Photo credit: UKinUSA
Companies want the developers who are working for them to grow. Developers themselves want to grow, and often ask specifically about growth paths and opportunities as part of their interview process. There are many ways to grow as a developer, but two major ones are conferences and other types of training that have both a monetary and time cost. In my experience, companies are stuck in a frustrating binary regarding those options: either pay for everything, or pay for nothing. Neither of these options is ideal.
(Note: I am not talking, in this post, about examples where a company needs to train an employee for something based purely on the company’s needs. If you need your employee to get certified in a particular technology to perform a new job function, for instance, that should be on the company’s dime. The same is obviously true if an employee wants to take a training course in, say, bonsai.)
From the company’s perspective, paying for an event or training can be an expensive proposition. For a conference, for example, you’ve got travel costs, hotel costs, event fees, and then the days the employee won’t be working on company tasks but still wants to be paid. The total package can easily be thousands of dollars. That leaves the company asking: how can we justify this?
So the company asks the employee for a clear argument about how the event will benefit the company, how it will give them specific, tangible skills that will impact what the company is doing right now. And it might ask the employee to give a presentation on what they learned when they return, based on the hope that spreading out the knowledge gained will produce some added value to help further balance the scales against the cost outlay. The company gave, the employee got, and now the company has to do its best to extract at least some value out of the transaction.
On the other hand, the employee could just pay for everything, including not using work days/time. But, again, the costs are steep. It’s not easy to go to your partner and explain that you’re going to use the money that could cover a family vacation for some personal skill development. If you do it outside of work hours or you use PTO, you’re giving up time with your family and time to pursue the personal endeavors that don’t make you any money but make life meaningful.
This steep cost is also likely to make developers prioritize the things that are most valuable to them personally, as opposed to things that are a mix of usefulness for them and their company. And if you’re out there fending for yourself in your skill growth, why think of your company as being that much of a partner? You’ll be more likely to be on the hunt for a new job that’s directed mostly by your own interests.
Neither side is being unreasonable in these examples. But having all of the costs on one side or the other places the two parties in an adversarial rather than cooperative relationship.
Split the Costs
My proposal is simple: split the costs! For conferences or training, both the company and the employee will benefit. Therefore, it is most fair for both parties to contribute to the creation of that benefit. And if both parties have skin in the game, both have incentive to work together to maximize that benefit.
As an example: before I began my career as a developer, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, promoting Agroforestry. We were promulgating techniques for using trees in combination with agriculture to preserve soil fertility and fight desertification. As part of that, we taught farmers to create tree nurseries using polyvinyl sacks (polypots) to grow seedlings in that could then be planted when they had developed to a certain point. We were given supplies of those polypots to give out, but we were strictly instructed to sell them to farmers, not give them away. These were often poor farmers, and asking them for money felt like doing the opposite of what he had come there to do, but the reason we were given was simple: if you give the polypots away for free, you tend to find them sitting in a yard, months later, unused. If you charge a fee–even a very small one–they are far more likely to be used. The farmer’s relationship with the polypot changes based on whether they’ve put money into getting them.
For companies and developers, therefore, the details of how costs are split is less important than whether they are split at all. If each party has paid for the conference or training, each is more motivated to put that experience to good use.
The company could offer to pay for 75% of conference fees, for instance, and cover the days off work for the employee. The employee could be responsible for 25% of the conference fee as well as travel and lodging. It’s still a lot of money for the company, but it’s also a lot of money for the employee, and it gives them a reason to really consider the relative merit of conferences nearby versus conferences across the country.
And it changes the relationship: the company should be less worried about being taken advantage of in some way. The employee isn’t just getting a paid vacation to go enjoy happy hours in a far-off city. Ideally, it can back off of trying to extract concrete, directly traceable value and embrace some of the more abstract benefits. Did this developer come back with renewed enthusiasm for their job? Did they come back with some fresh ideas about tools to use? Did they come back with a list of relevant, modern companies in their head that might come in useful at surprising moments when looking at solving problems at work? Might they end up staying at your company a year longer than they otherwise would, thus saving the company thousands of dollars in recruiting fees and time spent paying other staff to interview candidates.
The developer, on the other hand, will have a different experience at the conference knowing they’ve paid to be there. It’ll be a motivating factor in really paying attention to those conference talks, to making use of the opportunity of talking to other developers and making contacts with vendors whose products might be relevant to them and their company.
With training, the company could offer to provide paid work time for the training while having the developer pay for the training itself. The company could provide a couple of hours each day, for instance, and have a timeline attached with some kind of target. (Certifications would work great for that.)
Again: when both parties have skin in the game, neither has to worry about being taken advantage of. The developer might feel a lot better about pursuing training later into the evening after work hours since they got to at least get in some of the training during the work day.
There’s plenty of room to be thoughtful about the specifics of how splitting the cost would work in individual situations: the important thing is the principle. There are very real benefits to developer skill growth, and those benefits are shared. Splitting the costs of creating those benefits is both equitable and motivating.
The tech world is an innovator in the landscape of company/employee relationships, and while there have been some wrong turns (ping pong tables in the middle of work areas have so many problems), it’s led the way in embracing the potential of a cooperative spirit between companies and employees.
It’s time to break out of a limiting binary regarding professional growth and development. By sharing the financial and time investments, we can cultivate a culture where both parties are invested in the positive outcomes of training and conferences.
I’m eager to hear other people’s perspectives. Whether you are an employer, a developer, or someone from another industry with an interest in the general idea, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How feasible and appealing do you think this concept would be in the real world?