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Thoughtworks University: A graduate perspective

Most of our first two decades in life are spent learning. Or more precisely, learning how to learn. Joining the professional world, I had expected that learning would naturally be put aside while contributing took the lion's share. Of course, learning and contributing are not binary oppositions – we can always learn while making significant contributions. But when studying is no longer a full-time job, my concern is that without a deliberate mindset for learning, sooner or later the appetite and motivation for it fades away.

This is especially concerning in the technology space where continuous learning is crucial, if not central. One concrete way that Thoughtworks addresses this concern is through Thoughtworks University (TWU).

I first heard about TWU when I was preparing my application for the Graduate Software Developer role at Thoughtworks. I tried looking for more information online, but I couldn't get a good sense of what TWU actually was. While I was excited about the prospect of a five-week global training, I did not know what to expect. When I joined Thoughtworks Singapore, I asked for more information from Thoughtworkers who had gone to TWU, and for the most part, my questions were answered with knowing smiles and semi-answers like ‘it’ll be fun!'

Having now been through TWU myself, I too am guilty of giving that sort of answer to incoming TWU trainees. Truth be told, my TWU experience was an intense five weeks, with many ups and downs that can't be summarised in a polite five-minute conversation. I would be hesitant to share too many details with incoming trainees too; there's nothing like experiencing TWU on your own.

In my opinion, TWU provides incoming trainees with priceless professional and life experience by focusing on growth over learning, a feedback culture, and global experience that continues with them well after the program is over.

The focus

Thoughtworks is an organisation that believes learning should not only be encouraged but also embedded in the growing process of every consultant. Thoughtworks’ investment in TWU is evidence of the organisation’s focus on growth.

I went to TWU'63 Xi'an, China in October 2018. In the first week, a TWU trainer gave us a mini pep-talk on how much we “will be stretched” during our 5-weeks stint. I did not know back then how on-point the pep-talk was. The singular focus of TWU on learning enables tremendous growth in a compressed timeline.

At TWU achieved a focus on growth by providing numerous opportunities for me to stretch, in an environment where it was safe to fail.

The Thoughtworks culture is, in the very best of ways, unusual. Among many examples off the top of my head, the three pillars and the feedback culture both make Thoughtworks unique.

At TWU, we were completely immersed in Thoughtworks culture, and during our training, we really doubled down on practicing what we preach. Just take the example of the feedback culture. Thoughtworks encourages everyone to give and receive feedback on any number of occasions as a tool of improvement and growth. In TWU, we did feedback sessions on almost every single activity, from five-minute pairing sessions to hour-long technical showcases.
I remember the first feedback that I was given in TWU. I had just facilitated a group activity the previous night when afterward a trainer pulled me aside and asked if we could have a chat. I nodded. As I followed her away to another area, nervous thoughts went through my mind like 'Did I do anything wrong?'

'I noticed that you used the word ‘guys’ a lot when addressing the crowd yesterday. I would suggest using a non-gender specific pronoun next time.' The advice startled me for two reasons. Firstly, I did not expect that level of detail to be put into feedback about an activity that was not even mandatory. Secondly, the feedback was targeted beyond what I perceived to be my core competency as a developer.

Her small comment showed that feedback is not just about the improvement of your skills as a professional, it is also about constantly improving yourself as a person. The third pillar of Thoughtworks is to advocate for social and economic justice, and this also means bringing about more inclusivity into our world, starting with the words we choose to communicate with others.

I took the feedback as a challenge to improve myself. To be honest, removing a particular use of a word from my lexicon is still some of the toughest feedback that I have had to work on. From that point onward, I understood how seriously TWU (and especially my trainer) took feedback, and I could see how much I could grow if I took feedback seriously as well.
TWU is fundamentally a training ground (a dojo, some might say). The trainees are given focused coaching from Thoughtworks consultants with years of advisory and/or delivery experience. Having trainers who are fluent in giving feedback allows trainees to receive direct and timely feedback themselves, which can help tremendously with their growth.

