Running an Effective Book Club at Work

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Even with the wealth of information on web sites and in videos, books remain a great resource for learning. And they're great for group learning, too! We've run a book club at work a few times. Some sessions were more successful than others.

The main way our book clubs faltered or failed was through severe drop-off. This is a proxy for a lot of things (losing interest, too time consuming, etc.) and is measurable. Some amount of drop-off is normal. But if you lose the majority of your club, something has gone wrong. We need to make sure we work on keeping attendance high!

Here are a eight things I've learned about how to make an at-work book club successful! These helped us keep attendance high and helped us all get a lot out of the books we read.

Pick a relevant book. When you're doing a book club at work, taking work time for it, this is kind of a given. I wouldn't run a book club on Haskell at my day job. Not because Haskell isn't great, but because it's not relevant for what we do at my employer. We've run book clubs on Python (our primary backend language), distributed systems, and machine learning. Each of these are critical to what we do, so we had lots of initial interest in each.

Pick an interesting book. Related to books being relevant, they also need to be interesting. A relevant book will get people to check out what the book is about. An interesting book will get them to join and keep attending. Ultimately, what's interesting is subjective. We've had good luck finding interesting books by polling coworkers for book suggestions. You start from books that people already want to read, and you can poll them to measure how many are interested in it!

Set expectations upfront. I like to make the first session just an info session. When we tried to have the first session cover a chapter, it was too much. It can be intimidating to have to read before you know what the format is or what the expectations are! And it's also just plain confusing. For the first session, just lay out what the expectations are: how often do you meet, what participation requires, and all that.

Make sure people can get the book. Ideally, the company should buy it for everyone. I know software engineers are generally well paid, but we all have different situations. Even just the inconvenience of buying the book can sometimes drive people off, or they delay too long and miss the window to start participating. The easiest way to get high initial participation is have work buy the book for everyone.

Make participation easy. If you make everyone prepare for every session, you'll lose folks. Quickly. We're all busy with our day jobs and it needs to be a small commitment to join. This comes down to how you structure the sessions. We like to run recap sessions: One person presents the chapter, then we discuss it after that. The key element here is that even if you don't read the chapter, attendance is still worthwhile because you can hear the recap and get some knowledge. If you focus on just discussion, you drive people out if they miss one week, and this leads to steep drop-off.

Set a fast schedule and follow through. Don't slip the schedule. Books are long, and you have to keep the momentum up to keep people reading. My preference is a weekly schedule with a significant chunk of reading each week. This can be difficult with all the other things in life, but it means you get done quicker, too.

Limit the length. In my experience, 10 weeks is about the limit for running a book club. After this, people will stop participating and get fatigued of it. When you're reading a denser book, like Designing Data-Intensive Applications, consider reading part of the book together and leave the rest for independent reading. We read parts 1 and 2 together and left part 3 for anyone who wanted to continue independently.

Rotate presenters. We do a recap-plus-discussion format, and we rotate who presents each chapter. If you have one person present each week, you lose out on people learning from presenting. You also make the program less sustainable: You cannot, as one person, sustain this for a long time and a lot of different books. Rotating presenters each week will make the program sustainable and allow it to continue for more than one book. And have a backup plan in case someone backs out, so you don't have to slip the schedule.

Running a book club is highly rewarding. You get to help everyone in the group learn a lot and bond together, and you develop new skills as the facilitator of the group. I hope this is helpful if you choose to run one at work. Keep in mind that there are many ways to run a successful book club, and these are just things that I found effective in a particular group. If you have anything else that you've found highly effective, please reach out and let me know!

Thanks to Jessica Dubin for feedback on a draft of this post!

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