Perhaps not much of a surprise but working as a developer requires a great need for continuous learning and growth, and of course this is not always an easy task. Some time last year, I found myself struggling to learn functional programming principles. I approached several people at work with some success, but couldn’t make the most of the opportunities for discussion - often these were just snatches of time between meetings or over a beer. Obviously there was a great willingness for learning but no real platform to make the most of it. I strongly believe that a platform and structure is perhaps the most important component when approaching a technical topic for the first time, to enable a sense of progress and reflection. This led to the creation of the developer book club at my workplace. In this blog post I want to cover how we run the club, some opinions around this point, and some general challenges we’ve faced or anticipate in the future.

How we run the book club

We have three main channels of communication: A GitHub repo, a HipChat room, and a mailing distribution list. The GitHub repo is the place where we put all the written notes and presentations, which I’ll come to later, as well as leverage the issue creation system to enable people to make reading suggestions. The HipChat room is where the majority of online discussion takes place as well as where we make general announcements and potentially vote on the next reading if this has not already been decided during the book club session. Finally, the mailing distribution list allows us to make announcements and book meeting rooms without spamming everyone.

We try to book a session every two weeks, for one hour during lunch, which has so far worked for us. When deciding on readings to focus on, we ideally want something that is freely available electronically with exercises, so that the barrier to entry is as low as possible. We tend to stick to two basic formats, the choice between them following from the kind of reading being covered. For less technical readings, we use as retrospective style format using the labels “liked”, “learned”, “lacked”, which for obvious reasons lends itself to a learning exercises. For technical readings, we use a presentation-style format: Ahead of the session, people are given a section or chapter to focus on, with the expectation that they are able to give a brief presentation in sufficient detail to cover the material. We often combine formats: our first session for a more technical reading follows a retrospective style, then once we’ve established a baseline for what everyone wants to take away from the reading, switch to a presentation style format in future sessions. In all cases, we keep some informal minutes to make note of the key talking points covered.

Going back to the example of learning functional programming, we were able to select an appropriate reading as a group, which in this case was the “Mostly Adequate Guide to Functional Programming”. We have an initial session following a retrospective format, and had two more sessions using the presentational style format. Rather than trying to make notes of everything I had trouble with whilst I read it individually or hoping to simply tease out some meaning from the text, we were able to work through individual problems we had as a group and made great progress.

I think sticking to a format is absolutely key to making the most of these sessions. Firstly, keeping written records of the sessions allows for future reference and reflection. Secondly, both formats makes sure that everyone has to talk about the reading where they may otherwise be unwilling to open up in simple freeform discussion. Finally, a more obscure point, having a format and keeping notes allows people who are unable to commit to every book club to still get involved. Even if they cannot make a session, someone can still go to the repo with an expectation for the kind and quality of notes there. More broadly, every topic we cover is much bigger than any one reading, so enabling someone who may not be able to finish the reading in time to still get involved, but may otherwise know about the topic, is very rewarding for everyone else.

A criticism of this approach might be that it stifles discussion, which is true to a certain extent, but this is also kind of the point! I feel freeform discussion is a much less effective approach to learning in general, and for the reasons above not as inclusive or enabling as a more strict format provides. Discussion will happen regardless and will be more targeted and focused overall.

Problems

That’s all well and good but what kind of problems have we faced, and what do we anticipate? The problems we’ve faced so far are all the ones you’d anticipate: how do we keep numbers up and keep a diversity of interest. We’ve done ok as far a numbers go, averaging around 5 people per session, which considering the level of commitment required is promising. However, they tend to be the same people, which could indicate we need to think more broadly when it comes to reading choices overall. A problem we anticipate in the future is how to approach much longer and more technical readings, in particular several weeks ago someone stated their interest in learning Haskell, which is obviously a big ask. Our thought would be to interlace this activity with shorter, less technical choices, so we both get good progress with the longer term goal as well as a nice turnover of topics and discussion, sessions to session.

Conclusion

Overall I think developer book clubs are a great asset to the workplace and a really important learning platform. In particular I think sticking to a strict format as much as possible makes the most of everyone’s time and makes for a greater learning experience overall.

On a more personal note, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the time since starting the book club. Whilst I haven’t necessarily touch on topics I wouldn’t have otherwise, I have approach them in a much different way and taken a lot more away from each reading. If nothing else, it’s very enlightening to see how different people with very different skills sets approach the same material and what unique challenges they may be faced with.


Tom Martin

Developer, London, UK