Case Study: Highline College's Dramatic Scrum Success

How one instructor and one Scrum coach helped students and local businesses succeed

Take a professor with vision. Add an Agile coach with the practical know-how, some willing business owners, and a class full of students wanting to learn marketable skills. Then blend with Scrum, and what do you get?

A revolution in the college classroom.

That revolution began at Highline College in Des Moines, Washington, outside of Seattle. Tina Ostrander, a computer science instructor at the community college, was facing a challenge with her capstone class, which students took just prior to graduation. Teams of students would work with local small-business owners, creating free websites for them. The format was traditional software development: The students met with their clients and captured sets of requirements. They would then return to school and, over the course of ten weeks, design and build the websites.

Ostrander explains that her students encountered several problems with this approach. "Inevitably they would save things like documentation and testing to the very end, and then they would run out of time and those things would never happen," she says. "Inevitably they would get through only 50 percent of what the client actually wanted and needed, and generally speaking the clients were somewhat disappointed and the students were somewhat frustrated."

Looking for change

Ostrander knew she needed to change the way the teams were working, but she didn't know what to do. Fortunately, she expressed this feeling to one of Highline's industry advisers, Garrick West. West is an Agile XP developer and technical coach with SolutionsIQ and a Certified ScrumMaster® (CSM), Certified Scrum Product Owner® (CSPO), and Certified Scrum Developer® (CSD). As they talked through the challenge Ostrander and her students faced, it occurred to West that he might be able to help.

"We started talking about the fact that, OK, you've got ten weeks, your priorities are changing, always getting pushback from clients," West explains. "So I made the suggestion -- based on my experience with XP and Scrum in general -- to start with something iterative, try and get demos, get constant feedback. I started introducing some of the concepts, and Tina really ran with it."

Ostrander and West recognized that Scrum could fit the need for both the students and the community business owners. Although West was familiar with a number of different Agile approaches, he saw Scrum as the most appropriate for the students because it was relatively simple for them to understand and begin working with. It was the method that allowed them to focus most on the outcome and least on the process of getting to that outcome.

Setting the stage

Ostrander added Scrum to the capstone course in the 2013-2014 school year. She and West had no difficulty getting the business owners to buy into the concept. As Ostrander explains, "The way we sold it was, 'Look, you can put anything you want on your wish list and all you have to do is keep it prioritized. Your team will never say, "No, we can't do that."' So they liked that idea. As long as they kept their wish list prioritized -- i.e., their product backlog -- then the team would just continue to tackle things until they ran out of time." Additionally, that year's businesses had no past experience with working in any other way with Highline's class -- and they were being offered websites at no cost. They were more than willing to work in the way that Highline proposed.

The students, however, saw things a little differently. They were reluctant to take on Scrum at first, because they felt that it was "just one more thing that we have to learn." Ostrander recognized that the ten-week term was already challenging for the students. Until they understood the benefits that Scrum could offer, they were simply afraid that they were being asked to absorb even more work during the same time period.

Their reaction supported West's recommendation of Scrum as the most appropriate approach. Once the classes began, the students were quickly able to appreciate that this wasn't more work but was in fact a powerful tool that allowed them to focus on their clients' needs.

Instead of spending their first client meetings concentrating on developing detailed and complete requirements, the student teams had simple discussions with the business owners about what was important to them. Then the students went back to class and immediately began developing websites to meet those priorities. The result was something tangible they could present to the business owners at their next meeting, which in turn drove a meaningful discussion about what worked and what didn't. This was more valuable to everyone than a requirements document of design concept would have been.

Visible results

Running this class with Scrum was dramatically different from trying to help the struggling students of previous years. As West explains, the differences became apparent early on: "After the first week there was a backlog, there were demos, and there was a little bit of prioritizing."

This had a dramatic impact on the students. Ostrander says, "Because it was complete (documented, tested, etc.), they had a sense of satisfaction from the get-go. Then they got immediate feedback from the client, so they could correct any misunderstandings and make course corrections right away."

