How collective learning shapes our engineering culture and sharpens our craft

March 17, 2022

Felipe Alvarez

Felipe Alvarez

Principal Engineer, Cloud

As a seasoned Cloud engineer, I know the criticality of continuous learning and discovery. I reached an epiphany in between customer projects earlier this year, while I was self-studying a new programming language and honing my coding skills. I had already spent hours devouring online tutorials and courses on Python – why don’t I impart my newfound knowledge with my peers? The benefits of spending two hours self-learning, and then 30 minutes distilling the knowledge within my team were clear.

We had all suffered from a largely insular, remote working environment, where collaboration and cross-pollination of knowledge had faltered. Each engineer was in their own silo. Why don’t we all improve together?

In my efforts to help disseminate knowledge within Versent, I had already given three Brown Bag talks on unit testing in Python and the quality imperative. Then last Friday, I ran our first Code Kata.

What is Code Kata?

Code Katas are typically quick coding puzzles, that are solved alone. Like the martial arts term from which it is derived, the notion is to achieve mastery through repetition and practice. Code Katas are sometimes used as an interview tool and within Coding Dojos, which are spaces (time, physical or virtual locations) which foster group practice of coding in unison.

The twist with the Code Kata that I organised, was to create small teams of 2-3 engineers, or pair programming. I felt this was a great opportunity to inject collaboration, networking and fun, after two years of working from home. The session involved nine participants across three locations nationally. The task was to refactor (really ugly) legacy code in a programming language of their choice, as well as incorporate a ‘customer-desired feature.’ After a ten-minute briefing, participants were split into their breakout rooms for 60 minutes to clean up the code. Each team then presented their findings to the group.

Versent’s first Code Kata session
Refactoring exercise for the inventory management system for the ‘Gilded Rose Inn’

Apart from a whole lot of fun, the Code Kata allowed our team to practice their coding skills in a safe, friendly, stress-free environment. The buddy system also resuscitated people’s communication and mentoring skills. Key reflections and learnings include:

  • Unit testing
  • Reading disorganised and sloppy code
  • Getting crystal clear on the customer requirement
  • Teaming to work towards the best solution

Engineering excellence starts at the grassroots

I have always been self-taught, tinkering with computers and hardware and creating my own networking architecture of routers and switches since I was about twelve years old.  Although I gained university qualifications in InfoSec, Cryptography and Networking, and completed a raft of Linux courses, much of my applied skillsets were generated and refined through experience. I work with a lot of smart engineers, some of whom were not formally trained nor had attended university, in preparation for their current job.

In an era where technological progress is exponential, mercurial – the fifth Industrial Revolution – the frontliners of software development are battling to keep pace with the explosion of change by ourselves.

I have a burning desire (and I know many of my peers do as well) to foster an engineering culture of excellence to uplift all of our skills in solidarity. Through the sharing of war stories, experiences and insights, as a craftsperson sharpens their tools, we sharpen our skills to improve Versent’s service offerings, with our customers reaping the benefits. As Versent continues to scale rapidly, I want to help develop a unified engineering mentality. I had always wanted to have received more mentorship in my career, and Versent provides us with the support to reciprocate this with others I collaborate with.

600 people are one Versent – the power of tribal intelligence

In a hyper-growth company, it is easy to slip into a fragmented culture, which is perpetuated by the solid walls of customer NDAs, geographically dispersed teams and the myopia brought upon by insane deadlines and project idiosyncrasies. I feel sometimes, deep in our individual customer projects, that we can lose our Versent identity, that one-ness.

It is universally known that the industry has an urgent skills shortage in cloud-native, specialist technologies – from big data through to multi-cloud engineering, serverless and DevSecOps. Given the unavailability of adequately structured training and education, it is common to throw engineers in the deep end, to gain “on the job” experience resolving the complexities and constraints of cloud transformation mandates. The reality is many engineers are ‘Googling their way out of it’.

It is in addressing the on-the-job pejorative of sink or swim that I was compelled to help foster the learning culture within Versent. We are so fortunate that our company pay us to learn on our own. So, I took the initiative to present my Python testing insights and record it for anyone who wanted to digest it. I can accelerate the learning process for my peers through the dissemination of my knowledge.

The documentation and sharing of tribal knowledge not only uplifts our team, but also our customers and our partners. As a professional services organisation, our wares are our people’s competencies, experiences, our ability to solve problems, and the quality of our work.

Every day we demonstrate that Versent is a single team of engineers that upskill each other continuously and iteratively, while refining our processes, frameworks and methodologies for excellence.

Other fun things we do in the name of learning and development

Cultivating a learning culture is also a top-down priority at Versent. Our COO, Nicole Devine, has blogged about our strategy to nurture existing talent to leadership positions, in preference to recruiting from external sources. To create interesting and fulfilling career pathways within Versent, we run a gamut of initiatives:

  • Brown Bag sessions: Like an open mic, we have a different presenter each week to share their knowledge on their area of expertise. In 2021 we ran 37 Brown Bags, canvassing topics such as customer deployment experiences, best practices and deep dives into partner solutions.
  • Game Day: A cybersecurity war game simulating different attack scenarios to fire drill SIEM and threat response and mitigation strategies.
  • Certapalooza: A competition to achieve and renew as many AWS Certifications as possible within a specified timeframe, with high achievers receiving kudos, Amazon gift cards and devices. We run this a couple of times a year, having clocked almost 300 certifications to date. Versent reimburses the costs of exams for all employees (including the first failure). Certapalooza has gained so much traction in upskilling our hundreds of engineers, AWS themselves have adopted this framework.
  • Versent Academy: This is an exciting new skills development and assessment platform, with the strategic intent of creating better training pathways and technical uplift for Versent employees.
  • Associate Program: Our Managed Services organisation runs a structured development program for graduates to help them seamlessly transition from graduation to the workplace.

Our obsession with craft – doing the right things right

With the workforce now shifting to our new post-pandemic normal, I would like to continue to drive these knowledge sharing events in person, such as regular Meet Ups that are open to the public. Everyone is good at something (otherwise they wouldn’t be at Versent), and can share their unique insights. I endeavour to always practice the ‘learn-teach-learn’ iteration cycle, and give back to our engineers when I can.

The philosophy of craft at Versent means to do things well and with excellence. We can only continue to raise our bar of elegant code with a growth mindset. To impart our individual experiences on our team members means we can collectively reuse, share and take advantage of how people have executed on the same business or technical requirements in a previous life.

My advice to cloud engineers just starting out in their career, is to solicit feedback continuously. Get feedback from minute zero – pair program, get your code reviewed, get fast feedback, train and uplift others, and release early and often. Don’t wait three months into a project to do a pulse check, do it all the time.

I feel empowered at Versent to affect change. We all contribute to and own our engineering culture. We all have a duty to make our workplace what we aspire it to be. With the right support, you can also map out your skills pathway and pave progress, and be awesome at what you do.

We are always looking for talented, passionate cloud engineers to join our fast-growing Versent family. Whether your career is fledgling, accelerating, or pivoting, there are fantastic opportunities in our offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Singapore. Visit our careers page to find out more.

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