A testimonial like that from a student, makes my day. Over the last few months you've heard me make references to the new avatar of ThoughtWorks University (TWU) - our graduate training program. If you were ever to walk into a ThoughtWorks University term in full flow, it will look nothing like a training program you've seen. People working at dining table like set ups. Laptops and pairing monitors all around, a client who doesn't let up, index carded walls tracking progress for the project, and a team completely abuzz with activity. You'll feel like you've walked onto a proper software delivery project. That's been our motto for version 2.0 of TWU - work is learning, learning is work. I'm ecstatic to share with you how we've workscaped this training program, to help fresh graduates learn the ropes of technology consulting by being in the thick of real action. But before that, some context!
"An all round learning experience from people with very unique and distinctive skill sets. An unforgettable 6 week experience!" - Student Quote
TWU is something most ThoughtWorkers are extremely proud of. An incredibly successful program, Kraig Parkinson started it in 2005 when we called it the Global Boot Camp. Every grad that we hired all across the world had the opportunity to travel down to our most vibrant office in Bangalore and attend six weeks of training with the best consultants at the company. As it turned out, 'Boot Camp' wasn't a really popular word with immigration personnel, and every now and then graduates got held up at the airport asking if they were undergoing any military training! So, after a round of brainstorms we decided to rebrand the program as ThoughtWorks University and ever since, the name has stuck.
TWU started off as a really strong academic program, run by our consultants for our consultants. The target audience for the course were our graduate developers, business analysts and quality analysts. Our curriculum had three distinct parts to it. We had four weeks of shared curriculum, common to all the roles. We then followed this up with a week's discipline specific curriculum and finally a week's project simulation for the students to apply all that they'd learned. As you can imagine this was a really intense program where despite our best intentions we were pushing heaps of knowledge onto our students. Learning isn't knowledge transfer and our program lacked the affective context that students needed to be able to learn and remember effectively.
The Catalyst for Change
"I felt the trainers were great, and running a long simulation has given me the confidence for beginning work soon. These six weeks made me even more excited to be a ThoughtWorker." - Student Quote
Somewhere in 2007, my friend, colleague and past TWU trainer Patrick Sarnacke had an idea. While people enjoyed the five weeks of training, they seemed to learn the most in the project simulation. Not surprisingly, because they failed miserably in the project and failure's a great catalyst for learning. So Sarnacke said, "If people learn the most during the project simulation, then why can't we simulate a project for most of the course?" Of course, we then shrugged our shoulders and said to each other, "We've got a lot of material to cover - so this is never going to work." And so, the idea never took off until late 2009 when I went around interviewing (on camera) past students and trainers of the course asking what they found most valuable in the course. The answers I got were fairly unanimous. Most people pointed out the following elements as the most valuable:
- The project simulation, since they could see every practice in action and learn how to really do things.
- The discipline specific curriculum, since that's what they could apply immediately to their roles.
- The social interaction amongst grads and trainers across the globe, because that's where they serendipitously learned from each other.
- The individualised coaching that they got from the trainers, since we tailored it to their needs.
If real work provides the best context for learning, then why not create a learning program where learning is a consequence of working on a real project?
Time for some Soul-Searching
"TWU provided us with a safe environment in which we were free to stumble, to question, to observe, and to learn. I will never forget my experience here." - Student Quote
So my team and I acknowledged it was time to get back to the drawing board. Our big challenge was that we had five weeks of coursework to still complete. As we started to go back and analyse our coursework, we realised a few things:
- Sometimes, in the attempt to make training engaging, we spend 3 hours teaching things that take 10 minutes to just explain simply.
- Behaviour takes time and experience to correct. A lot of our consulting coursework (17 hours or so), focussed on changing behaviours through training. This was hugely ineffective; students forgot most lessons by the time we got to the project simulation and made the same mistakes we warned them against. Feedback and coaching during the simulation could have been a much better way to help students learn these lessons from a state of pain.
- As a company, we have very few best practices. If you look at the Cynefin model and then compare the constantly changing ThoughtWorks ecosystem to it, most of our practices are either emergent or novel. So while we tried to project a simplistic picture of our practices, it took real world experience to learn how things actually work. No wonder, our most common answer to students was, "It depends!"
- Last, but certainly not the least - learning out of the work context can tend to be hugely ineffective. For example, in a classroom it can take hours to explain how ThoughtWorks estimates projects and plans releases. It's a really controversial topic at times. OTOH, if you were to bring a newbie into a group estimation meeting and explain what we're doing, you could get that person onboard in a matter of minutes and they would just get it. So some topics were best suited to on the job learning.
Look Ma - No Training!
"The lessons learned through project simulation could never be taught in a classroom." - Student Quote
So, after much chopping and changing, we decided that our course would be two weeks of training and four weeks of project work for the developers and one week of training and five weeks of project work for the BAs and QAs. We decided to limit our training to the bare minimum skills and knowledge the grads needed to start working on their project. A large part of that training was an introduction to the ThoughtWorks ecosystem, our culture, values and principles -- something that none of us can do without.
We also created several pieces of elearning to help students gain some basic skills when they needed them. Coupled with a social learning platform and a 6:1 student-coach ratio, we were looking at a program that focussed heavily on individualisation as against an experience that was one-size-fits-all-but-fits-nobody. Even with the elearning, we ensured that we were pragmatic in partnering with external content providers whose content met our quality standards.
How it Went
"I think four weeks of project was very helpful for the learning of the team. I think the end of week two and the beginning of week three was a time when the team was excited, nervous and overwhelmed. I think only two weeks of classes is good. A skill TWers need is learning when they start on a new project. I think the best way to do that is through experience - with good learning sessions when needed. And I think the last week was when we all actually realised what we had accomplished." - Student Quote
TWU XVII was the first formal run of ThoughtWorks University 2.0 and what a ride it's been! As expected, and as the quotes until now may tell you, information in context trumped instruction out of context in a huge way. The project was an environment for students to fail in safety. Failure created the need for people to learn and a catalyst for us to coach and teach. A real project environment also allowed students to learn to learn. After all, if we did training sessions all day, how could they deliver an application to the customer? So, a lot was down to the students being able to figure things out by themselves and learning from each other. Teamwork was the order of the day.
While interactions with customers helped students hone their consulting skills, working with each other, overcoming arguments helped them strengthen their interpersonal skills. Facilitating learning lunches and doing Pecha-Kucha's helped them practice their presentation skills in a safe and fun environment. Open Space sessions helped them define their own learning agenda, as against being captive to a predetermined schedule. In the final week of the project, which I unfortunately missed - the students took leadership of the project and the trainers just stood back. That week saw the students come together and put up their most outstanding performance. Wonderful things happen when you just let go - and it was almost like the time when a bird lets her children fly. In an environment where they could pull learning just when they needed it, the students amazed their trainers. I'm not exagerrating one bit when I say I'm proud of what the students have achieved and I'm proud to be their colleague. As one of the grads said, "We've made a product which we're proud of."
Our success with ThoughtWorks University has been the proudest achievements of my professional career. I think it's given me significant evidence about how people learn and has reinforced my beliefs about modern learning and development. It's been great fun sharing this experience with you and in future months, I hope we can make this experience better, faster, stronger. I'd love ideas from you on how we can do this - a lot of what we've done on the course is inspired by great ideas from my personal learning network and I'm sure I can lean on you for more such ideas. I'd also love to know what you think of today's blogpost, so do drop in a comment or two while you're here.
Photo Credits for this post - JK Werner and Pat Sarnacke (the visionary pose!)