Levelling up as a developer can be overwhelming: The tech industry moves fast, and with so many podcasts, videos, forums, blog posts and online courses out there, it can be hard to know what content to prioritise, and how to make time for it in an already busy schedule. Malini Chetty, Development Team Lead at Investec, divides her learning into three ‘circles of influence’: growing her own skills, understanding what’s relevant for her business context, and understanding the world around her. This lets her be selective about what she learns, and helps her make dedicated time for it too. Here’s how she makes levelling up a daily practice.
Listen to the interview on the podcast, or watch it on YouTube via the embedded link at the end of this post!
You can also find a list of resources that Malini uses for her own learning at the end of this post!
The world of tech evolves and changes all the time. Malini has spent most of her working life in tech, and acknowledges how important it is — and the pressure that developers like herself often feel — to stay relevant: “I think it’s absolutely important to stay relevant, and to stay abreast of what’s happening around you, because you need that to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
In her experience, staying relevant and up-to-date as a dev enables you to make the best possible use of your skill set, as well as adapt and develop your skill set in a structured and targeted way.
To do that, Malini has been rigorously selective in what she learns, and how. Selective learning, she explains, is about being highly intentional and maximising where and how you spend your time: “I think of it as making the most effective use of my time. I’m a mom to a toddler, I’m a team lead, I have a partner… so I’ve had to be super selective. I keep it relevant, and I keep it interesting.”
In today’s Information Age, there is a near-overwhelming myriad of things that developers could learn. However, instead of trying to consume everything that’s out there, Malini takes a structured approach to her learning, and makes it a daily practice instead of an arduous task. Her model is based off the 3 Circles of Influence:
“For me, I categorise my learning into three areas. So, from inwards going outwards: How I grow my skills, how I understand my business context, and how I understand what is going on in the world around me.”
Below, Malini shares what each ‘circle’ looks like in more detail, and how she approaches ‘selective learning’ in each specific area of her levelling up.
Inner circle: Grow your own skills
In this circle, Malini looks at what’s in her immediate control. In other words, ways she can level up her current skill set. To do this, she applies four strategies to make this really effective, namely: She hand picks what she learns, where she learns it, develops an opinion on things, and spends time teaching what she learns to others.
Hand-picking what she learns
There is simply way too much out there to learn everything. So, in order to keep her learning relevant and interesting, Malini focuses on answering one question: “Can learning this impact one of my immediate problems or constraints, or is it at least related to something I’m currently working on?” If the answer is yes, she dives in. Otherwise, she moves on to something else. When deciding whether something will grow the right skills, her advice is to “contextualise the problem.” In other words, figure out what you’re trying to solve, and what the best possible ways to do it are.
“If a piece of content catches your eye, and it could potentially help you solve a problem right now, double click on that. Zoom in on that, learn about that. You can’t click on everything, but you should click on what’s relevant to you at that point in time.
Hand-picking where she learns it
Simply put, Malini says this is about deciding which sources of information provide the most relevant content for you personally, and relying on those as much as you can. Whether it’s a WhatsApp group with certain people in your networks, a certain selection of books, a TEDXTalk, or a particular person in the office, being selective about what she learns lets her be selective about where she gets it from.
“Make sure you’re part of rooms, guilds, WhatsApp groups, and chats”, Malini explains, “with people who either have more time than you, or make more time to learn and share content. That’s been super valuable for me. And also having good old conversations with colleagues, friends, or the tech leads on your team about things that are relevant.”
Pro-tip: Your circumstances and the problems you are trying to solve will change; so, make sure you reevaluate these sources regularly!
Developing an opinion on things
When it comes to selective learning, Malini finds that having an opinion gives her a good reason for why she should care about this topic, in this moment: “There’s different styles of learning, but it’s so important for you to form an opinion of your own on any given topic.” Having an opinion on something you learn is not only a really useful way to retain information, but it helps apply it to the next two circles of influence.
“I’d give that advice to any developer, because if you don’t formulate an opinion for yourself, one is going to be forced on you — and I have found it to be really powerful, because it gives purpose to my learning journey.”
Spending time teaching what she learns to someone else
Malini says that mentorship, and guiding others in her team, has not only been a useful way to test her own skills, but has also opened her eyes to new perspectives. She says, “It makes you reflect on it and question it, really interrogate what it is you’re trying to share.” This acts as a forcing function to do a ‘self-check’, and re-evaluate things, like whether what she’s spending her time on is actually relevant for her currently.
