, then it means they won’t admit when they don’t know things, which means that they won’t be able to learn the things that they need to do, because they won’t be able to admit that they don’t know stuff. And everybody doesn’t know stuff! It’s not helpful to encourage people to hide that.

And related to the judgement thing is when you have a culture of elitism – so when you have this idea that some people are significantly better than others, and some people are right at the bottom of the heap and they don’t really matter. When you judge one another for not being good enough, not knowing enough stuff, then again it inhibits people. it means that they don’t feel able to seek out new learning or to acknowledge there are things that they don’t know.

I’ve got laughter here. Laughter is not just a blocker; it can be an enabler. It depends on the context. So the reason I put laughter here – it’s connected with judgement and elitism. It’s when you laugh at people for not knowing stuff, which unfortunately happens a lot. It’s really counterproductive because it humiliates people, it embarrasses people and it means that they won’t be honest about not knowing stuff. It means they won’t ask questions and they won’t find out the things that they really need to know in order for your organisation to do well. And when you’re impatient with people for not knowing things or for moving slowly because of their learning, that inhibits learning. It makes people self-conscious, it creates a psychologically unsafe environment, it’s not good. Blind deadlines are where you say this thing has to be done by this time, and we haven’t really thought about whether that’s achievable or not – we’ve just decided it has to be done by then. That makes everybody panic. It puts pressure, it means that everybody is throwing aside things like learning because they’re just in a such big rush and a panic to meet the deadline. It means they can’t do their jobs effectively and they don’t have time to learn. And again, if you’re not flexible, if you’re very prescriptive about what people should do and how they should do it, then you’re not creating room for learning.

Now, denial is one of the things that I touched on at the beginning, and this is where you don’t accept that learning is both inevitable and necessary, and is something that if enhanced and encouraged and sought out, will improve things. If you just deny that – “Oh no no, we don’t need to learn new stuff, we we’ve got it sorted!” then you’re doing yourselves a disservice. And finally, complacency – which is similar: “No, it’s fine, people will just learn stuff, we don’t need to worry about it.” – again that does not help.

So how do you know if you have a learning culture, and what is a learning culture? I think probably… I’ve implied… all of the things I’ve spoken about before give you some idea of what a learning culture is. A learning culture is one in which there is not a blame culture, where when things go wrong everybody gathers together as a group to think about how they could be done better next time and how mistakes can be avoided, and how you can learn from those mistakes as a group rather than pointing fingers.

A learning culture is one where you learn from your tools and from your data, and you deliberately create tools that are designed to help people learn. So observability is the really obvious one there, but where you’re actually paying attention to the feedback that you’re getting. A learning culture is one where people ask questions and answer questions. I’ll never forget when… so I’ve mentioned that I was a high school maths teacher. That was actually something that I did in a break from my career as a software engineer. So I was a software engineer for 12 years, and then I left the industry altogether and became a high school maths teacher, and that didn’t work out, so I came running back to IT with a sigh of relief! I have to say, it is so much better than being a teacher!

But the first company that I joined when I came back into the industry, I deliberately kind of came back in at entry level. I joined a company that took on a lot of graduates and people that were new to the industry and then trained them up, and I said “look, let’s just pretend I don’t know anything” because it’s four years since I was in the industry, and even when I was, my skills were stagnating. So I’m going to start again at the beginning. And because this company deliberately put a really high focus on learning, it took on people who were inexperienced and it trained them up, and the whole company was very geared towards training and learning. What that meant was that it was expressly talked about that everybody should be asking questions and everybody should be answering questions. I was even told in my interview that people had been sacked for not asking questions. I think that’s going too far. That’s negative enforcement, that’s a culture of fear, that’s not helpful. But encouraging people to ask and answer questions is just amazing, and I loved it. And where I’d worked previously, everybody was always so busy that I never felt like I could ask questions because I would be causing problems for somebody, and I’d be interrupting them and disturbing them. So being encouraged to ask questions all the time and know that people would be happy to answer them, and also being encouraged to answer questions – which again meant that I could learn by teaching – makes such a difference.

And now, what I do is I deliberately ask simple questions all the time. So in my position, in a senior position, when you see a senior person ask simple questions and admit that they don’t know stuff, it means that junior people are much more confident to admit that they don’t know stuff. It’s a really important role model thing.

