Why we invest so much in Professional Development

November 20, 2019

We are living in a technological renaissance.  It is a period of change only last seen between the fourteen and seventeenth centuries when Europe moved from the middle ages to modern times, leading into the industrial revolution.  The last twenty years  have led to unimaginable changes in the way we conduct our lives and our businesses.  It seems as if every day that I don’t look at my phone, some new way of automating our lives has emerged.  I have been with SEP for 22 years, but the skills I had when I joined are far from the skills I have now.  If our focus had not been on learning and intellectual advancement, it might not have happened.  And if we had not changed ourselves with the times, we might not have survived as a company either.

Much has been said about what we do for Professional Development at SEP.  ‘So why another post on the same topic?’, you might ask.  It is an activity so intrinsic to SEP, so important to its sustenance, and so dear to my heart, that I cannot but tell the story of how we did it before it even had a name, and why we continue to spend as much as we do.

I remember my interview. I had read a couple of books on C and C++, and being young, had felt that it was enough to get me a job in a software company.  All I knew at the time was to write programs in Fortran for my scientific research. At the interview, I skipped all the hardware and CS questions, and explained integration to prove my eligibility.  I knew nothing of software processes. I got the job, not because of the abilities I demonstrated, but because the President at that time felt that given the right attitude, you could teach anyone to code. Even today, that growth mindset is the backbone of SEP.

For a month after I joined, I received training to write software with the tools at the time, using a curriculum put together by a senior engineer.  We also had an Academy where interested employees could teach new skills to others in the company.  That is how I learned Perl, Java, Ruby on Rails, and embedded programming, to name a few.  We occasionally invited external experts to train us on soft skills.  At that time it was not called Professional Development, but that is what we did.

About 10 years ago, a college friend of mine working at a tech staffing company asked me how I could stand to be in this industry.  In a very long email, he mentioned feeling stifled at his place because of his company’s rigid policies, including shutting off sites that would encourage learning, and completely discouraging knowledge sharing and collaboration.  Whenever he would bring up ideas for change, he would be shot down, and forced to continue with the same routine work he was used to doing. He was starving for creative work. To me, the only experience I had was at SEP, and I did not know that things could be any different.  What he said made me realize how special this place is, and why I have not felt the need to look elsewhere.  Even today, we are constantly learning, collaborating, and finding new ways to share and teach each other what we know. We now call it Professional Development.  And we spend a whole lot more on it.

So what is truly behind the need to invest so much in learning and training at SEP? The intellectual answer might be as follows:

Because we could quickly lose our clients otherwise…

We always need to be a step ahead of our clients.  A few years ago, we faced a lull in the market.  Several of us were ‘on the bench’, in between client funded projects. Up to that time, we had stayed away from serious web development work. However, our managers found many of our prospective clients asking for experience in the new JavaScript web frameworks.  A few of us took this as a challenge, and taught ourselves how to code in Node.js and AngularJS.  As a result, our business quickly picked up, and we received big projects notably using AngularJS, React, and other front-end technologies.  This has been a recurring theme, and we have had to anticipate market trends, and train ourselves to be ready for whatever our clients need from us.

Because our employees are our assets…

It makes sense to invest in them.  In our service business, we will do only as well as our employees.  The better their skills and marketability, the better the business. It is a no-brainer to ensure that they are provided with all the opportunities needed to remain on the cutting edge.

Because it helps in recruiting and in retention…

Our retention rate is phenomenal.  Most of our employees spend all their working years at SEP.  They join young, and stay for the long haul. A contributing factor is the variety of project work we have, as well as the freedom to explore their interests outside projects.  Most of the needs for this kind of exploration are reimbursed by the company – books, hardware, software, online courses, and so on.  This makes the employees feel valued and cared for.

That being said, since I like to speak from my heart, if I were to give you my reason for why we spend so much on learning, I’d say it’s

Because that is just the way we are…

Our founder Jeff Gilbert used to say, ‘SEP is like a microorganism’. You give it the right environment, and it will grow in ways that you cannot imagine.  Every activity that we have embraced (study groups, book clubs, hackathons, brown bags, lightning talks, and even our erstwhile Academy) has been initiated by an employee, and has stuck because of interest.  We have employees who write code ‘just for fun’, and others who cannot but look for ways to improve things around the office.

We are now over 150 employees.  It is more important now than it ever was, to develop that muscle that keeps us going.  Last year was a good one for SEP, financially. So this year we have experienced a spate of training in several areas that we need to perfect. It’s called deliberate practice.  Do the right thing over and over, and it becomes a skill.  We have experts (in the areas we want to perfect) teach us the right way to do things, and when we practice those right techniques on our projects, they stick.  We were among the first to embrace XP, Agile, Kanban, User Experience, and DevOps to name a few.

Finding the answer to the question I posed is like analyzing success after the fact. You can give reasons for doing certain things because of their effects, but ultimately, it’s like instinct. It comes naturally. We don’t know how to be otherwise.

That’s what I love about SEP!