The clients also loved this approach. They acted as product owners and maintained the backlog, and they liked having the ability to change their minds once they started to see the output. Because they weren't used to working with formal project management methods, they didn't always appreciate the need for accurate requirements -- which had been one of the biggest problems for previous classes. With Scrum, they could react to the demos, and as long as they kept their most important items at the top of the backlog, they would always get those in the next cycle.

This increased ability to keep their clients happy wasn't lost on the students. One wrote that using Scrum worked because "it takes into account that life is about change. It means that the client and the team aren't rigidly locked into certain outcomes. It is a constant flow of communication and evaluating priorities. This way the client is kept aware of challenges and has input."

The project teams also used class time to practice Scrum activities and principles. On class days the individual teams held stand-ups, and then they held a Scrum of Scrums that everyone joined. This helped reinforce the self-managed team concept in the larger group, not only in the small teams that were assigned to each client, and it bolstered the students' overall understanding of Scrum.

A win-win

The partnership between Highline and the community delivered multiple benefits. A number of small businesses received functioning websites that they wouldn't otherwise have had. Some of them will invest further in developing their Web presence; others are happy with what the students were able to deliver. In all cases, there is increased public awareness of their products and services -- some of which will translate into new customers and revenue.

For the students, the experience was much more positive than it had been for earlier classes using traditional methods. Ostrander says, "I think the students had a better sense of satisfaction and better sense of accomplishment. I also think they learned a valuable job skill, something they can take with them into the job market. It's something they can put on their résumés that a lot of employers are looking for."

That Scrum was a major reason for the success of the initiative is clear. As soon as the class shifted from a traditional approach to Scrum, despite the natural learning curve, the benefits were immediate. In post-class evaluations one student wrote, "I will advocate the use of Agile practices in projects in the workplace because, from what we have done so far, the sprint, backlog, daily stand-up, and storyboard concepts would make a project more collaborative and also make each individual in the project accountable."

"Communication is one of the biggest challenges at work," wrote another. "Agile is probably the best tool I've seen to improve communication and productivity. It's great for keeping the team focused and on the same page."

Spreading the word

Scrum is now expanding to another area college. This year Ostrander accepted a new position at Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington (about half an hour away from Highline), where she teaches a four-year bachelor of applied science in the college's software development program. Scrum principles are now sprinkled throughout the classes, and there is an entire class devoted to Agile practices. Of course, she is using Scrum in all of the projects associated with that program.

Ostrander's experience with Scrum was hugely successful, but her advice for others considering Scrum is practical. "I would tell them to start small," she says. "You don't have to implement the entire thing; you can just take the bits and pieces that work for you. You can be iterative in your use of Scrum; you try something, and if it works you keep it, and if it doesn't work you throw it out and try something else."

Ostrander recognizes that having West as a coach and mentor helped her make those adjustments for her class, and she recommends having someone in this role to back up anyone trying to implement Scrum. "Garrick has been invaluable to us," she says. "I still call him up and say, 'I don't know how to make this work. We are really struggling with this aspect,' and he'll give me some ideas. He's been just a huge asset to the whole endeavor."

West's advice, meanwhile, is geared toward helping organizations understand what Scrum means. "There are two ways to work with Scrum," he explains. "There is a fairly straightforward way that is going to help you with process and will fit things around that process. Then there is kind of the core philosophy of Scrum, which will impact and change your organization in terms of changing how people communicate and work together."

West says that either approach can be a starting point, but he points out that "you will actually understand and get more out of the framework and the process if you take a look at it as organizational change."

Highline delivered tremendous improvements to its computer science program by embracing Scrum. This change to one program is also delivering benefits to the community that Highline serves, through the new websites that have been developed and deployed. Ostrander has now taken these benefits and is applying them in another organization. Perhaps most important of all, the program is sending students out into the workplace with skills and experiences that are in demand, making them more employable -- and ready to champion Scrum in the workforce.