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BrainTrust, a Novel Approach to Sharing Software Development Expertise

BrainTrust, an informal yet effective way to share know-how for software developers

BrainTrust is the brainchild of Alexandru M (Alex M) and Smaranda O, whom I have recently invited to shed light on their initiative. To make the ideas easy to follow I will present their answers in an interview format.

Rep: What is BrainTrust?
Alex M: We have repeatedly relied on classic group presentations to share software development expertise, idea which was not supported by our colleagues. While we have never lacked interesting topics for the presentation, finding people to prepare them proved wishful thinking. IT specialists are not keen on setting aside hours from their spare time to prepare such formal presentations. Their reluctance, combined with the size of the company and the high number of projects we work on led to a disconcerting lack of knowledge sharing at Fortech. Hence, we decided to try something new and less time consuming for the presenters. Informal discussions on certain topics that make use of no formal technical presentations seemed the right choice. For each discussion, there are drivers, the specialists who coordinate them.

Rep: What topics do you touch in the BrainTrust program?
Smaranda: The topics are diverse and on general issues that are of interest for as many specialists as possible. We do not wish to filter the attendants by technologies or narrow areas of expertise. When topics related to a certain technology are addressed, the drivers try to direct the discussion towards areas of general interest (architecture and design, Web development, good programming practices) so that those with no expertise in that particular technology can also have something to gain.

Rep: How does a typical BrainTrust session take place?
Alex M: There is a steering group of 10 to 15 people for each session. The members of this group may change in time. The topic of discussion is chosen about one month in advance by the steering group from those suggested by the group members and attendants of previous sessions via the feedback forms which are distributed at the end of each session. The sessions take place every fortnight at our office in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, from 17:30 to 18:30 GMT+2, so that only half of them overlap with the regular work schedule. The meetings are not based on a predefined template. The driver(s) for a session, usually between 1 and 3, are chosen after the main topic of the session is decided. They will then pick the sub-topics to be touched in that session. One of the drivers presents the topic and starts the discussion and then everything happens freely, completely without rules. The driver(s) can recommend or hand out materials before or during the meeting. The summary of the discussion and the filling out of the feedback form end the meeting.

Rep: What benefits would you say the BrainTrust program has for the company?
Smaranda: I think some if not many of us can develop or expand their technical vocabulary, while the less experienced will broaden their horizons, learn about a variety of interesting techniques and get their interest awakened. The program helps the attendants hone their communication and debating skills and brings to their attention expertise and experience acquired in other projects than those they are involved in, projects that make use of different technologies, processes, tools and architectures. To take part in the discussions one has to prepare in advance.

Rep: What is the origin of the BrainTrust name?
Alex M: Our program is named after the team of academic team advisers president Roosevelt relied on for some of his most important decisions as a president. The parallel we see between the 2 situations is the trust placed by the attendants of our program in the “drivers”, who can give the discussions any course they wish. There is also self-trust in place since each participant is free to raise new issues.

Rep: Is there a long-term plan shaped for this program?
Smaranda: We would like to make it available to the entire IT community in Cluj and to touch increasingly diverse topics, which will include issues that are complementary to programming like software testing, product development, project management.


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