Why I train programmers – Take 2

Some Enspiral folks were a little less than whelmed at my previous post about why I train programmers. And here I was thinking it all made perfect sense.

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Fortunately we are in computer land where undo and redo are in full effect so I will take another stab at it.


teaching is deeply rewarding

We focus quite a lot on rich working relationships at Enspiral and it is often as much about the people as it is the work. But when I’m teaching at Dev Academy the people are the work and it takes things to a whole new level.

Our teaching team gets to obsess about a small group of people for 9 weeks. What do they understand? What do they not? Where is their learning edge? How can we tweak things?

I get to watch as people go from the basics of programming to teaching themselves technologies I have only heard of. But more importantly they learn to lead, to give and receive feedback, to handle difficult conversations and all the human things that make such a difference.

It is hard to describe what it is like to watch students grow so rapidly, all I can say is if you get an opportunity to teach, take it.

It makes me a better programmer

Our main job as instructors is to help our students fall in love with programming. When I can do that everything else takes care of itself. And the only way to do that is to connect with what I love about programming.

Since I’ve started teaching I have spent a lot more time programming for fun. It turns out that when I connect with what I love about programming it makes me want to do it more, which makes me get better – queue virtuous cycle.

It’s a highly leveraged way to make an impact

The students from our first cohort alone will build far more cool tech during their careers than I ever will in mine and in one week we will be graduating our 9th cohort.

A teaching team of three can train about a hundred students a year so in a full year of teaching I can support about 30 people to enter the field. Teaching all the time is a bit much for me but if train I 10 programmers a year for the next decade the impact starts to add up.

We are also considering launching a trial bootcamp for Enspiral Founders Academy which is super exciting. The Enspiral community launched about 15 ventures in the last 5 years and I want to see if the Enspiral Academy community can 10x that over the next 5, I reckon we’ve got a shot.

it is a stellar way to grow a community

One big lesson I have learned from my time at Enspiral is about the power of community. There is substantial value created by having a high trust group of people who are interdependent and spend time working on projects together.

With Enspiral I used commercial contracts as an excuse for people to build relationships with each and this worked pretty well. But learning together is also a great excuse and is a fair bit faster. I am extremely excited about the community that is growing around Dev Academy, especially once we start adding some entrepreneurs into the mix.

This is just the beginning

I think I always feel like I am just at the beginning of something which probably says more about me than anything else. But true to form this does feel like just the beginning of our journey with Enspiral Academy. The programming bootcamp is reasonably stable and providing a foundation for the business and the next six months is about playing with some scaffolding to see what might grow up along side it.

Why I train programmers – Take 2

Why I spend my time training programmers

I was recently in Gisborne talking to folks about IT education and came up with one of the clearest explanations about why Enspiral is focusing on training programmers and launched Dev Academy.


It’s all about the economics

I found that it’s pretty easy to run this presentation with only a whiteboard, you just need to remember a few numbers.

How much money do you think New Zealand made last year?

It was about 60 billion dollars, $60,000,000,000 NZD. Less than some countries, more than most (we were number 57 in the world or 36th per capita).

How much do you think Facebook made last year?

It was about 17.5 billion NZD (12.46b USD). Nearly a third of all of New Zealand’s exports.

What about Google? That would be 92 billion NZD or a New Zealand and a half.

Apple? Just 257 billion NZD – four New Zealands.

How big do you think the global IT sector is worth?

Gartner reckons it is about 5.32 trillion (3.8 trillion USD) in 2015. That’s about 80 New Zealands.

IDC estimated that it will be about 7 trillion (5 trillion USD) by 2020. That’s nearly 2 trillion NZD of new business in the next five years. Another estimate from IDC picks that there will be 1.8 trillion NZD growth from just the Internet of Things sector.

If companies from New Zealand earned just a little piece of that it would change the life of everyone in this country. It’s definitely not easy and lots of countries are trying to do the same thing but it is absolutely something we can do.

Whether I was speaking with high school students, experienced business folks, community members or social activists this economic story worked pretty well at getting peoples attention and prompting folks to ask more about this “programming thing”.

I would then go on to emphasise that programmers are only a small part of the puzzle of launching a successful IT business and that lots of other skills were needed.

Why I spend my time training programmers

Self determined salaries

We have recently finalised a round of self determined salaries at Dev Academy and it was one of the most effective and powerful experiments in self management that I’ve experienced. 
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The Problem

The default setting in most organisations is that salaries are private and negotiated directly between an employee and a manager. The information asymmetry helps funnel power up the pyramid and this also results in people who are good at negotiating getting a better deal than those who aren’t.

