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Technical Upskilling: Are We Walking in Circles without a Rhetorical Compass?

For a little over a year now, I’ve planned and facilitated technical upskilling experiences for software engineering teams. And truly, working with software leaders and practitioners toward the goal of strategically upskilling has proven incredibly meaningful and rewarding work. In short, I love my job.

But with each learning experience I facilitate, a frustration deepens: Learner engagement is never (I’m telling you, never) as high as I hope or think it will be. I’ve shared this concern with other L&D professionals in my organization, and they echo the sentiment, and the experience is certainly redolent of my time teaching College Composition at Colorado State University.

Something I’ve consistently observed, though, is that folks are consistently excited about the idea of upskilling. They’re consistently signing up for these learning experiences, and they’re consistently expressing their enthusiasm and their gratitude that they get to learn on the job.

But then they’re consistently not showing up “on the first day of class.” Or doing the work. Or persisting through to the end.

As the planner and facilitator of these experiences, an important question I need to ask myself here is, Okay, but how about the quality of these learning experiences? And as my own toughest critic, I will always answer: None of these learning experiences has been “perfect.” I make mistakes as a planner, and as a facilitator, and I’m sure that sometimes these mistakes lead to decreased engagement.

But I do survey my learners extensively at the end of each learning experience, and I’m not getting strong signals that these are shit experiences I’m planning here.

And so, I’ve started asking participants at the end of each course, or academy, or study group, or workshop, What kept you from engaging in the way that you’d hoped? Their responses consistently highlight two major sentiments:

  • I feel guilty about taking time to learn.

  • I got pulled away by unexpected work.

Two questions arise for me here. First, why is strategic upskilling not seen as “work”? Why is learning for your job not seen as legitimate work, rather than a job perk, or a fun extracurricular?

And second: Why do folks feel guilty about taking time to learn on the job? Which, as a technical upskilling specialist, for me necessarily prompts the follow-up question: What can I do to convince these learners that it is their job to engage in this upskilling? Particularly when their leaders have requested the upskilling?

I think Barbara Schneider offers invaluable insight into this question, and to be fully vulnerable, highlights something that I’ve been doing a shoddy job of so far in my role. In her paper “The Rhetorical Situation: Examining the Framing of Professional Development,” she writes (bolding is my own):

“One element critically missing from much of our professional development efforts is the invitation.”

The invitation. When I first read this paper, and this section in particular, I experienced a sort of lightbulb moment. Everyone, but maybe particularly software engineers, need a clear understanding of why they're being asked to upskill, and they deserve an invitation into that upskilling. Not an order from above to engage, but truly: an invitation.

Extrapolating from this, facilitating this understanding is a shared responsibility between both those asking for (in my case, engineering leaders) and those facilitating (me) upskilling initiatives. Because if the need and urgency for upskilling isn't made evident to those we need to upskill, even the most meticulously crafted training programs won't lead to outstanding learner engagement.

Schneider understands this, and she utilizes the concept of the rhetorical situation to explain why efforts to train university faculty to be “good” teachers have largely failed. These faculty have not been “invited” into the professional development they’re required to complete. They have not been convinced through mutual discussion that they do indeed need this professional development.

Schneider writes:

“Too often, professional development is administered from the top down…Do these situations invite discourse as Bitzer imagines it?”

The Bitzer that Schneider refers to is Lloyd Bitzer, a renowned American rhetorician and professor who taught from the 1960s to 90s. In Bitzer’s essay “The Rhetorical Situation” and later work, he says that a rhetorical situation arises when a problem emerges that can be addressed or resolved through mutually engaging discourse.

Continuing to apply this beyond the walls of the academy and into corporate spaces, I want to extend this argument and suggest that what's too often missing in corporate training and upskilling – including that which I have planned and facilitated – is a clear response to the learner’s inherent question: Why am I being asked to do this? Why should I prioritize this learning over my regularly-scheduled software work? The rhetorical situations that invite (and sometimes demand) that we upskill are too often not made clear to the group being asked to engage in that training.

Let’s take the compliance training we complete as part of our jobs as an example. This training is mandated by government bodies at the federal, state and local level, and responds to clear exigencies: Every employee must complete this training to ensure that corporations and their employees operate within the bounds of laws and regulations, promote a safe and ethical work environment, and protect both the company and its employees from potential risks. But there’s one thing I hear over and over again about the form this training takes: We learners can’t test out of it. We can’t play the videos at 1.5x speed, or sometimes even navigate away from the browser tab without the video automatically stopping. Much grumbling (understandably) ensues, and ire is directed at multiple parties, including The Company, or Human Resources.

There is a rhetorical situation demanding that this training be administered in this way, though. This isn’t People Teams trying to torture us – they have to take the training, too, after all. Unfortunately, the underlying reasons that the training must be completed (and in the mode that it must be completed) is rarely made clear to those asked to complete it. In my experience, the motivation is too often relayed as some variation of “You just have to do it”, or “Complete the training, or lose your job.” These rationales do not invite discourse, or encourage sincere participation, or make clear the exact exigencies that demand the training be delivered and in this particular way, and in my own experience, all of this leads to decreased engagement with the (actually very important) concepts covered in these trainings.

I anticipate something similar happening with the inevitable AI-assisted coding training coming down the pipeline for software engineers. There is a clear rhetorical situation inviting (demanding!) this upskilling. If you need to be convinced that current exigencies downright demand that software developers and engineers begin upskilling in AI-assisted coding tools, I highly recommend Matt Welsh’s “The End of Programming” or Jeffrey Bigham’s “What are the people doing?”.

But not every software practitioner is aware of this rhetorical situation (they’re busy coding! And living their lives!), and even then, not every software practitioner is convinced that the rhetorical situation demands that they upskill in AI-assisted coding tools. If engineering leaders and technical upskilling specialists want training programs around AI-assisted coding to garner engagement, we all need to make the exigencies demanding this training very clear to our learners, and then we need to invite them into this training.

And so, to begin summarizing: Clear rhetorical situations must prompt upskilling initiatives, and our learners must be made aware of these rhetorical situations and invited into the learning with this shared context. If our learners are not convinced of the need for the learning experience, or provided a rationale for the mode in which it’s delivered, probably they will not sign up; or they will not follow through and complete the learning goal; or they will begrudgingly participate and imbue the experience with negativity for those who otherwise are interested in learning and upskilling.

As Schneider says:

“Real change will occur only after professional development responds to an invitation… when all parties involved experience the same sense of something wrong.”

To put it bluntly: A lot of folks are struggling to get their shit done. And if we don’t clearly elucidate the reasons and rationale behind these upskilling experiences, we cannot expect engagement from our learners. Many software practitioners are analytical and critical by necessity – it’s required for their jobs – and to earn their full participation, we have to carefully explain the rhetorical situation that demands that upskilling, and then we must invite them into that upskilling experience.

Absent this clarity and discourse, even the most theoretically perfect workshop, module, academy study group – what have you – will fail to garner full-scale engagement time and time again.


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