Scrum takes the fight for software training to ground level

Apprentices in Cambridgeshire are learning software development on a new course designed to cut out degrees, promote innovation and create a different model for the training industry.

Ex-Acorn Computers and Symbian team member Mel Pullen’s company ScrumIT took on seven new apprentices last month (two of them, Lou and Emma, are pictured above with Pullen, centre). Once trained, he aims to keep them.

“Sometimes you take someone on who seems simply perfect: enthusiastic, competent – experienced even,” says Pullen. “Then you find they are just too good to be true: they see your business merely as a place to move through, gain valuable experience, and then move on . . . leaving you to pick up the pieces.”

He wants to change this, using Scrum philosophy (see panel, right). Intended for managing software development projects, Scrum can also be used to run software maintenance teams, or as a general project/programme management approach.

IT scavengers

Pullen says he is tired of the “scavenging nature” of some companies in the software industry, which rely on universities to train programmers and invest little in staff training. ScrumIT, he says, will train school leavers from a basic level up, starting with the apprenticeship scheme, run with Cambridge Regional College. (Pullen himself started his career indentured to the Post Office.)

He hopes his new apprentices will learn their craft in the same beneficial way that he did, through practical experience, and stay with the company after they have trained, to form a skilled, loyal workforce.

“Cambridge Regional College is working with us to create an apprenticeship course for computer programmers from the ground up,” he says. “We've also had help from the e-skills UK sector Skills Council to create the syllabus that we need for our work, and from the City and Guilds, who are validating the qualification.”

No need for a degree

Pullen says he is often asked ‘Don't you have to be a whiz at computers, mathematics and £337 $P34|{ (Leet Speak) to be a computer programmer? Don't you have to be a university graduate?’

“I hope not,” is his answer. “I'm staking my reputation on being able to take people as young as 16 and turn them into confident and experienced craftsmen: people who are able to work as a team to add value to any product that uses or includes software. It’s those same skills that we used at Acorn in the 1980s when we designed and built some of the first commercially-available micro-computers for the BBC, as well as the arguably more famous RISC processor chip that was sold by ARM. The one now in virtually every mobile phone in the world.”

Scrum tactics

The apprentices at ScrumIT work in pairs (so never alone at the computer) and as a team (so never alone reading books on programming). These are two techniques the firm points to as an example of the “agile” Scrum computer programming method. The new apprentices will learn all of them – something that’s hard to do even at university, since Scrum methodology has developed from industry practice.

“The method was formalized over a decade ago by Ken Schwaber and Dr. Jeff Sutherland,” says Pullen. “It’s now being used by companies large and small, including Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, Lockheed Martin, Motorola, SAP, Cisco, GE, CapitalOne and the US Federal Reserve. Many teams using Scrum report significant improvements, and in some cases complete transformations in both productivity and morale. That’s the `USP’ that our approach, combined with a modern apprenticeship scheme, will bring to our future ScrumIT clients.

“If the idea takes off, I am hoping to grow this into an IT industry phenomenon. It would be great to tackle high youth unemployment by offering job training in programming for the industry’s future.”

ScrumIT’s apprentices will on webcam, enabling anyone – from software developers to prospective apprentices – to check them out and the system out. They'll also be making sure that the world knows how they're getting on; they have their own web site, and apprentices will be regularly blogging.

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