At first, pushback is part of the package
FreeCause uses online training from Codecademy to teach the basic levels of coding, asking each employee to spend two hours a week with it. Those online lessons are augmented with two weekly one-hour meetings with a lead programmer, who acts as a mentor, and a team of three or four others, during which lessons are reviewed. A monthly "boot camp" is designed to impart more general programming lessons.
Each team is also responsible for development of a new coding project that it will present to the company later this year -- projects may involve creation of a new feature or improved functionality for a Web page within the FreeCause application. The company has not yet determined future activity, such as refresher courses or work on other languages.
Jaconi admits to being initially nervous about pushback from the employees. "I didn't anticipate that we'd have as much buy-in as we did up front," he admits. That didn't happen immediately. Several employees, both technical and non-technical, report being skeptical at the outset.
One of the latter is Len Fainer, former director of product management (who has since left FreeCause for a job with a shorter commute). Fainer had a background in marketing and business administration, but never studied computer science. He and his team found it difficult to keep up with the lessons given their workload, and he's not sure how much of the knowledge he'll retain over time.
That said, he admits, "I understand the value to the company from a holistic point of view." He notes that product managers sometimes get software-related requests from customers that may not be as simple as they sound, and they now better understand the effort involved in building and maintaining them.
CTO Antoine Hage expands upon that point: Previously, he says, a business person might promise a programming change to a customer, thinking it would be easy to update a feature. "Now they understand the challenges, so when they're selling a solution, they know how much time a new feature might take. [And] they can answer questions immediately without having to bring in a technical salesperson."
Interestingly, the programming requirement hasn't limited hiring efforts. In its initial interviews, FreeCause highlights the ongoing cross-company programming requirement, and none of the six non-technical people it's hired in the last few months has balked at the idea, says Hage.
Offloading engineering tasks
One goal in implementing the program was to see how many tasks the company could offload from its engineering staff. As Jaconi explains, "In any company, engineers complain that not only does the business side not understand what they do, but they're overloaded with mundane tasks that never become a priority." That frustrates both sides.
According to Hage, the company used to allocate about 30 percent of the engineering staff's time to fulfilling requests from the business side for new features in the company's software. Offloading even 20 percent of that time to let engineers focus on high-level tasks delivers a huge benefit, he says -- especially in a technology company, where engineering represents a high percentage of costs.