So a learning culture is also one where people are encouraged to explore. We can learn by exploring. A lot of people prefer to learn by exploring, tinkering, playing around, having a go. What happens if I do this? What if I push this? So encouraging exploration is really important.

Giving people time: So we’ve talked about time, but giving people time to learn is so important, and giving people freedom to learn, and having empathy for what it feels like when you don’t know stuff, remembering what it felt like when you didn’t know the things that you now know, putting yourself in other people’s shoes. It makes such a difference.

And finally, diversity: So the more diverse our teams are, the more different backgrounds people come from, the more different ways people have of asking questions, the more stimulating it is for everybody, because everybody’s encouraged to think about things in different ways, to ask and answer questions. Diversity really does make a difference for a learning culture.

So to summarise: Learning is everywhere – Accept it, embrace it, seek it. Recognise the benefits – so it will encourage innovation, collaboration, you’ll be more up-to-date, you’ll have deep expertise, you’ll create better quality products, you’ll be more flexible, your people will be operating in a safe secure environment, and you will have a more stable organisation if you encourage a learning culture.

You can learn… by doing, by sharing feedback, by collaborating, by sharing resources, you can learn when you’re trusted to learn, you don’t just have to learn tech, you can, learn by being kind to yourself and others, you can learn by having fun you can learn by teaching, you can learn by paying attention to data, you can learn by making mistakes, and you can learn by taking ownership of your learning and also of the products that you’re creating and the ways that you create them.

You can learn by providing different avenues for learning. So you can give people dedicated time, you can set up academies and apprenticeships, you can organise workshops, you can give people access to classroom courses and ad hoc courses. You can learn on the job, and there are so many different ways you can learn on the job: you can learn by pairing, by having ad hoc workshops, by having lunch and learns, by having mob programming sessions, by having regular tech time, by allowing people to deep dive into subjects in the middle of a piece of work, you can learn by highlighting good examples and you can learn by having regular retrospectives.

You need to know what bad looks like: blame culture, bad elitism, bad mocking, laughter (bad – obviously, laughter when you’re all having fun, that’s the good kind of laughter), impatience not good, blind deadlines that exist for no reason, and then allow flexibility – a lack of flexibility not good, denial not good, and complacency also will not help. So you need to know what good looks like. A good is a no-blame culture, is where you use and pay attention to data, where you ask and answer questions – the simpler the better, where you encourage exploration, where you give people time to learn and freedom to learn, where you are empathetic to one another and understand why people need to learn what it feels like when you don’t know stuff, and where you have as much diversity as possible.

Okay so that’s me done. That was exactly 45 minutes, I feel quite proud of that! So I think Jack’s going to take over now and take us through the Q&A.

Jack: I was about to say that was perfectly 45 minutes, very impressed! And also a wonderful presentation, Clare. Yes, the Q&A, I will ping these over in the order that they came in. The first question is: “Where should leaders in an organisation start with creating a learning culture?”

Clare: Okay, so I think the answer to this is going to be “it depends”. I think the very first thing you can do is encourage people to ask questions by asking questions yourself, and as leaders that’s really important. The next thing that you can do is pay attention to what learning is required. Pay attention to when people seem to be seeking out learning, but also consult people, get together with people and say “okay, what do you want to learn, what do you need to learn and how do you best learn?” – and people are different, and teams are different. Teams have different needs, so you can actually make that a collaborative process, finding out within individual teams what people are excited by, and also within an organisation – what there’s an appetite for. Can you organise tech time across the board? Can you organise an academy? It’s about being open to it really, and it’s about encouraging people to talk about it.

Jack: Lovely. Next question is: “If you are in an organisation with ‘bad people’ who are not used to learning, how do you encourage them to see learning as an opportunity for themselves, and not something we are making them do?”

