Running a Quality Online Book Group For Your Directs

As I discussed in Let’s Invest in Ourselves For 2018, I think that reading is an important part of professional development. I’ve been having my directs read a book each quarter for the last several years and for the last year or so we’ve been reading the same book as a group. I wanted to share my lessons learned while we went through this process.

Pick the Book Together

This is one of those situations where it’s a great time to empower your directs to make a decision that will affect their lives. The cost is minimal and for the most part it’s not problematic if a bad book is picked. I generally create a list of four to five books and have everyone vote on the one they prefer and the one with the most votes “wins”. I can usually take the same list and remove the picked book and add one more every time we’re picking a new book.

We’ve had to balance between books that are PHP specific (there aren’t many), general programming books (which tend to be written in C++ or Java), and general soft skills books. I’ve found the general books to be more applicable but some of my directs find it easier to read code samples in the languages they’re using every day. This isn’t a problem because everyone just learns in different ways.

If you’re looking for some options for books you can also check out:

Pick the Book in Advance

I try to get it setup so we read a book a quarter so we’re not taking forever to read it. I generally try to get everyone the book well in advance so we can start reading on the first day of the quarter. To this end, I start discussing a new book the last month of the previous quarter and try to get it ordered very shortly after that. You’ll also need a copy of the book for the next section.

Schedule When You’re Going To Read Each Chapter

When we originally started doing this we only had one deadline and that was to finish the book before the last day of the quarter. We ran into two problems with this. The first was that people left the books until the last minute (I was just as guilty about this as everyone else). By setting up a deadline for each chapter we set an expectation about what should be done so nobody fell to far behind. The second was the lack of discussion. People would be in wildly different parts of the books so it was difficult to discuss what we’ve learned until the end and when we discussed it people who read the book early might not remember topics from the beginning of the book.

I’ve landed on the following process for determining when each chapter is “due”.

1. Create a spreadsheet of all the chapters

Keep track of the name of the chapter and how many pages are in the chapter (end page number - start page number).

2. Skim Each Chapter and Look For “Optional Chapters”

Last quarter we read “Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship” and we found a couple chapters that were either super long and drudge work or didn’t apply to our software (concurrency in Java doesn’t help PHP programmers at all). I marked these as “optional” because I didn’t feel they really helped our day to day work. In your spreadsheet, delete the page count for any of these optional chapters.

3. Determine the Page Count Each Week

Take the total number of pages and divide by the number of weeks you have (14 weeks gives some extra discussion time).

4. Schedule the Chapters

Based on this number determine which chapters you’ll need to read each week. I like to make it “due” on Friday because then people have the whole week to read the chapter(s).

Setup a Group Conversation For Each Chapter

We’re using Google Groups for a group discussion board to discuss the books and to share information. For each chapter, I create a topic with a name of {Book Name}: {Chapter Name} - {Due Date} and I put in a prompt of:

Post one question, quote, or concept you found interesting.

Then as the directs finish the chapter they can go in and enter their quote, question, or concept. If they post a question I go out of my way to answer it or bring it up with the larger group.

Come Up With a Plan on How to Use the Topics

It’s not enough to just read the book. You also need to implement the concepts that are discussed even if it’s only to try them out. As a manager, when I’m reading the book I usually read it with a highlighter and I try to highlight actionable items I can (or should) do, actionable items the group should do, and I also look for actionable items that are good for specific directs. Then I bring these quotes to the group or to the individual during their one-on-one meeting.

Things You Should Do As a Manager

I think the most important thing you can do as a manager in this process is to be on time. You’re setting an example for your directs and if you’re “late” reading the chapters for the book it sets the expectation that late work is acceptable. It’s bad for a book and it’s worse for actual work.

The second most important thing is to participate in the process. I take time to review everyone’s posts and make comments where they’ll be helpful but never to just make a comment. I also touch base with everyone both individually at their one-on-ones and as a group to see if they’re enjoying the book and getting helpful information from it. The individual contact allows them to talk about the book without hurting the feelings of the people who wanted to read it. As of yet nobody’s had a problem with the books we’ve picked.

Plan on Changes

I feel like this is just good manager advice, but things happen and people can’t finish the book. It sucks but it happens and you need to be flexible to come up with an alternative arrangement. Again, as of yet this hasn’t happened to us but my plan has always been to allow extra time to finish the book if someone has an unexpected delay.

How Did It Work For You?

If you’re using this process or something similar let me know in the comments.

Like this post? Don't forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates.