DevOpsGroup Academy launched in July with a mission to eradicate the UK’s tech skill shortage and invest in the high-performing IT professionals of the future. I recently had a chance to speak with DevOpsGroup Academy Head James Harvey about the mission and vision for DevOpsGroup Academy and what he sees for the future of technology learning.
Hartley: Can you tell us more about the launch of DevOpsGroup Academy in July 2018, your university connections and addressing the skills gap?
Harvey: I think the biggest challenge that we’ve seen is that, even though you are getting hundreds of thousands of students graduating with computer science degrees over the years, the gap that we are experiencing between what people are learning at university versus what the commercial world is demanding is astronomical.
We’ve seen, with our intern program, for example, if you compare an intern who has spent a year with us directly with someone who is freshly graduated—the difference in terms of ‘work readiness’ beyond comprehension. It’s insane!
The skills gap is one of those things that is very difficult for universities to keep on top of, because things in the tech world change rapidly and dramatically. So ultimately what you are learning is often outdated by the time you finish anyway. It’s a different skill set that you learn at university: It’s very lecture-based, it’s very academic and it’s very blue-sky. And it’s very much “in an ideal world” setting.
Whereas what we are trying to do with The DevOpsGroup Academy is to say, when things aren’t quite so perfect and when you do have to be a bit more pragmatic and apply some of the things you have learned on a bigger scale, then we can help bridge that gap.
The first instance of the launch of The DevOpsGroup Academy is really going to be focused on the fact that these are commercial courses that we are selling to people who are looking for a career change, looking to enhance the skills of their team or whatever it might be. And the fact that we run these courses with students, interns, graduates, associates, apprentices and placements even will become a huge selling point for us. But the initial target for us is going to be those small businesses, SMEs, and individuals looking to skill up.
Hartley: Can you talk about The DevOpsGroup Academy and what you’re offering that’s unique?
Harvey: There are, of course, plenty of DevOps courses that you can find out there from many other suppliers. The big USP (unique selling proposition) for us when it comes to public training is that we are not this “one-stop shop” for agile DevOps or tech training. What we pride ourselves in is having a carefully selected portfolio of courses that align with our company values, and aligns with the way in which we go in and facilitate a transformation. And critically, these courses and our portfolio have been chosen so that they form this kind of learning journey, this development pathway, so that if you take one course there is something else that is related that makes sense to go and do elsewhere.
I mean, it would be very easy for us to sit down and say, “Right, we are going to run these 50-odd training courses that we can offer.” But then, as I said, the difference there is that we would just become another training company, which we are not trying to do.
The other USP that we have got is that we don’t typically use trainers to deliver the training. We use our practitioners and the people who are doing this day in and day out to deliver the training, because again we feel that it allows them to give you a more realistic demonstration of what it is we are trying to teach you. Rather than somebody who has been training for 10 years and has lost touch with what the pragmatic, real-world looks like.
So it allows us to take all of the experience that we have got in DevOpsGroup and regurgitate that, as not just textbook training, but as this real-life experience that we’ve been through. So learn from our mistakes and learn from our successes. That’s the wisdom that we can impart.
Hartley: So are there any specific new courses that you are launching with DevOpsGroup Academy?
Harvey: The main focus at the moment will be around the Agile Foundation certification, and we are in the process of getting toward the end of launching a certified DevOps Foundation training course.
There are a few other DevOps training courses out there, but it’s definitely not a crowded marketplace and it’s something that we’ve developed internally, because we didn’t feel that there was a suitable option out there for that kind of agnostic learning, to get a DevOps Foundation certificate for.
Hartley: Going back to universities and government, can you talk more about those partnerships?
James Harvey: You can look at our partners’ page on the new DevOpsGroup Academy website for a bit more information on our current university partnerships.
We are very much focused on working with all of the local universities in Wales at the moment, so we do a lot of work with the National Software Academy that’s based at Cardiff University. They do things a little bit differently in that their computer science students are working in what is a much more commercial environment, where they do a lot more hands-on with workplace technologies and things like that.
DevOpsGroup Academy has introduced a summer placement scheme with the National Software Academy, to help their students take the learnings that they’ve got from university to a different level. Part of what made that happen is that, because we’ve had that relationship with them up until now, the level that the students are at means that they can come in for a few months and actually do some work that adds some value, both for us and for them.
Beyond that, we are doing things like giving guest lectures at universities across Wales and just trying to get involved as much as we can. The end game for us, really, is to help facilitate and extend the learning that the students get in the classroom. So how can we ultimately become a finishing school for students wanting a career in IT? And it’s about doing that while working as closely as possible with our university partners and without completely condescending the university system.
Hartley: Going back to addressing the skills gap. What can you say about the limitations of university computer science courses?
Harvey: It’s a different type of learning. Universities are crippled somewhat by the overarching governance around getting syllabuses together. And what we have found is that a lot of the time there is a resistance to change those.
So, for example, if you were ever going to have a commercially relevant computer science degree, for example, you would be looking at revising that syllabus every year at the very least, considering how technologies moves on and what becomes relevant and not relevant.
