Starting a Technical Book Club
I co-founded a technical book club recently, and have been so impressed by the outcome that I would encourage any team or organisation to seriously consider setting one up.
Our need stemmed from the disconnect that can occur among teams when knowledge about distributed systems, developer processes, or any other technical activity is unevenly distributed; something which can lead to knowledge bottlenecks, dependencies, or less than optimal design choices.
Naturally it’s impossible to expect every team member to know the same material, but one way of addressing this and empowering your team is to collectively choose and read the best texts that meet your requirements.
To make this a successful endeavour, however, there are a few important things to get right.
- Have a recurring calendar invite for all attendees.
- Set up a team channel so you can share links, data, blog posts, and easily have informal discussions between meetings.
- Create an internal wiki to document notes, or anything you may not want to get lost among group chat.
- Everyone must contribute if they attend.
- Anyone may attend, even if they haven’t read the book, as the group discussion is invaluable.
- Let an organiser or leader start the discussion, giving their thoughts on the book so far, and then go around the table, giving everyone a chance.
- Save the group discussion until the end, so the group will have more informed and interesting points to debate.
- Rotate the role of organiser/leader after each meeting.
- Consider budgeting for food/snacks for the group.
- If you can stretch the budget a bit further, cover the cost of the books!
Some may ask why would you choose this model over lunch and learn sessions, or watching video tutorials as a group. I would argue that you don’t. Do it in addition to those activities, and cultivate a strong continuous improvement and learning culture for your organisation.
The differentiating value that a book club brings is entirely down to the shared reading experience, and the deep discussion that comes from this form of learning. Additionally, books offer more nuance and subtlety than a conference video can fit into an average 40 minutes, allowing for greater insight into the benefits and drawbacks of certain approaches.
The primary drawback of course is the immediate time investment for a potentially greater pay-off down the line. Put another way though, if you consider an average O’Reilly book, 200 pages could be between you and months of mistakes if your team or organisation is venturing into a new area.
I believe the trade-offs are more than worth it, so if you find yourself evaluating options for knowledge sharing and upskilling, strongly consider a technical book club as a useful multiplier for your team’s capabilities.