Brown Bag Lunches

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A while ago, Andy Warren of SQL Server Central asked if brown bag lunches/training worked. His answer was:

…now to the question - do they work? I’ve tried it when I was managing, and sadly, it didn’t work.

I disagree with Andy on this one, but to be fair I understand his points and they are all valid. To make sure everyone has the same understanding of what we’re talking about, here is Andy’s definition of a brown bag lunch:

I’ll define a brown bag lunch as a training event held at lunch time where someone on the team does a technical presentation designed to enlighten/educate others on the team that decide to attend. The original idea was that everyone would bring their lunch in a ‘brown bag’, but I think it’s more common that lunch is provided. They have that whole grass roots/open source/good karma feel to them. No better way to learn a topic a little more deeply than by preparing a presentation on it, and for most people it’s more approachable because they know all the people in the room.

His first argument against them is that you (the employer) must provide paid work time to prepare the presentation. While this is true, there are a lot of topics that fit the brown bag lunch “style” that don’t need a lot of prep time, if any.

Brown bags are great for getting other areas of the company familiar with what’s coming up in a new product launch. There is very little prep time for something like this. Another great way to minimize prep time is to use brown bags for conference follow-ups. This is where someone who went to a technical conference (like PDC) presents what they saw/learned at the conference. Again, very little prep time as most of the time the slide decks are available. If the brown bag is done soon enough after returning from the conference the material should be fresh in his (or her) mind.

The second argument is that for most of the people presenting, it was their first time, which means a lot of mentoring. While this is usually the case, brown bags aren’t meant to be a formal presentation. That fits easily with my previous points, but taking it even further brown bags should be looked at as a very low-stress situation for first time speakers. If you have a more experienced speaker on the team, use them as a resource but only when necessary.

Andy’s last (and biggest) problem was the fact that being asked to give up a lunch hour to listen to a presentation was taken as “an intrusion”. This is very true and I have run into that feeling before. I think the key is to make sure the topic is either relevant to work or is something that everyone has a high interest in. Provide a choice of topics and allow people to vote. The topic with the highest votes becomes the topic for the brown bag session.

While the original idea of a brown bag session was that people would bring their lunch, it is generally much more effective if lunch is provided. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy…pizza usually does just fine. This also helps alleviate the feeling of “giving up” a lunch hour.

Finally, if you (the employer) has someone who is involved in the community enlist their help in making the brown bags successful. Have them present the first one (or the first few) using one of the presentations already prepared. This eliminates all of the prep time and “first time presenter” issues.