How we disseminate our knowledge internally – And have fun doing it

This article is about our Hacking Evenings, a weekly session in which we gather our team and do something to improve our knowledge. We talked about it on Ruby Conf Brazil and Ruby Conf Uruguay. You can see the slides here:

We’ve always worried about how to disseminate knowledge inside PlataformaTec. As a company with 13 employees (8 developers, 1 designer, 2 business analysts and 1 project manager), we all know that someone always has something new to share and that everyone else can learn from it.

As regular speakers in Agile and Ruby events, we usually rehearse our talks with our colleagues in order to get some feedback and improve them. But those rehearsals happened at best once a month.

Some months ago I read Chad Fowler’s Passionate Programmer book. In this book, Chad said about Brown Bag sessions, which is a lecture or talk given at lunch time (the name “Brown Bag” comes from the food packet that people usually brought, usually brown bags). Reading this chapter was the motivation I needed to gather our team and discuss the requirements to make our own meetings happen.

The first requirement is inherent to a consultancy company which sometimes has people working from its clients’ offices, making it harder to find a day and hour when everyone can participate. After some discussion, we decided to do that on tuesday evenings. When we decided to do that most of our team could participate but, as time goes by, the ones that couldn’t changed their schedules to fit our hacking evening there.

The second requirement was (IMHO) easier to solve: the resources. We have a big flat TV in our office since september, but before that we had only 24 inches monitors which were also fine and that you probably already have in your office. We also needed motivated people to spend some time preparing something to share. As a company that always looks for mastery, this was not hard and since we started someone always had something to share (but in case nobody has, we can watch a screencast or a talk at confreaks, which requires almost zero preparation).

The third requirement is to have something to eat. Because it is after the working hours, people are usually starving, and we can’t have fun in our hacking evenings without grabbing something to eat. In first sessions, we ordered some Pizza, which was great but expensive. So, we decided to prepare something on our own. Before starting we usually go to a near supermarket and buy the ingredients. We already prepared ham and cheese sandwiches, hot-dogs, cheeseburgers and tapioca (a brazilian wrap made of manioc).

OK, we’ve satisfied our requirements. But how to keep people motivated and participating on every session? Here are some tips:

  • Make it a habit: if we do it every week at the same day and time, it is easier for everyone to commit themselves to participating. Ok, not everybody will go every week, but once we introduced this habit into our colleagues minds, they will avoid scheduling other activities in the same time and participate
  • Accept any idea: the main idea is to spread knowledge. Can it be a typical talk? yes. Can it be a design or agile workshop? Yes. Can it be an open-source hacking session with someone helping the others to do bug-fixes and developing new features? Yes.
  • Invite friends to talk and watch: If you have a friend that knows a lot about some subject and can improve the knowledge of your company, why not call him to participate ?
  • Have fun: this is, by far, the most important tip: without having fun, people will not participate. Try to make it fun to make people spend a nice time. We’re talking about after-hours so, if it is not fun, people will not participate.

How do you disseminate your knowledge internally? Do you usually do Brown Bag Sessions? What activities do you usually do ? Would you recommend an activity for us?

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