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Overcoming Constraints Through Creative Thinking

Different Skillsets
Coaching / Training / Mentorship

23 November, 2021

Neelima Annam
Neelima Annam

Vice President, Engineering and Planning at AIM Specialty Health

Neelima Annam, Sr Director Information Technology at Outmatch, recalls a time when she had to use non-conventional methods to train her team.

Problem

When I was a new Engineering Manager, over 9 years ago, one of the key initiatives from our annual business planning was to revamp our customer-facing application UI which was pretty non-interactive, dull, and quite poorly performant. Our Architecture team recommended using AJAX and JQuery for this UI re-write to combat both problems and also set the stage to adapt other emergent javascript frameworks at that time. The challenge however was that nobody on my engineering team was skilled in these frameworks/ techniques and we were faced with needing to either recruit someone with experience or train our existing team members. At that time, we were operating under budgetary constraints and pretty aggressive timelines. This meant recruiting someone on a short-term contract which was not ideal from a ramp-up and knowledge retention perspective.

Actions taken

MOOCs like Coursera/ Edx and online-learning sites like Pluralsight etc were not very popular, affordable, or extensive back then and after exploring some of those options, it became clear that we needed to do something different, and we bought a few books. In addition, I found a few free resources online and worked with my architects to create a Fun Learning Challenge. I offered this challenge up to the engineering team and together we carved out a rotation program that allowed every engineer to check out these books for a period of two weeks each and gave them a few days off to dedicate exclusively to learning the material made available to them. Engineers were able to choose the days they would take time off, as a way of sharing commitment. The Challenge part was - at the end of four weeks, everyone would be given the same skeleton website and a product vision document to work on for two weeks where they had to utilize their newfound knowledge along with their innate creativity with user experience and performance as the main evaluation criteria.

The culmination of this exercise was a reveal session, where all the engineers gathered together and showcased the ideas they had generated for incorporating their newly acquired skills into the skeleton website. The presentation was so brilliant and helped everyone see the various facets of enhanced user experience that were made possible by using Ajax and nifty jQuery widgets. Overall it ended up being a really great learning experience that went beyond merely acquiring new skills. The communal learning and challenge offered a very immersive experience while strengthening relationships among the team and respect for our UX designers.

Compared to training through online courses or conferences, organizing a collaborative learning experience proved to be far more beneficial. I feel people were motivated to take on this challenge as they had to showcase their work and this little bit of competitiveness made it an enjoyable experience. It was a fun and intense 6 weeks from the time we started to when the whole exercise was completed. Although my team had to go through all of this alongside their main day-to-day work deliverables, they were willing to invest time and energy as this new kind of learning journey was so appealing to them. As a result of this, we were able to deliver on our application UI revamp objective much better than originally anticipated as every engineer acquired these skills and we were able to scale much better than we would have if we had hired a new person with this experience.

Lessons learned

  • Managers can get very creative under budgetary constraints especially where training and learning are concerned. Investing in upskilling our current teams is a much better approach in the long term.
  • Find alternatives for training your team. There are situations where training budgets get cut and you may be unable to send an employee to a training conference. Instead of avoiding training altogether, it is better to find resources such as courses on educational platforms such as EDX and Coursera, or even through some websites which provide the opportunity to audit courses. You can also source knowledge from technology experts in the area who can come in and talk to your team.

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