Thursday, November 7, 2013

Remote workers, how do you learn from each other?

There is a lot of talk about remote workers since the publication of the book, "Remote: Office Not Required" by DHH and Jason Fried. Although I have not read the book yet (I am a fan of the authors' other book, "Rework") I wonder how remote workers teach and learn from each other?

In the past I have said that knowledge work is a lonely activity. The craft of writing software seems to be one of the few where it is hard to see how more knowledgable craftsmen do their work. It is easy for master cabinet makers to do their work and be watched by apprentices. With knowledge workers, however, it is usually one person in front of one computer. Sometimes we pair program, but in general, apprentice software developers cannot sit and watch a master artfully craft some code (there is nothing preventing them from doing this, I suppose, but we tend to put up personal barriers when working on a computer).

Sadly, one can be sitting three feet away from a great programmer and never really learn anything from them if there is not a culture of teaching and learning. Great developers in a mature organization will make an effort to spread their knowledge to less experienced developers. Having been in organizations like this I know that most of the teaching takes place face to face. Teaching is always more effective when done face to face. It seems to me that working remotely adds another barrier to being able to learn from the developers around you.

If I was a fresh CS graduate hired today, I would insist on being close to seasoned developers. After all, the completion of a computer science degree really just marks the beginning of a lifetime of learning. I cannot think of a worse thing to do to a new professional developer than to isolate them from the more knowledgable.

One might argue that only great developers who are motivated and independent learners should be working remotely. It is not likely that they would learn much from their less knowledgable peers in the office anyway. I imagine that the relatively small 37 Signals only hires the best developers who are motivated learners, so I am not surprised that their environment is ideal for working remotely. Larger companies that can't attract an entire crew of these super learners would most likely want to have the ones they can attract as close to the less experienced developers as possible. They are the ones who will teach the others.

So, how does knowledge spread in a remote office? Can an inexperienced developer with a lot of potential be hired in one of these environment and expect to learn from others?

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