Clare: So I think if people think that you’re ‘making’ them learn, it might be because you are… [laughs] One of the things that you have to acknowledge is that people have different attitudes to learning, and people are different. So for instance, some people really want to just go away and learn the things that they want to learn, and they’ve already got a big list in their head, and if you give them permission then they’ll be off, with no trouble at all! Some people are much more insecure about it, and feel… “oh, go and do some learning” – and then they panic. They think “but I don’t know what to learn, and I don’t know how to learn!” and so some people need a lot more scaffolding. And what you need to do is cater for both types. So, for the people who just want to be given time and permission, they’re great, they’ll just sort themselves out, but not everybody is like that. And so for the other people, what you have to do again is consult them. “Okay, what do you think, where are the gaps in your knowledge, what have you noticed that you didn’t know on your job that you wish you’d known more of?” – and if they still struggle to answer that question, which some people do, that’s just kind of ‘rabbit in headlights’. Use one-to-ones, make sure that somebody is sitting down with each individual, which should already be happening with tech leads and/or line managers, and go through the work that they’re doing, the technologies that they’re using, the skills that they need. And one helpful thing is that you can ask people to score themselves. Do that with them – because there is the problem that people who are very inexperienced tend to give themselves much higher scores and people who are very experienced tend to give themselves much lower scores – but, you know, create a list of things that are useful for your team, and go down individually with each person. Go down the list and say “How do you how confident do you feel in this area? What about this area?” and then create resources or find resources that will speak to all of the different areas.

Jack: Lovely. Next question is: “Any tips for people who do manual jobs and do not use tech in their work, to get them keen to learn digital skills?”

Clare: So again, I think it’s providing the opportunity that really makes the difference, and you will find it… again, you’ll have the same issue that some people are absolutely chomping at the bit and they’ve been thinking for a while that they’d like to change career and they’ve already got an idea of what they would like to do; whereas some people, and probably possibly the majority I think, would just be scared, and they would particularly if they’ve had no exposure to tech, then they would just say “well, that’s that scary thing that those snooty superior people do who laugh at me for being stupid, and I’m worried that if I have a go at it then I’m going to expose my ignorance and I’m going to get laughed at.” And so again, similar thing, what you do is you sit down with people. You say “okay, what interests you, what excites you?” and what can be really helpful is find out what their interests are, what their hobbies are. So for instance, if somebody’s like really into beer, create a simple website that allows people to share what beer they’ve been drinking during the week, you know, give them a task. And creating a website is the standard thing to give somebody to do when they’ve never approached tech before, and there’s so many tutorials and resources out there, but it’s a really good one, because a website is a blank slate, and most people can think of some kind of website that they’d like to create, and that that’s a really good starting point. But it’s about finding what people are interested in, finding ways of making it approachable and exciting for people.

Jack: Excellent. Next question: “How can you tell if learning is happening in your organisation?”

Clare: Okay, I’m going to answer that in a minute, but I feel like I didn’t quite address the thing about the ‘bad people’ who don’t want to learn. I think the… I know it was in quotes, we’re not really saying they’re bad people, I hope we’re not, but it can be frustrating because it does happen that you will find people you’re working with, people who don’t seem to want to learn, and who just seem completely unmotivated. They just want to get their head down and do the same thing, day-in and day-out. And nearly always what lies behind that is fear. That they’re comfortable where they are, and they feel like if they step outside their comfort zone it will cause them pain. And the more toxic the environment they’re working in, the more likely it is that they feel that way, because they think that they’ll get laughed at or judged, or that they will just poke at their own insecurities, that as soon as they have to start learning something, they have to acknowledge to themselves that there are things that they don’t know, and that’s that can be a painful process.

So you have to have empathy for that, you have to try and find out what it is that’s standing in the way. You also have to acknowledge that people have different personal experiences and personal situations. So for instance, particularly at the moment, somebody who has young children and is home-schooling probably hasn’t got any energy for anything, and they just want to get through another working day and collapse at the end of the day, and if you’re asking them to do something that is outside of what they would normally be doing, they don’t necessarily have the time or the energy for that. So I think you also have to create space and time for people, and maybe acknowledge sometimes that people might not be in the best place right now, or maybe they’re dealing with an ill or dying relative, you know, there are things that actually do make it hard for people to learn, and you have to acknowledge that you can’t force people to do things if their situation isn’t conducive to that.

So sorry, you asked me another question I didn’t answer it. What was the other question?

Jack: The other question was: “How can you tell if learning is happening in your organisation?”

Clare: Hmm… how can you tell? Well, you know what, here’s a good indicator: If you have chat channels, or if you have ways in which people communicate with one another that are kind of across the organisation or across particular teams, have a look at what people are talking about, because if people are sharing resources, if people are saying “I found out about this really interesting thing, would you like to know about this thing?” – chances are you’ve got a learning culture. If that’s not happening, and also if people are saying “I don’t have time to find out more about that” – then you haven’t got a learning culture.

But what you want is for people to be enthusiastically talking to each other about the things that they have learned, and that doesn’t just have to be stuff that’s very narrow and focused to their job.

