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Interviewing software engineers about learning


MBA Learning

I have worked in software engineering for 18 years, and as a manager for 12 years. Learning and development for my team is one of my biggest drivers, and seeing people progress gives me the greatest satisfaction. It is important to me to understand this topic better so that I can make improvements in the places I work.

For my MBA, I wrote a longer assignment (7600 words) on "How to support learning and development for remote software engineers". Although I didn't find any silver bullet to make this easier, I learned a lot from the process of doing the study.

I interviewed 5 software engineers of varying experience. These interviews were semi-structured interviews, which means that I asked a set of questions, but the questions were open questions trying to not force the participant down a particular route of answering.

The engineers that I've interviewed span from 5 to 15 years of software engineering experience, across multiple workplaces.

The questions

Is learning important in software engineering?

I asked this as an easy starter question, and to lay the groundwork for how the participants felt about learning.

Describe the way in which you learn.

This was one of the more meaty questions - I wanted to understand on an individual basis how the engineer went about learning. Using "describe" in an interview is usually a way to get good detailed answers.

Has the way that you learn changed over your career?

This question does quite a lot of lifting - I'm looking for:

How do you know when you've really understood something you have learned?

This is a hard question, that a lot of academics and learning professionals struggle to answer, and I'm interested in what the engineers think about this.

What are the best ways to learn from your colleagues?

Collaboration always seems to be a big part of learning for me, and I'm interested in how this is answered. I'm also looking for some tools in this answer that might help people learn better together.

Do you feel you are well supported in learning by your peers?

This is similar in purpose to the previous question, but aiming to grasp at any feelings.

When asking these questions about how software engineers can learn better from their colleagues in a remote environment, what questions should I be asking to understand the topic better?

This question I struggled to phrase correctly, and was the one that caused me the most problems explaining in the interview - if I do this process again, what questions should I ask to the next cohort of interviewees to get better quality answers?


I used thematic analysis1 to extract meaning from the discussions of the engineers. The flow shown below was based on a later paper2 by Naeem et al.

The thematic analysis process

I grouped the analysed themes together and displayed them on a mindmap.

mindmap root((Themes)) Types of learning Learning by doing Other Learning Types Reading Structured learning Videos Coaching In person Artificial Intelligence Creating a learning environment Psychological safety Removing barriers Physical Other Cultural Building a community Reducing distractions Collaboration & communication Supporting remote workers Reinforcement Teaching others to measure learning Feedback Importance of learning Continuous change Patterns High degree of complexity Finding deeper understanding Self-awareness Asking for help Understanding yourself Understanding how others can help

Then finally showed the more simple concepts on their own:

mindmap root((Concepts)) Types of learning Creating a learning environment Reinforcement Importance of learning Self-awareness

I created a quick graph to look at the relative frequency that the participants were mentioning the different concepts:

xychart-beta title "Concept mentions by participants" x-axis ["Types of learning", Environment, Reinforcement, "Learning importance", Self-awareness] y-axis "Number of mentions" 0 --> 75 bar [40, 63, 19, 19, 27]

Interesting results for further research

All five participants said that learning by doing was their primary method of learning. They experimented, tried things, and tested it out themselves.

The literature didn't have any clear examples of applying techniques to learning by doing - no methodologies that I could find to approach this, and teach it to new engineers.


1: Victoria Clarke & Virginia Braun (2017) Thematic analysis, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:3, 297-298, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1262613

2: Naeem, M., Ozuem, W., Howell, K., & Ranfagni, S. (2023). A Step-by-Step Process of Thematic Analysis to Develop a Conceptual Model in Qualitative Research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 22. https://doi.org/10.1177/16094069231205789