Middle circle: Understand the business context
One circle further outwards is about understanding how your skills fit in with what’s going on directly around you, namely: Learning within the context of your business, your company, or your industry. “Understanding the business context”, Malini explains, “is important for understanding and contextualising the problems you’re solving. You need to understand what your organisation is about, so that you can best apply and sharpen your own skills and toolkit, and apply them to those problems.”
In order to learn selectively, Malini starts by asking “why.” If she knows why she’s doing what she’s doing, she can be critical about the context she’s in, and decide whether the skills she develops will help her in that context or not: “If you’re not asking why, you’re just writing code, right? We’re engineers, we need to be taking part in what we do. We can’t just be there writing if/then/else statements without figuring out where it fits in.”
“Everything you do as a business has intention, so you should be strategic in your thinking, and selective in your learning. Those two things will help you be successful in any organisation.”
The things Malini focuses on when contextualising this circle of influence includes answering questions like:
- Her company’s mission and vision
- Where her business or industry are going
- What they’re trying to do as a business
- How her business or industry are evolving
- What her organisation’s key objectives are
Pro-tip: At Investec, Malini’s team uses something they have created called ‘The Fani Five’ — named after their Group CEO, Fani Titi — which is a set of key objectives that Investec applies to its core business operations. “It’s catchy, and I reference it often so that the team understands it – really gets it. I gamify it sometimes as well. We like to have two or three of the Fani-5 as part of a quiz or something.”
Incorporating business context like this into daily workflows makes it easier for Malini and her team to evaluate the above on a more regular basis, and better know where they could be levelling up.
Outer circle: Understand the world around you
The final circle, Malini says, is the world around you. The other two circles both feed into, and are fed by, understanding what’s going on in the world around you. Having a good feel in this circle helps Malini stay relevant not only in her immediate context, but stay relevant in the broader context of the world: “You can’t live in a bubble, right? You’ll very quickly become irrelevant If you sit there doing things the same way that you’ve done them over the years.”
By picking a few local and international news sources that she trusts and that speaks to whatever she’s identified as relevant in the previous two circles, Malini fits time into her day to keep up-to-date with global trends.
In her experience, what’s worked the best for her has been to select the right people to follow, and use the techniques in the other two circles to select the right things to draw in, that will benefit her immediately.
“Follow the right people — Trevor Noah, Simon Sinek — and you’ll quickly build an awareness and understanding of what’s around you. You’ll start asking questions that help you learn selectively, things like ‘What does this mean for me? So what? How does this impact me?’”
At the end of the day, Malini’s biggest piece of advice for streamlining your learning, and being selective about what you learn, is to ultimately have fun. “If you do it for no other reason, just do it for yourself. Be curious about these things. You have to keep it fun. You have to keep it interesting — how else are you going to learn anything?”
Here are some of the resources Malini mentioned in the interview, that she uses for her own learning:
- “The DevOps Handbook” by Gene Kim (Amazon | Audible): “Following in the footsteps of The Phoenix Project, The DevOps Handbook shows leaders how to replicate these incredible outcomes, by showing how to integrate Product Management, Development, QA, IT Operations, and Information Security to elevate your company and win in the marketplace.”
- “A Seat at the Table” by Mark Schwartz (Amazon | Audible): “In A Seat at the Table, CIO Mark Schwartz explores the role of IT leadership as it is now and opens the door to reveal IT leadership as it should be - an integral part of the value creation engine. With wit and easy style, Schwartz reveals that the only way to become an Agile IT leader is to be courageous - to throw off the attitude and assumptions that have kept CIOs from taking their rightful seat at the table. CIOs, step on up, your seat at the table is waiting for you.”
- “Software Craftsmanship” by Pete McBreen (Amazon): “Software Craftsmanship is a call to arms for programmers: an impassioned manifesto that restores the developer to a central role in large-scale projects, and shows developers how to master the skills they need to succeed in that role. Software Craftsmanship transcends “software engineering,” demonstrating that quality software can’t simply be “manufactured” it must be built by craftspeople with pride in their work, and a personal commitment to excellence.”
- “Clean Code” by Robert C. Martin (Amazon): “Clean Code is divided into three parts. The first describes the principles, patterns, and practices of writing clean code. The second part consists of several case studies of increasing complexity. Each case study is an exercise in cleaning up code—of transforming a code base that has some problems into one that is sound and efficient. The third part is the payoff: a single chapter containing a list of heuristics and “smells” gathered while creating the case studies. The result is a knowledge base that describes the way we think when we write, read, and clean code.”