I found myself growing quickly, both in my technical and consulting skills as I was given precise feedback from my trainer that I could work on. After getting some encouragement from my trainer, I was able to deliver a Lunch and Learn talk on SOLID principles which was well received by the audience. This would never have been possible if not for the nudge from my trainer that pushed me constantly outside of my comfort zone.

The people

In my TWU class, there were over sixty trainers and trainees from eight countries across four continents. It is through a journey of working and playing together with such a diverse team that you get a truly global experience.
The people I met were interesting and inspiring. Both the trainers and the trainees were the sort of people you could engage in conversations of global importance in the morning, and still happily play frisbee in the carpark in the afternoon.

Though coming from different backgrounds and having different skill sets, we learned as a team about the Agile delivery process at a dizzying speed. Beyond that, we also questioned the learning process and suggest ways to improve our learnings as we progressed. Some nights we stayed up, refactoring codes, and some nights we decompressed and hung out at the local bar.

There were so many moments that helped me to be a more emphatic global citizen, from seeing my Brazilians friends crying after their elections to discussing censorship and net neutrality with my Chinese counterparts.

The takeaways

As the classic saying goes ‘give someone a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach someone to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.' At TWU, I learned how to apply clean code principles. I learned how to pair with various people. I learnt how to present during stand up and showcases. Those skills are valuable in their own right. More valuable to me, though, are the many skills I learned that will help me grow and learn beyond TWU.

Giving and receiving feedback is an art, one that we started honing in TWU. When done incorrectly, it can sometimes feel like pulling a tooth. When done correctly, it helps both parties to grow and the relationship between the two to become stronger. My experience in TWU made me become more aware of having such crucial conversations and to be better at handling them both in my personal and professional life.

When I started at TWU, I did not know in what aspect I should learn and grow. About a week in, I learnt a million things I wanted to work on. Similar things are happening as I learn more and more about various technologies at Thoughtworks. In TWU, planning my growth through making Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely (SMART) goals helped me in prioritising and optimising my learning. I continue to use this technique to keep myself motivated for learning beyond project assignments. 

Most importantly, I learned that probably the single most effective catalyst in growth is having a mentor. They are the people who will give you the hard advice because they are invested in your growth. They are also the people who trust that you will get there because they have ‘been there, done that’ themselves.

Closing thoughts

Every TWU group is a microcosm of Thoughtworks – the weird, the awesome, and the ever-evolving. Through this experience, I learnt that knowledge transfer is a similar concept to that of osmosis – a phenomenon we learnt about in school. The rate of transfer depends on the net concentration difference between two solvent molecules. At TWU, where we have a steep gradient in experience from trainers with years of practice in software development, we are able to speed up the learning process significantly.

While on paper it may seem that the steeper the gradient of the knowledge transfer the better, in practice there may be a case for an optimum gap on the level of experience between a trainee and a trainer. An important unstated role of a trainer is to show the personification of growth in Thoughtworks. This function is fulfilled best when the trainee is able to see themselves achieving the growth in the future, rather than seeing it as unattainable.

When the gap is too large, some trainees may find it to be too big a jump from where they are currently.

The transfer also depends on the type of membrane used to divide the two solvents. When everyone is open to feedback, growth is the fastest. After all, learning should be independent, self-directed and deliberate. It is a matter of how much we are willing to stretch ourselves.

The people in TWU really make the experience. No two TWU groups are the same. Having said that, there is certain camaraderie formed with people having gone through the training even across groups and regions. Strangely, the experience is both a shared universal experience and a deeply personal one.
TWU is by no means a silver bullet potion to magically create a superstar consultant. What it provides, however, is a roadmap and provision for a junior consultant for years to come. Later, I found that through the experience, I had been given a surprisingly accurate depiction of what the daily work of a Thoughtworks consultant is like.

If learning and growth are major factors in choosing the company you want to work in, Thoughtworks is a place to be and Thoughtworks University is the place to start.


Big thanks to Isa Tokunaga (TWU’63 trainee), Jane See (TWU’63 trainee), Timothy Foster (TWU’51 trainee, TWU’63 trainer) and Jessie Leung (TWU’41 trainee, TWU’63 trainer) for feedback on the article, and to Collins Jaise Abraham for editorial support.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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