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A day in the life of a learning app developer

A day in the life of a learning app developer
Published: April 24, 2019
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Doug Greenhough has the exciting job of developing ‘air’, an app that delivers experiential learning and meta-skills development virtually. We caught up with him to find out how he’s fusing four decades of Impact’s people development expertise with cutting-edge tech.

What do you do?

I work with learning designers, facilitators, thought leaders, UI and graphic designers, project managers and of course our awesome dev team to create tools that facilitate transformational learning experiences.

Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation?

I actually work standing up – here at the cutting edge we’ve got to be quick on our feet! If you’re asking about org-charts, I report to Impact’s head of digital design and development, who runs Impact’s in-house digital lab, Zinco.

What kind of skills are necessary in your role?

That’s a really interesting question! One of the things that we’ve learned is that skills can be developed if you get the opportunity and put in the work. The most important skill that I have is the ability to learn. Keeping an open mind; being a good listener; distilling a lot of shared wisdom down into concrete, actionable concepts; posing challenging questions from a stance of humility and curiosity; these are all vital to my role.

Comparatively, getting your head around the dozen programming languages, the various different frameworks and libraries, the accessibility, UX, security and data integrity best practice, and the internationalisation and cross-platform compatibility challenges that this project entails is relatively straightforward!

If I was looking for my replacement, I’d want someone who has a lot of experience, but doesn’t see themselves as an authority. Relying on rockstars to ‘achieve the impossible’ might work in the short term, but for long term success you need a team who are willing to learn from one another and help each other grow. The idea of the lone hero doing what nobody else can is fun in fiction, but in fact it totally undercuts the kind of systemic thinking that underlies real sustained performance.

Talk us through a day in your life…

After a scenic commute bouncing ideas around with one of our designers, first job for the day is grabbing a cup of tea. Armed with hot beverages, the team gather for a stand-up meeting. It’s a fairly standard agile development practice that we’ve iterated on a little: each team member shares what they did yesterday, what they are doing today, anything that is blocking their progress and – crucially – how they are feeling. This last aspect is something we added so that we can be more emotionally aware of one another. The stand-up brings together developers, designers, project managers, QA specialists and representatives from the wider business. Stand-ups only take between five to ten minutes – anything raised that can’t be immediately answered is acknowledged and dealt with in a one-to-one outside the meeting.

On a typical day I’ll spend the morning creating user flows, updating data models, writing code, automated tests, documentation... if I run up against something that needs some thought, and it’s a nice day like today, I’ll invite some colleagues to discuss it on a stroll down to the lake, also one of my favourite lunch spots. Often just articulating a problem is a big step towards solving it, and getting some different perspectives is really useful for developing intuitive, robust solutions to tricky challenges.

I tend to schedule any meetings in the afternoon whenever possible; common wisdom is that people are sharper in the morning, but I’ve found people are more collaborative after lunch!

What does success look like?

Measuring success is really straight forward. Our team work in four-week sprints, with open-invite company show and tell sessions (‘sprint reviews’) each month. Internal feedback is vital to our process, but my real ‘success criteria’ are all about the end users.

Success is finding out that a tool I've made has helped someone develop skills that are incredibly complex to ‘teach’, or that I’ve played a part in transforming an organisation through a people development solution. Giving people the tools they need to build organisations worth working for is what it's all about for me. Impact’s Solution Analytics demonstrate the fundamental shifts in peoples’ at-work behaviour as a result of our work.

What are your favourite tools?

My workhorse is a 2018 MacBook Pro and a pair of 24” monitors perched on a YOYO stand-up desk. The MBP gets the job done, but to be honest I miss the ports on my old 2014 model. We’re an all-Mac shop, but personally I find their form-over-function schtick to be a bit sad for a company who used to be all about “it just works”; now they’re “it just needs another dongle”.

Trello is a great way of keeping track of all the moving parts of a complex project, and keeping everyone on the same page. We’ve tried half a dozen other project management tools, but none has everything that we need so far; too clunky, too inflexible, or requiring too much admin. Maybe “create amazing project tracking tool” should be on our to-do list, but we’ve got more than enough to do without re-inventing the wheel.

Teams is invaluable, being able to collaborate with the brilliant minds Impact has all over the world is one of my favourite parts of the job. Using a proper messaging system makes email feel very 1999.

How did you end up at Impact, and where might you go from here?

I actually applied to Impact as a digital designer on the basis of a personal recommendation. The interview panel described the project and I immediately saw huge potential in it. And then I didn’t get the job!

I was working as an independent contractor at the time, and wasn’t really sold on the idea of working in an office environment, so I was a little disappointed but ready to chalk it up as a missed opportunity. About a week later I got an email asking if I’d be interested in doing some development work on a contract basis… three months later I was offered a permanent position. It all worked out in the end!

As for where I’m going, I honestly don’t know where else I’d want to be. I’ve been working in learning tech for more than a decade, and the work that I’ve done in the last two years, working hand-in-hand with some of the best minds in the learning industry, has been the most fulfilling and important of my life. We’re fusing cutting-edge tech and learning design with almost four decades of Impact’s award-winning experiential learning expertise, and creating experiences that transcend and transform how people think about work, learning and personal development.

That said, if they desperately need a project lead for a mission to Mars, I’d have to take a sabbatical…

What’s your favourite learning experience?

I remember once during my A-levels a couple of us got the flu when we were learning a tricky new maths subject. When we had recovered, our teacher invited us to her house for a catch-up session. Unthinkable in today’s omni-phobic litigious world but spending a couple of hours learning advanced calculus from someone who knew the subject inside out and upside down, and was passionate about sharing that knowledge was amazing; we covered about two weeks’ worth of lessons in one afternoon. 

Looking back, the thing that strikes me about her teaching style was that she took the time to listen when you didn’t understand something, worked out where you’d gone wrong and steered you back on track with a grace that I’m still a long way from. I went on to read physics where I specialised in computation, which landed me my first job, and the rest is history. Maths gets a bad rap, but I use what I learned in that teacher’s class nearly every day of my life, and I remember that kitchen table every time I break out the integral sign.

What advice would you give yourself on graduation day?

Probably 90% of what you learned at university you’ll never use, and what you learned at university was at best 10% of what you will need to know in the next ten years. You-ten-years-hence will think that you-now is an idealistic, over-ambitious idiot.

Your challenge is to spend the next ten years learning more than you ever thought possible, collecting skills, experience, achievements, hard-won victories and hard-fought defeats, promotions, rejections, successes and failures along the way. If you still believe that you are an idealistic, over-ambitious idiot at the end of it, then you’ll be someone with the self-awareness, purpose and integrity to do amazing things.

Doug Greenhough is a Senior Developer at Zinco, Impact's in house design and development agency.