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Learning through sharing: Brown Bag Seminars

Here at Black Pepper Software we're all encouraged to regularly improve our skills and keep up to date with developments in our industry; continuous learning and development. This can take many forms but often involves taking a week to do some self study or attend conferences or workshops. While that's great for the individual, it'd be even better if that experience could be shared amongst everyone in some form, even if it's just to make others aware of what's out there.

One of the ways we achieve this is by running semi-regular Brown Bag Seminars and invite everyone to attend. For those who can't attend, we video the sessions and upload them to YouTube.

By presenting a topic to our colleagues, the knowledge is shared and the act of preparing a talk helps reinforce what has been learned. It's also a great way to spark discussions amongst the team.

So what is a Brown Bag Seminar?

Put simply, it's a short, informal presentation or discussion on a given topic. They usually last between 30 minutes and 1 hour and we hold them semi-regularly on Thursday lunchtimes. The regularity is important as it helps maintain the momentum - people come to expect a talk and if there's too big of a gap it can be difficult to get them running again.

The content is up to whoever is giving that week's session and while it is usually technical in nature, it doesn't have to be. Overviews of a subject or summaries of an area of research are just as valid as an in-depth seminar. The overview sessions are often useful jumping off points for further, more detailed Brown Bags by others.

Occasionally we have external speakers come and present to us. These are usually people we've worked with previously or someone from a recent agile meetup who we've managed to persuade to give their talk to the whole company. Brown Bags by external speakers can require more planning but they're great for bringing a fresh perspective from outside the company.

It's worth noting that the talk doesn't have to be technical. It's good to have fun topics as well, such as hobbies etc., as it provides a good way to get to know other people at the company. Our resident poker expert has presented several engaging discussions about her hobby that have been very well received.

How are they organised?

It's quite simple really; I volunteered to organise them and I just keep an eye on who's doing some training or attending a conference and then persuade them to give a Brown Bag. I also periodically canvas my colleagues to see if they have a topic they'd like to present; it's been a great way to get to know everyone.

I try to set a date and book a room as soon as possible as I find that setting a deadline helps focus the mind and prevents people from putting it off (Talks don't need to be polished presentations and some people, myself included, would prefer to wait until it's "just right") The seminar is marked in the company calendar and I send out a reminder email that week to let everyone know what it's about and to encourage attendance.

For those who can't attend we also video the sessions and post them up on YouTube. This just requires a tripod and a camera capable of recording video, even a tablet or mobile phone would do. Having a projector available is handy but not essential, depending on the subject. Then we just wait for everyone to turn up, give the talk and then have a bit of discussion. And that's all there is to it really.

Benefit

So why do we do this? Well, it extends the benefit of training courses and conference attendance to others, beyond those who attended first hand. This improves the value to the company of sending staff on courses.

Giving a talk is also great presentation practice which comes in handy if you ever need to present to a customer or make a proposal to the company. Summarising a recent training course for others and putting it into your own words also helps to reinforce the knowledge you've gained.

But most importantly it's just a really good way of sharing information and getting to know about current technologies and ideas. As individuals we can only discover so much on our own and being able to discuss our experiences and ideas helps give us new perspectives and, I believe, makes us better at our jobs.

Check out our YouTube channel to see the Brown Bag videos.