01/11/2016 - No Comments!

Team Building Through Tech Talks

Throughout my time as a Senior UI Designer with HP, I was embedded within an agile software development team. It was during this time in my career that I grew most substantially as a designer. Much of that can be attributed to our great Product Managers who worked tirelessly to promote learning within the team culture. This manifested in one form as a weekly meeting dubbed the Tech Talk. I’ve since come to realize the massive growth potential within these unique meetings.

The tradition of Tech Talks has been around in the Engineering industry for some time now. Popularized by giants like Apple and Google, a Tech Talk can be simply described as the sharing of technical knowledge within a team, usually from a member of the team itself.

We were a mid-sized team of 15–20 people, including our remote staff in India and Brazil. The process boiled down to each team member taking turns on Wednesday mornings transferring some technical knowledge to the larger team. This ranged from a new feature they’d been sprinting on over the last few weeks to a new programming technology or something else entirely. The specific subject of topics was uninhibited and vast.

Tech Talks helped us to avoid the issue of knowledge being siloed within one or two people. Ideally, all knowledge should be public or otherwise attainable by all members of your team.
When skills and knowledge are shared regularly, your team grows together and the collective output can soar over time. Some tips to help you become a champion for Tech Talks within your organization:

Be Consistent

Nothing kills these extracurricular workplace activities faster than inconsistency. Don’t let other new or last minute meetings take the place of your Tech Talk and never cancel it, if possible. Sure, you’ll have a few that are scarcely attended, but the show will go on, and that is what matters. In order to promote a real and healthy culture within your team, this needs to become a priority. Carefully select a date, time and place — and stick to it.

Make It Fun

There’s nothing about a Tech Talk that need be intimidating. Over time, you want to promote an open forum for learning and sharing above all else. With this goal in mind, be conscious to never pass judgments here, this alienates those who may be more introverted or have more difficulty speaking up already.

Bringing along treats and coffee also helps to promote an engaged, relaxed atmosphere.

You’ll be surprised how many folks show up when donuts are announced, just be sure that you have enough.

Everyone Shares

If this is your first time at tech talk, you have to tech talk. Not. While it by no means needs to be as intense as Fight Club, it is important that everyone on the team shares something, eventually. This again promotes the feeling of ownership and inclusion that teams strive for.

Through one-on-ones with Product Managers, each team member should be encouraged to participate as the presenter. Each team member does have something they can share from their present or past.
Don’t rush the introverts, but encourage them to step up and share what they know. It’s less of a barrier to entry when one can present on any subject that they are passionate about. Pairing someone who is nervous with a more seasoned speaker and having them present together is a strong tactic to overcome this as well.

Speaking to what you know helps to overcome the fear of public speaking in a low-pressure situation with your trusted team.

No Distractions

Instruct those attending to leave their computers at their desk and not pull out cell phones. If possible, get everyone outside or find a conference room with a view. Assembling somewhere outside of your team’s usual hustle and bustle has a huge impact on people’s ability to forget that nagging email or task in the back of their mind and focus on the present.

Being fully engaged promotes a healthy, respectful environment for everyone present.

Tangible Results

First and foremost these meetings promoted technical knowledge to be transferred amongst our team. However, there were many unintended and arguably more profound effects over time.

Team Camaraderie

Tech Talks brought our teams together, both in-person and remote. This evolved into a space where designers, developers and managers could be on a level playing field, all learning something new and exciting.

Personal strengths and passions of team members came to light. Folks became newly aligned around new ideas and subcultures as passions came forth through our many discussions.

Knowledge Transfer

This applies to both the speakers and to the audience. You really can’t say you are a master of something until you’ve taught it. The nerves alone cause you to research and prepare more than you have since the days of college.

Once you’ve given a talk of your own, you may be surprised by the questions your peers come forth with! Remember, it’s OK to say “I don’t know”! Take note of any unanswered questions and follow up via email/slack/anything during the following week with an answer.

This should be a comfortable, safe place for everyone on your team lets their guard down and learns together. Public speaking, listening, empathy, and respect are just a few of the many soft skills that come as benefits to team members sharing what they know with others The benefits of Tech Talks really are endless.

Strengthened Communication Skills

Outside of the improved speaking skills that come with regular practice, other communication improved amongst our team. People talked to each other more often and had more relaxed social interactions. You could hear the friendships emerging over the cubicle walls and in lunch break circles.

I can only hope that by sharing about our Tech Talks that more teams will adopt this fantastic practice to strengthen their own company cultures.

A small team of designers (within the larger dev team) eventually formed a spin-off meeting entitled the Designer’s Forum. We focused more on creativity and skills development as well as meeting other design teams. More on that in my next post.

Published by: Ray in 2016