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How software developers can improve technical skills with on-the job training

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(Image credit: Image Credit: StartupStockPhotos / Pexels)

In recent years business leaders are seeking to gain a competitive advantage by investing more in learning and development (L&D). According to a 2018 UK L&D report, a clear majority (94 percent) of companies regard L&D as being critical to commercial success. Gartner’s 2020 HR leaders report revealed that 86 percent of HR technology leaders emphasize that building critical skills and competencies is a top priority, and addressing skills gaps is considered key to growing the business.

It is crucial that software development organizations have an in-depth understanding of technologies and be adaptable to rapid industry change. Investing in a continuous learning culture better adapts an organization's software development for continuous delivery.   

To overcome the skills and knowledge gap of software developers, there must be a greater emphasis upon improving problem-solving skills and applying theory in an actual workplace environment. This article will explain why on-the-job training is a better solution when trying to foster continuous learning culture within an organization’s software development team.

The limits of online learning platforms and software developer courses

Coursera, Pluralsight, Cloud Academy and Udemy are popular online platforms that offer users a broad range of educational content. The software developer courses offered on these platforms utilize a blended learning technique, combining traditional classroom settings within an e-learning environment.

Digital learning approaches to learning are a flexible approach to support software developers’ knowledge and skills development. It fulfills developers’ need for immediate access to content and professional development. However, these online learning platforms use traditional learning techniques aren’t the most effective tools to improve software developers’ skills and knowledge.

The platform Pluralsight allows software developers to select modules that will meet their skills and knowledge improvement needs. These online training platforms enable developers to focus on modules that’ll benefit their technical skills. But, developers have to anticipate specific areas of expertise to pursue within the online learning platform.

The gap between the educational content and developers’ needs can adversely impact their productivity. This is because the courses’ content is not situational to their professional work environment. Situated learning environments are more effective because they place learners in authentic learning situations and this actively improves their problem-solving skills.

Software developers require access to practical knowledge that can immediately benefit the teams’ work flow. Online learning platforms don’t necessarily provide a situated learning environment because they solely offer a traditional learning setting. These online platforms still utilize instructors whose curriculum is unable to provide real-world learning opportunities.

On-the-job training is delivered while someone is performing tasks that are relevant to their profession and a crucial means towards professional development. A recent survey by HackerRank revealed that nearly 60 percent of developers want to learn new technical skills on the job. Management must focus on learning methods that engage with problem-solving skills, if they wish to achieve tangible improvements in their software developers’ skills and knowledge.

Improving developer's problem-solving skills

Software development is first and foremost about problem-solving; meanwhile writing code is secondary. HackerRank revealed in its 2018 survey that 95 percent of industry leaders prioritize problem-solving skills when it comes to hiring software developers, while nearly 60 percent consider it to be more important than programming language proficiency. Technology leaders who prioritize problem-solving skills will drive collaborative problem solving within engineering teams.

A Harvard Business Review article on Where Companies Go Wrong with Learning and Development (L&D) published in 2019 revealed a concerning development. It was revealed that only 12 percent of employees applied the skills learned in L&D programs in their profession. Users of online learning platforms will have the same issue; it requires the processing and retention of knowledge, but not immediate application within a professional environment.

On-the-job learning in contrast uses knowledge as means to promote knowledge sharing and problem-solving, therefore a more effective form of education. This type of training is directly implemented in the workplace and promotes collaborative learning within software development teams' workflow.

Creating a continuous learning environment for software developers

Organizations need to promote knowledge retention and the immediate application of knowledge. If there isn’t a practical approach towards improving knowledge, it can negatively impact the company’s codebase maintainability and require valuable resources to be deployed looking for solutions. Technology leaders can do the following to create a continuous learning culture with effective on-the-job-training:

1) Promote Individual Learning

Senior Managers can promote self-learning by creating bespoke training programs tailored to the organization’s needs. Directly relevant and focused educational content will teach developers how to fix specific problems identified in the files. Moreover, this will help all parties identify the root cause of a developer’s mistakes and address them.

However, the knowledge developers’ receive must be in bite-sized chunks and folds into their workflow. Academic studies have shown that acquiring knowledge in bite-sized pieces leads to better retention and use of knowledge gained. This form of learning can quickly close a skills gap; according to the Journal of Applied Psychology, the transfer of learning to the desk is 17 percent more efficient.

2) Encouraging Knowledge Sharing Through Mentorship

Organizations should set up mentorship programs that provide software developers with the opportunity to collaborate and seek support from more experienced engineers. Encouraging senior developers that have successfully solved specific issues in the past to take on mentees will increase team productivity.

Mentorloop’s research revealed that industry leaders use mentoring as a competitive advantage, with an estimated 71 percent of Fortune 500 companies providing employees with mentoring programs. The hands-on guidance senior developers provide their junior peers is an effective and efficient way to promote junior developer’s problem-solving skills and knowledge retention.

3) Improve The Code Review Process

The quality of the code review process is benefited with consistency and adherence to software development best practices. Therefore, developers code contributions are cleaner and of higher quality before the code review process.

Conclusion

For software development teams to achieve their full potential, organizations must seek to promote a continuous learning culture with on-the-job training. Whilst online learning platforms provide users with a vast range of educational resources, industry research has demonstrated the limits of a traditional education setting and deficient application of newly acquired knowledge.

Senior managers must establish effective on-the-job training programs (such as mentoring plans) to improve problem-solving and other valuable software developer skills to enable their organizations to adapt to rapid technological change and thrive.

Ferreneik Betton, Head of Content, BlueOptima