Software Engineering Professionals has a brown bag system that has been going on for over a year now. This post will describe how this successful system works.
Brown bags (also known as ‘lunch and learns’) are a great way to spread knowledge among coworkers. They are a way for managers and employees to present on topics they are interested in. As the name suggests, brown bags are held during lunch. People bring their own lunches, and kill two birds with one stone by learning and eating at the same time. Presentations or fishbowls are generally the formats of choice.
I think the biggest benefits of a well-run brown bag system are:
- having a consistent way to share and learn about new things
- sharing interest in cutting-edge topics
- making everyone feel included
- helping with professional development
- giving people a chance to practice presenting
As I have seen it, one person (the facilitator) organizes the brown bags. When she gets low on people presenting topics, she sends out an email to get more presenters with topics. Having one person in charge helps keep things consistent.
There is no voting system, people just vote with their feet. I suppose this might have worked well because there are around sixty engineers, so the odds of no one showing up are pretty low. SEP does two a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Companies with more people could break brown bags down into cross-functional groups or buildings. As one of the points of doing them, it is nice to invite people that might be interested to spread knowledge well.
Holding brown bags on consistent days makes it easier for people to make plans to attend. A casual RSVP system helps to gauge interest. The facilitator sends out an email describing the session and asks for people to respond if they are interested. That way, if not enough people are interested, the brown bag can be deferred or cancelled.
For the facilitator, key actions seem to be:
- email everyone about topics if you don’t have enough two weeks out
- email presenters about topics when they are two weeks away, to remind them (ensure they can still do it, or get someone else) and to get a one paragraph description (so people know whether they should attend or not)
- email everyone few days before the session to gauge interest
- reminder email to people who said they would come a day before the brown bag happens
Of course, this post has touched mostly on the implementation details of this practice. What has been understated is the great culture of learning that SEP has. Some people are willing to present monthly or even multiple times a month. Many brown bags were standing-room-only, and I would need to sneak into them. If you want to become known as more qualified about something and work in that area, giving a brown bag is a good way to spread knowledge of your interest and teach others at the same time. Often someone in the brown bag will know more than the presenter, and can add on to what the presenter is saying. Hats off to them for running this system well.
This post was really easy for me to write because it is a system that I am very familiar with. Hopefully it has some value for people who don’t currently have a lunchtime learning program or are looking for some tips on how to do it well. (Hint–ask yourself: what do I know that other people might not know? This might make for an interesting post.)
Many people reading this have been to brown bags. What do you think about them, and what did I miss in my description?