And I think it’s very difficult then, because there is this emphasis at the university level on broad learning and not specializing in a specific thing. So it’s difficult then for students to pick up things and to get in and get their hands dirty and add value to what it is they are doing. So there is a lot of general learning that goes on, and the general feedback that we get is that they just don’t have that space to get their hands dirty. To try things out. To fail, if need be.
And that’s the difference between the university and us. The whole point of our intern program, for example, is that the whole point of their learning over the year is continued. And their learning is accelerated.
So I do think that it’s probably fair to say that they learn more from the 12 months they spend with us, than they do from their first two years at university. But that’s because we are able to accelerate that academic learning by ultimately letting them get hands on with the tech. And that’s one of the most difficult things for universities to be able to do at scale: to allow students to get into the nitty-gritty, if you like, because it’s very difficult to govern that and test that and so forth.
Hartley: In terms of teaching agile and DevOps processes at university, how does that work?
Harvey: Really badly! Those that are doing it, generally, will take agile or DevOps and they will treat it as a module. And that is taught for a semester.
Instead, what you should be seeing is that agile and DevOps should be this underpinning thing that runs throughout your entire three years at university. So everything that you do, you are constantly learning about how to implement that in an agile way.
I’ve been doing guest lecturing at universities in Wales for the past five years and that has been my underlying theme—that there are some things that shouldn’t be taught as modules. They should be underpinning everything that you are doing. And that’s one of the big things we learn from our interns—on the first few weeks they are here we will give them an Agile Foundation training course and then that underpins everything that they do from that point onward whilst they are here.
So time and time again, with regards to specific agile and DevOps practices and ways of working, we are seeing that it is being shoved in as a module and, ironically, more often that not towards the end of a degree course. Rather than at the beginning, when students could benefit from learning about it off the bat.
But then again, a lot of university work is done in isolation and it’s working on small solo projects, which doesn’t lend itself well to a lot of agile and DevOps practices and processes. The types of projects that they are working on at university simply don’t mirror what you find in a commercial world. Universities work in isolation; they are not working with businesses and local people; the curriculum is all in isolated modules that are not interlinked in anyway. The barriers need to be brought down if we are going to work in a collaborative way.
Hartley: Is breaking down those barriers the long-term mission of the DevOpsGroup Academy?
Harvey: Yeah, definitely! I think the long-term goal for us is all about that accelerated learning. Learning as you are working and as you are going along. And allowing and giving people the space to do that, to learn from each other, to collaborate.
We are ultimately disrupting and changing the norm of what goes on right now, because the one thing about university learning is that it doesn’t set you up for starting your career once you’ve graduated. You are learning about these small, isolated examples that don’t really set you up for work in the commercial world.
So if you give these students the space and environment to do this accelerated learning, then within six months they are very close to what you would consider to be an associate-level engineer that comes into our organization. Which is extremely powerful for us. And it sends a really strong message about the educational methods that we use and the partners that we work with as far as training is concerned.
Ultimately we are doing this, as we’ve always said, because we want to invest in the next generation of talent. We are expanding rapidly and we are doing this because we want to give these kids jobs, in the end.
Hartley: What about the start-up scene in Wales and Welsh government funding for DevOps training for SMEs?
Harvey: Yeah, one of the pilot schemes that we are working on at the moment are “boot camps”—the idea being that an SME would send one or two people along to spend a week with us, in which time they would do two training courses, agile and DevOps together, and then they would get a final day of workshops and bringing everything together. The learners would then go away with two commercial certifications and a DevOpsGroup Academy diploma. And the Welsh government will be funding 50 percent of the cost of that course for any Welsh SME that takes part.
The other thing is that we are working with the local universities across Wales to run these boot camps with students as well. So the idea is that we are not watering these down, and creating a boot camp specifically aimed at students. We are giving them the full commercial experience.
And it also a great opportunity for SMEs to come to the boot camps to meet some really exceptional students that they may think about recruiting at some point down the line. And it’s a great opportunity for the students to work with industry professionals.
Hartley: So how does an SME get the funding? And how do the boot camps work in practice?
Harvey: Getting the funding is easy. It’s a case of paying for the course and reclaiming 50 percent of that back. You simply fill out a two-page form, which we can help with, and it means that Welsh startups get a fantastic deal out of it.
Practically, we have great training facilities in Cardiff. And we have access to similar facilities across Wales and the rest of the UK, for when we take the boot camps on the road. Ultimately we get people together to run through the two training courses and multiple different activities and games.
And then there’s a day to bring everything together, to take all that learning that you’ve had in the classroom and apply it with some workshop activities or some discussion about how this might help solve some of the challenges you have within your organization. And again, the idea of hosting it here is that we have all these different practitioners who can jump in and out of sessions to offer their advice, as an engineer or as a consultant or from whatever role you can imagine.
So it really is that next step on from just coming in for a training course. It has the emphasis on accelerated learning, so you tick three boxes with one trip, plus you get all of the networking and the collaboration that comes along with the boot camps as well.
Initially we’ll pilot the boot camps with DevOps and agile, as a combination. Then ultimately the sky’s the limit, really. There’s a huge potential for technical-based training alongside the DevOps and agile courses. Both in terms of agile working practices and how we deliver this training, this is all too often the neglected part of IT, both at university and at a commercial level.