9 mins

Learnathons are great for upskilling your teams at scale. Use these steps and templates to prepare and stage these learning events.

Engineering leaders working in an ever-changing industry know that continuous upskilling isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity.

New frameworks, libraries, tools – even new programming languages – are constantly popping up with the promise of improving things like developer productivity, product security, and application performance. Keeping skills up-to-date enables developers to tackle modern challenges, enhance productivity, and innovate.

The problem with learning at work

But upskilling effectively, efficiently, and continuously is no easy feat. As appealing as on-the-job learning is, significant obstacles prevent teams from taking the opportunity to do so.

For starters, there never seems to be enough time for focused upskilling. Engineers are constantly pushed and pulled to deliver tangible products to customers and stakeholders, and learning is too often invisible – not seen as constituting “real work.” This downplaying of learning prevents engineers and engineering leaders from investing their time in it.

Then there’s what I call the engagement problem. Even with a planned upskilling initiative on the table, a lack of interest from employees can prevent it from being successful. Without clear motivations or perceived value, engineers are less likely to engage in upskilling initiatives even when they’re offered, and their leaders are less likely to encourage them to participate, as well.

And finally, it’s no secret that learning and development (L&D) budgets have been slashed due to current macroeconomic conditions. Upskilling efforts require an investment in training resources, tools, and even people, and at this moment in time, this needs to be done with a particular mind toward cost-effectiveness.

The learnathon: communities for upskilling

How can we continue to upskill our teams while battling a lack of time, engagement, and funding?

Learnathons are community-driven events that bring together people to engage in focused upskilling around topics, tools, and technologies relevant to their roles. It is up to the participants to decide what they want to learn and share. It’s analogous to the hackathon, but with a focus on self-driven, community-supported knowledge and skill acquisition.

Just like a hackathon, participants make a learning plan before the event officially begins and self-organize into groups according to interests and goals. That plan includes learning objectives that are specific, authentic, actionable, and demonstrable. For example, rather than setting out with the vague objective to learn more about Python’s asyncio module, participants might create the following learning objectives:

  • Explain the core concepts of asynchronous programming, such as event loops, coroutines, and non-blocking I/O, including why they are essential for efficient and responsive applications.
  • Write Python code using async and await keywords to create asynchronous functions and coroutines.
  • Implement and comprehend the difference between asyncio.sleep, awaitable objects, and asyncio.gather to manage concurrency.

The aim with specific, authentic, actionable, and demonstrable learning objectives is for it to be clear to learners what they should be able to do and build with their new skills and knowledge. This helps learners curate specific learning content to match their objectives, as well as protect folks against simply sitting down and passively consuming content for days on end, which both science and experience have shown is not an effective way to acquire new skills.

Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know, and need help from someone more experienced to understand what we should learn or be able to do. This is where subject matter experts come in. Your lead, staff, and principal engineers can help less experienced colleagues craft learning objectives, find learning resources, and create authentic projects or exercises to work on during the learnathon.

During the event, learners may decide to work very closely with members of their learning group, or primarily independently. Here, it’s important to give learners agency to engage in the learning process in a way that works well for them.

At the end of the event, participants share the products of their learning through a short presentation or demo. These can be delivered live, or via a dedicated messaging channel. The preparation of this demo not only gives learners an opportunity to reflect on their learning, thus reinforcing it, but also provides their leaders and colleagues with insight into how the team’s collective skills and knowledge have grown.

How to run a learnathon

You may choose how long the learnathon runs for, but, crucially, you must plan for it a few months ahead of the event.

Six to eight weeks before the learnathon

  • Specify the learnathon audience. Who is this event directed towards? Is this an event for a single engineering team or for an entire engineering organization? Closely collaborate with engineering leaders when outlining participants, as leaders will be the ones eventually tasked with ensuring their team members are informed and ready to fully participate.
  • Decide on dates and a learnathon duration period. Communicate with engineering leaders on these decisions. For duration, we recommend two to five dedicated days. Five days may seem excessive for “just learning,” but we don’t recommend that participants engage only in content consumption tasks over the course of the learnathon. The bulk of participants’ time will be spent putting new knowledge and skills into practice, and – ideally –  engaging and collaborating with colleagues.
  • Announce the learnathon to all participants and stakeholders so that everyone knows to block this time off on their calendars. We recommend giving teams at least six weeks’ notice so that they can easily plan their product and development work around the event.
  • Create a sign-up sheet where participants will eventually document and share their learning interests with each other. You could potentially even pre-populate the sign-up sheet with topics that align with wider business objectives for those who don’t know where to focus their upskilling efforts.  (Here is a sign-up sheet template as seen in Fig.1. that you’re welcome to clone, modify, and use for your event.)
  • Create an “everything you need to know” document that explains the learnathon details, process, and requirements. (Feel free to clone, modify, and use this “everything you need to know” template).
  • Announce the event, making the sign-up sheet and “everything you need to know” document available to participants. Add calendar events so that everyone has common time blocked off. Remember to factor in any additional time you’ll need in the lead-up to the event, such as for a learnathon introduction or kick-off meeting.
  • Decide if and how you want to gamify the experience for participants. Gamification and incorporating rewards like gift cards can increase motivation, collaboration, and camaraderie.

