Many engineers don’t need to be convinced that conferences, classes, meetups and other professional development events are great opportunities to advance their skills. We all take advantage of the community to some degree, whether it’s looking up answers to problems on StackOverflow, joining user group meetups and Slack groups, or attending speaking events and conferences.
Engineers (particularly marginalized engineers) are often worried about asking for funds, PTO, or even (ugh) permission to attend events. Sometimes they end up paying for these trips out of pocket, taking time off unpaid, or skipping the events altogether.
It’s important to remember, however, that your professional development is an asset not just to you, but to your employer, and your employer should fund it.
Below are some arguments you can bring to your employer to convince them that they should shell out the cash to send you to professional development opportunities.
1. Professional development enriches the quality of your product’s code
Any engineering department is at risk of building an echo chamber; the same people working on the same code for extended periods of time start to develop biases toward the established architecture, frameworks and languages. People start to feel that refactoring and technical debt are too much hassle, or become hesitant to create new features that integrate with new technologies because the integration would be too much work. Sending engineers for professional development is a chance to break them out of their comfort zone and hear from other experts, who are not already invested in your company’s status quo. The cost of this fresh perspective is far less than that of turnover or a new engineer.
2. Professional development is another avenue of visibility for your company
To date, I’ve sat on one panel at a conference, and given one 5-minute lightning talk. I’ve had more opportunities to describe my company, what it does, and how we hire folks during those two events than in the last year combined. The built-in expectation of networking at professional development events gets your company’s concept in front of a diverse group of people that you might not otherwise have access to. If your company has a great mission — like my employer, The Mom Project (we connect talented women with world-class employers that respect work and life integration, check us out!) — and you want to hire engineers who care about their development and building great products, you should be sending your employees out as ambassadors to events where the attendees are actively trying to improve their craft.
3. Professional development reduces turnover
According to the 2018 Retention Report conducted by the Work Institute, a workplace research firm, 22% of employees who left their jobs in 2017 gave Career Development reasons for leaving their employers. Of that percentage, 21.5% specified a lack of growth and development opportunities. There were 38 million quits in 2017. If we extrapolate the data, nearly 2 million employees quit because they had no opportunity for growth and development. According to the same report, the average cost of a turnover is $15,000. When conferences can cost less than $2,000 for lodging, travel and attendance, businesses can’t afford to deny their employees professional development opportunities.
How do I get my company to fund my professional development?
First, look in the employee handbook. It’s possible there’s a policy in place for you to apply for professional development funds via your direct manager, an HR manager, or even (egads!) a professional development/training manager inside the HR department.
If you’re in a small startup without many processes in place, find out if there’s a plan for professional development that isn’t on the books. Ask your boss, and if they don’t know, take it to the C-level in charge of finances.
Also, don’t feel like you need to ask for permission. Here’s your icebreaker: “I’d like to attend X event for Y reasons, and it will cost Z amount of money. How can we make this happen?”
My employer doesn’t offer a professional development budget. What do I do?
Bring the arguments above to the same people; find someone who genuinely cares about the well-being of your career. Is that your manager? Do you have a mentor? Has your CFO mentioned that they want to see more engineers applying for jobs at your company? Now’s your chance to convince those folks that paying for professional development is the right thing to do.
Hooray! I convinced my employer to fund my conference/speaking event/travel! Now what?
Advocate for the same for other engineers. Remind other engineers (particularly the marginalized ones) that these resources are available to them, and that they can and should ask for them. Make sure that the department is funding everyone fairly and equally, and encourage everyone to take advantage of the funds and support.
It’s in the company’s best interest, as well as yours, for them to sponsor professional development. By going to represent your company in the larger world, and by advocating for your own development (or even by taking advantage of processes already in place!), you’re improving the workplace for everyone.
Kate Donaldson is a Senior Full-Stack Engineer at The Mom Project, based in Chicago. She is an advocate for inclusion in the workplace, supports marginalized and underrepresented folks in tech, and deploys brilliant code that helps end users. She has over 10 years experience writing code, and she brings empathy and empowerment to her team and the products she helps to build.