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Professional Development at Balsamiq

This post is part of a series about our VERY FEW company policies. Read this intro post for some context.

We have become hesitant about sharing our company policies because they are, and they should be, forever in evolution. That said, we do like to share things along the way with our community, both to inspire and to get your ideas on what we could do better.

Today's topic is a policy that has worked well for us for over a year: our Professional Development Program.

Balsamiq is a Learning Organization

A few years ago, as we saw lots of clones trying to compete with us, Peldi realized that the one thing we have that competitors cannot copy is ourselves, our team. If each of us is great at what we do, and we work well together, we'll be tough to beat.

The problem is that "being good" is not good enough. Each of us has a yearning to keep learning new things all the time, to get better. We're all passionate about it, but we realized that with the day-to-day routine, we rarely had time to dedicate to learning new things. It was frustrating, so in 2013 we started brainstorming how to fix this.

Right as we were starting the discussion, we went to the Business of Software conference and, as always, had our minds blown by Kathy Sierra.

Here's what she had to say about the importance of deliberate practice (scrub to 9:30 if you want, but I dare you not to listen to the whole talk, it's so good you won't be able to pull away):

When we got back from BoS, we were committed.

Even the "theme" of our retreat last year was learning from each other, which was kind of inspired by our PD projects.

Let our Awesome Blossom

The first thing we decided was that we should encourage everyone to set some time aside each week for learning (roughly 5 hours a week).

You don't have to do it each week, you can manage it whichever way you'd like.

Each person can choose to pick work-related topics (anything that could be useful to Balsamiq as a whole, not just their particular job) but it's not a strict requirement.

Expenses for learning topics related to a person's job can be reimbursed, so we set aside a budget of $3000/year per person. We review the budget each January, but we haven't changed it in the last 2 years, it seems to be a pretty good amount. There's no prorating and no rollovers, use it or lose it.

These expenses can be books, classes, or travel, accommodation and fees for attending conferences. A quick sidenote about conferences: if you get invited to speak at a conference or if we have a sponsor booth there, those expenses don't count against your budget. Sweet! 🙂

Everyone schedules their "PD Time" - as we call it - on the internal Balsamiq Shared Calendar, so that we all know when someone is not available because they are learning something.

We are strongly encouraged to share our learning as much as possible (using the company wiki, maybe a monthly or a pre-recorded quarterly "what I learned last month" presentation...). We want to get others excited about learning new things!

To make sure we take this seriously, we also added these questions to the ones we always go through in our quarterly review 1-1 meetings:

  • are we on track with your professional development?
  • are you learning enough (on the job or in PD time)?
  • think long term: are you working on what you want to get better at, or should we change something?

Examples of What We Have Learned

To make the most of our PD time, a few of us have attended a great course on "Learning How to Learn". The initial spark came from Luis, who takes his PD Time very seriously, and he is often of inspiration for us!

Luis and Anna took a course on Public Speaking.

Mike is working hard on his music, as you can see in our latest release.

Leon, who works from home in Berkeley, sometimes goes to a cafe for a change of scenery. He thought it would be neat to compile a community-curated list of cafes with good wi-fi, so he cobbled a site together using a bunch of free and open source tools and his own HTML and CSS knowledge: and here is Work From Homers Club - Berkeley.

Ben wants to improve his iOS-code-skill and developed Pointedly, a nice mobile app to track and save points for multiple games. As he says, "it was a lot of work, and a lot of fun". Next step: the Apple Watch!

Peldi had to study a lot when he decided to prepare a talk for the International Women's Forums in Bologna titled "Becoming an English-Speaking Female Entrepreneur in Bologna".

Florian developed a Sudoku solver and extended it to a Sudoku generator. The program also supports variations like diagonal sudokus and hyper sudokus.

Michele studied Android very deeply: online articles, books, conferences...

Andrea wrote a plugin for Atlassian Confluence that processes data from Pivotal Tracker, to automatically fill his weekly agenda with what he has worked on each week.

Val attended two courses about Emotional Intelligence at Stanford.

I am reading "Where Stellar Messages Come From" from CopyHackers and improving my English attending a School twice a week.

Natalie is going to an Italian Class while Stefano is attending some private lessons to learn Dutch.

Some of us use that time to do some volunteering: we firmly believe that it's a personal and professional development, as well! Some weeks ago, Joy set up an awesome volunteer day for the Balsamici from California at BOSS.

We are very happy with our PD program, and are finding it true that Creative Hobbies Improve Our Performance at Everything.

Do you have any suggestion for us? How do you get better at what you do?

Mahatma Gandhi Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

Francesca for the Balsamiq Team

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