    Sign-up sheet
    Fig.1. Sign-up sheet template 

Two to four weeks before the learnathon

  • Announce the learnathon again in public channels.
  • Leaders should bring up the event with their direct reports, and encourage folks to start thinking about what topics to add and even signing up via the sign-up sheet. At this point, each team member should start thinking about what one area they really want to zero in on.
  • Leaders should begin to identify and recruit internal subject matter experts for topics in the sign-up sheet. Subject matter experts can begin helping and consulting their teammates about learning objectives, learning resources, and authentic practice projects.
  • Double-check the learnathon dates are blocked on everyone’s calendars, and that participation expectations are clear to everyone.
  • Begin putting together a learnathon kick-off deck (or, clone and adapt this template – it comes complete with a talk track!). The kick-off should make clear to participants the purpose and process of the event, including guidance on creating learning objectives and expectations for the demo. We highly recommend recruiting a high-level engineering leader to speak for a couple of minutes at the beginning of this kick-off about the importance of focused upskilling. Even better if this message includes explicit permission to take time to just learn for the duration of the learnathon. Participants will likely be new to this sort of event, so be sure to leave plenty of time for Q&A during this kickoff. 

The week before the learnathon

  • Ask participants to make a final decision on their learning topic and learning objectives. By the end of the week, they should create a learning plan to help them work toward those specific objectives. We made available an individual learnathon plan that your participants can clone, modify, and use for the event. Included in this document is a link to our learning tips and techniques sheet, which is helpful for setting learning objectives and sticking with them.
  • Communicate to subject matter experts the expectations for their involvement. These expectations are largely up to leaders and the experts to define. Some subject matter experts may want to play a purely supportive role, and some may want to participate fully as learners themselves. The important thing here is to give these folks agency in the decision.
  • Hold the kick-off meeting. This can be done on the first day of the event; however, participants will likely still have questions at this point that need to be addressed with time to adjust their learning plans.

During the learnathon

  • As participants would have prepared ahead of the learnathon, once it’s in progress, folks should largely know what they’re working toward and can be set free to learn. Therefore, there’s not a ton for the facilitator to do during the actual event. For that reason, we recommend that as a facilitator, you participate yourself. Partaking as a learner can give you a good idea of how the event feels from the participant’s perspective, which will help you understand how you want to modify the event the next time you run it.
  • As a final activity, bring participants together to share their learnings, insights, and experiences with each other. This can be organized in a variety of ways, for example via live walk-throughs and demos, or asynchronously via videos posted in your company’s internal messaging system. Regardless of format, we recommend providing participants with an example to provide a model of expectations, including length, content, and level of formality.

After the learnathon

  • Ask participants to take a post-learnathon survey so you can understand the impact of the event (which you likely will be asked to report on), as well as understand what participants’ experiences were like. This data will be crucial as you consider how to modify the event the next time you run it. Some data points you may want are factors that promoted learnathon engagement and success, blockers to engagement and success, and how participants will use the skills and knowledge gained  in their future work.

How learnathons can positively impact employees 

The learnathon we ran at my company in September 2023, while not perfect, was widely considered a success.  The feedback we received included:

  • 76% reported they believed they would be able to use the skills and knowledge they gained in their future work at the company.
  • 80% reported that the time they spent participating in the learnathon was a good use of their time.
  • 72% felt supported by their direct leader in taking this time to learn.
  • 56% reported having a better understanding of the skills and interests held by colleagues.
  • 32% reported developing deeper relationships with their colleagues. This percentage might appear low, but we can expect that some participants already had deep relationships with the colleagues they interacted with.


Leaders are being asked to find cost-effective, time-efficient, and scalable ways to upskill their engineering teams. Learnathons provide a lightweight, easy-to-implement solution that provides the additional benefits of bolstering team learning cultures, increasing engineers’ sense of belonging, and granting engineers autonomy in what and how they learn.