Imagine getting a day every week for your own technical learning. Pick whatever language or framework you like and spend the entire day learning more about it during paid hours! A massive benefit to any developer keen to keep up with a multitude of tools and practice new skills.

All our developers are encouraged to take a learning day every week. We call these “Gold Card” days and each team figures out who wants to take one during the daily standup meeting. On a typical day, we’ll have a couple of pairs implementing a user story or technical tasks, one person on support duty and the remainder of the team taking learning or research time. A simple grid on a whiteboard is used to ensure no one misses taking theirs. We want everyone to improve and if I don’t take a learning day, it’s bound to come up in team retrospective.

Last week I joined a conversation about “20% Learning Time” at GoDigital conference, there were lots of questions about how this works in practice. An essential aspect is that we trust developers to use this time wisely. There’s no checking up or pressure to pick certain learning topics relevant to the work. The only expectation is that at the end of the week, you show up to “Gold Card Catchup” to share a little bit about what you learned and perhaps demo something you built to your fellow developers. Making time to share what we learned is vital to sustaining learning time. We get inspired hearing about what other developers have been looking into and it encourages us pick something for our own learning that demonstrates what we’re interested in too.

Sometimes developers with shared interests team up on their gold cards and even make the results of their day together available to the wider team afterwards. Although most developers appreciate a quiet day of learning, as a break from the intense collaboration of pair and mob programming. Some developers like to take their learning day alongside teams in our open workspace while others prefer to find solitude on a comfy sofa.

Teams at Unruly have been taking Gold Cards for some years now but the idea (and the name) goes back in 2001, as explained in this experience report at XPUniverse conference. There’s much more to our learning culture than Gold Cards too. We also hold regular tech talks and coding dojos.

Learning is a gift that keeps on giving. Making learning time part of our daily work helps our developers improve their skills and fosters a culture of exploration and innovation. I hope to see more workplaces offer learning time more freely. Trusting developers to drive their own learning is a vital sign of respect and belief in their potential.