We work for BT, a huge telecommunications company that is undergoing a radical transformation into a digital networked economy company. We currently have approximately 100,000 employees worldwide, over 90,000 of them in the UK. Inside the large umbrella of BT, the BT Exact organization accounts for almost 8,000 people involved in developing IT solutions for a wide range of customers. We are moving toward a more agile way of doing things and applying the principles of Scrum to our projects. In order to facilitate this approach, we have begun offering in-house Certified ScrumMaster courses. We have faced some challenges along the way, but overall we feel our approach works better for BT employees than bringing in outside consultants.
We currently have one CSM trainer, Geoff Watts, who has been through the official certification process provided by Ken Schwaber. Paul Goddard is scheduled to co-teach with Ken shortly. We also have a number of agile coaches within the company who have been increasing knowledge sharing about a number of complementary features to Scrum (e.g., user stories). In addition, we have a great deal of in-house case study material we can use to accompany the courses.
As there is so much core material, we have been able to pick and choose content that will best fit the needs of our audience and have tailored the generic course to focus on how the Scrum theory applies to the practicalities of BT work. For instance, many BT projects involve large deliveries for different lines of business. Therefore, we have set aside a specific slot to consider the applicability of Scrum for large projects and another slot to consider projects with multiple customers, using specific examples of how Scrum principles have been applied to BT projects with these characteristics. In this way, we are able to show the audience that Scrum can work on BT projects and make it feel more real and attainable for them. Having internal Scrum practitioners teach a course specifically tailored to BT offers participants a true sense of the real-life application of Scrum rather than some textbook theory.
We are fortunate in that we had existing training facilities and an established online course catalog. Our coaching engagements had stimulated a lot of demand for Scrum training, so, once we had our course ready to go, all that remained for us to do was to book a room and to put the course out on the company intranet system.
The majority of attendees seemed to appreciate having the course taught by colleagues rather than consultants. On their feedback forms, attendees wrote that they felt they related more to us than they would have if the trainers had been external consultants because it felt “more real.” As one participant said, “Great course: should definitely be continued and should definitely be run by BT people rather than externals.”
There were some drawbacks to that feeling of familiarity and the emphasis on Scrum as it relates to BT, though. Attendees ranged from those who were in part responsible for the wider changes we are undergoing to those who weren’t at all sold on the idea of moving toward a more agile way of working. When discussions began, attendees tended to wander off the subject of Scrum and onto the issues of transforming the company. These discussions sometimes turned into strong debates about the rationale behind agile development and its practicalities to all situations within the company. This isn’t a problem we encounter in other internal courses. As one colleague put it, people don’t go to a Java class to debate the reason for developing in Java; they go to learn more about the theory and applying it. However, the potential for debate is one you must be prepared to face when teaching Scrum to those unfamiliar with (or unconvinced about) agile methodologies in general.
Having the course advertised on the intranet learning system had the positive effect of increasing agile awareness throughout the company. Because any member of the BT Exact community can register an interest and book a place, we attracted a wide variety of attendees. Our first classes averaged about fourteen attendees each, all of whom brought different experiences to the table. This facilitated more lively discussions and created better value for attendees. Attendees also liked the way the course is itself a bit of a mix: some time is allotted to presentation and some time is spent doing exercises. We vary presenters throughout the course to keep things fresh. We also have attendees swap partners for different exercises so they are exposed to a variety of viewpoints and can begin to form networks.
For all its good points, the disparity among attendees had some negative effects as well. When we first began the courses, participants varied widely in their overall knowledge of the fundamentals of agile. Having to start at the beginning for some participants detracted from the purpose of the two-day course and tended to frustrate those who were already well aware of the benefits of agile methodologies and signed up specifically to become ScrumMasters. As should always be the case, we have since inspected and adapted our approach. We changed the course description to better describe the expected audience and direct those who are agile beginners to some introductory steps first. One such step is an agile computer-based training course that addresses the basic concepts of agile delivery. Another introductory step we have introduced is a half-day overview of Scrum for people to get the fundamental concepts before delving into to the deeper aspects of those concepts through peer discussion and exercises.
Our Lessons Learned
Overall, this was an excellent experience both for us as trainers and for the attendees, but through our challenges we have learned some valuable lessons. One very practical lesson involved the training room itself. When we gave our first course, we made the mistake of assuming that because our online booking system described a room as seating a certain number of attendees, it would fit our needs. We wish we had checked out the room we booked before the day of the first course. When we arrived, we found the room completely unsuitable (about eight feet wide and forty feet long. It was like a corridor!) and were lucky that a trainer using an adjacent room fell ill. The second room (though it was described as seating sixteen) was a bit small, which provoked complaints from some attendees about the uncomfortable temperature and cramped quarters. At the same time, others liked the way the more “cozy” room encouraged all the attendees to participate. We have now identified which rooms work well for our unique mix of presentation and discussion.
Of all the lessons we’ve learned, the most crucial has been how to address the skeptical questions about agile that arise during the course. One of the first things we do now is to make the point that questions are welcome and will help drive the direction of the course. We demonstrate how to ask questions in a helpful, positive way. We also use the learning points from the “Art of the Possible” exercise to help address the questions and keep the class focused on Scrum.
As with all new endeavors, I would be very worried if people didn’t have doubts and reservations; however, with our combination of BT experience and agile and Scrum knowledge, we will always find a creative way of applying the principles of Scrum to any BT scenario.