Jack: Lovely. Next question is: “With regards to hiring, are there any indicators that a candidate would be a good learner and/or teacher?”

Clare: Yeah, so I mean one of the questions that we ask people is how they learn, and the answers that people give to that can be really telling. So if people talk about the fact that they use online tutorials, or that they regularly watch talks or watch videos on YouTube, or seek out tutorials, then you’re already looking at somebody who is somebody who likes to learn. And if they get excited about it, if you ask them about learning and they light up and they tell you about the things that they’ve been learning and how they learnt them, then all of that is… to really just talk to people about learning and give them an opportunity to talk about it and see how they respond, but do be cautious.

So for instance, don’t… – which I have seen being done, and something that happens in recruitment generally actually is – people ask questions that look like open questions, but aren’t. So, an open question is one where you don’t know what the answer is going to be. A closed question is one where you already have the answer in your head. And you know sometimes it’s like – an obvious closed question is what’s 4 x 4. Well the answer is 16. There is only one answer. That’s a closed question. But sometimes closed questions look like open questions. When you ask somebody “what’s your favourite way of learning?” – sounds like an open question, they could give any answer, but actually you’ve got written down in front of you in a piece of paper: What I want is for them to tell me that they go to conferences, or that they go to meetups. That’s a really common one. That’s not fair because it’s not an open question, it’s a closed question, because you’ve got the answer written down in front of you, and now they’ve just got to try and guess what the answer is supposed to be.

But also, as I said before, people have different circumstances. Some people have children to look after, some people have caring responsibilities, they can’t necessarily attend meetups. So you have to allow for the fact that that learning is something people have to fit into their lives, and some people have more opportunities than other others.

Jack: Lovely. I think we have time for one last question: “Can you apply the same recommendations for non-tech, i.e. sales, business development, commercial etc?”

Clare: 100% yes, because there are resources for all of those things, and there are things to be learnt about all of those things. There are books and tutorials, and actually there are particular bits of technology that are useful in all of those spheres as well. But it’s not just about technology, it’s about caring about what you’re doing, wanting to know more and wanting to get better at it, and there are resources out there in all of those spheres that will help you to do that, and that rely on learning in order for that to happen, so that everything I’ve said about tech also applies. In terms of learning together, finding resources, giving people time, allowing people to explore all of those things, and talking to each other, pairing with each other, sharing resources with each other, collaborating… all of that applies in in all of those spheres.

Jack: Wonderful. Well, I think that’s all the time we have for questions. I’m just going to share my screen. I first would like to say a massive thank you to all of our attendees for coming today, and an even bigger thank you, Clare, for giving such a wonderful presentation and such fluid answers.

Like I mentioned at the start of the presentation, we’d love to hear your feedback. We will be sending out feedback forms to all of our attendees. They take about a minute to fill out and they really help us to understand what we can do to improve our webinars for the future. Our next webinar will also be with the wonderful Clare Sudbery, will be taking place on the 25th of February and will be a follow-up to this presentation. The topic is “How to build a successful Engineer Academy.”

If you didn’t get your question answered during the Q&A, please do reach out to Clare. Her Twitter handle is posted on the screen now. Or if you just want to stay up to date with all things Made Tech, please check out our website. The details are at the bottom of the screen, or reach out to us directly at our Twitter handle. And with that, I want to say one last massive thank you to all of our attendees for coming, and have a great day. Thank you. See ya!

Sooner or later, all software professionals realise that there is no such thing as knowing all the things. More than any other, our industry is in a constant of change. The more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t know. The best professionals are not only aware that the learning never stops, they embrace the challenge and the necessity of continuous improvement. Similarly, the best organisations will also not only accept this truth but face it head-on.

In this webinar we will discuss why, and how, your organisation can keep the skills and the knowledge of all its employees up to date – and in the process retain, attract and create the most talented and effective professionals.

Key takeaways:

  • What is a learning culture?
  • Why is it so important?
  • How can you create a learning culture?
  • How will it improve your organisation?


  • Clare Sudbery, Lead Engineer at Made Tech


  • 45 minutes presentation
  • 15 minutes Q&A


Wednesday, 3 February 2021


Clare Sudbery

Lead Engineer at Made Tech

Clare is a maths graduate with 21 years of software engineering experience and a particular interest in teaching and mentoring; encouraging more women into IT; and banishing imposter syndrome.

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