Ever since first reading Maverick I have been struck with the idea of staff having the ability to set their own salaries. Stumbling across the The Morningstar Self Management Institute in the early days of Enspiral and reading about their work in the space locked in my commitment to self determined remuneration.

This was really easy when we were just a collective of contractors and everyone would set their own billable rates – if customers were happy to pay that rate then it must be good enough. Even when negotiating rates for internal work it was along the lines of “What do you think is fair? Well let’s do that then”.

But fast forward to the end of 2014, Dev Academy had just turned one and when I reflected on our remuneration process it was obvious we had unconsciously slipped back into old habits. Rohan (my co-founder) and I had agreed upon compensation levels with each new hire as they joined the company and traditional power structures and information asymmetries were starting to emerge.

This was yet another reminder for me that self-management processes need clear definitions and constant reinforcement.

For example, while everyone in the company was onboard with the idea of financial transparency we hadn’t put energy into making our remuneration data easily accessible so the only way for a new person joining the team to find out how much everyone was being paid was to ask each person individually or trawl through our xero account. As you can imagine this didn’t happen too much.

So we fixed things.

our Process

Getting started

The first step was writing up a document [extract below] outlining the thinking behind self directed salaries and passing a Loomio decision to try it out. We established a remuneration team to facilitate the process and act as an initial point of contact to help point people in the right direction.

Individual round

We each filled out a remuneration template and the REM team updated a central spreadsheet while acting as a sounding board when asked. For folks who needed extra support someone from the REM team would sit down and work through the details with them.


We collated the salary data and normalised it for time (e.g. how much would this person be paid if they worked full time for a year). This helped us compare apples with apples and made it easier to tackle the heart of the problem which was how much should we pay this person compared to everyone else.

This data formed the heart of an anonymous survey which we sent to everyone in the company with two questions for each person.

a) What do you think of this salary: too high, too low, just right or no opinion?
b) Comments?

We shared the responses with everyone the day before our weekly meeting the next day went through a facilitated session to collectively process the information. This took a fairly simple form of

  • Setting the tone for the session and emphasising the delicacy and importance of this work.
  • Going around the circle with each person talking through their thinking behind their suggested salary and their thoughts and feelings about the anonymous feedback.
    • The feedback for that person was projected on the wall before their checkin to provide a shared context
    • The person opposite in the circle was responsible for looping back what they had heard to shake out any initial clarifications
    • After the looping the circle was open for comments and responses from the whole group

This was an amazing session that helped clarify our understandings of each others roles and was a valuable part of building our culture.

Lock it in

After the “digesting feedback” session we had a few days for people to reflect further and then had a cut off point at the close of business on friday to lock in the compensation levels.

The main points of this were

  1. You were free to ignore or incorporate the feedback from the previous session as you liked.
  2. There was no one who would approve your salary, what you asked for is what you got.
  3. If there were any disagreements on monday it would be handled through our
    conflict resolution. (There weren’t any)

Those final two points where Salaries are approved by default and exceptions are managed by a peer initiating a conflict resolution process are the real magic in the system. It is stepping beyond a company where you have a lot of influence to a company which you actively control.

It’s all about the culture

I have tried lots of experiments over the years to help people realise a sense of ownership and empowerment and this was definitely one of the most powerful. At the end of the day setting salaries is pretty common sense stuff and when you give people all the information they will make common sense decisions.

It definitely requires a strong sense of trust amongst your team and a willingness to give and receive challenging feedback. But if your team isn’t up for that then helping them get into a position where they are should be your top priority.

[Extract from the initial document outlining the process]


Self Determination individuals set their own pay which colleagues provide feedback on but the ultimate remuneration decisions rest with the individual. Significant differences of opinion are resolved by our conflict resolution process.

Transparency – all compensation packages are visible to everyone in the company in a simple and accessible format.

Risk Adjusted – if a staff member puts some of their compensation at risk by deferring payments and accepting Fairy Gold instead of cash then they receive a fair compensation for that risk.

Intrinsic Motivation – we eschew individual performance bonuses and rely upon people’s intrinsic motivations to do a good job. Any performance bonuses are paid out across the whole company.

Adjustable – Individuals are free to adjust their remuneration at their discretion (e.g. if the type or amount of work they do changes) but are required to update their individual agreement at least once per year.

Trust & Integrity – are at the heart of Dev Academy but especially present in the work of setting compensation levels. We assume that each person is striving for the fairest outcome they can envision for themselves and their colleagues.

Self determined salaries