Through a collaboration with our Social Impact Program, Thoughtworks University (TWU) is now an important resource in our work for social justice. New Thoughtworkers are learning our methods and culture by working as teams on meaningful projects, pro bono, for humanitarian organizations.
How it came about
We started TWU back in 2005. Craig Gorsline, then Managing Director for U.S. operations, visited our office in Bangalore, and was impressed with both the energy of the staff as well as their knowledge and practice of the methodology. At the time, we were still breaking ground with Agile, and Craig saw that Bangalore would be great place to send Thoughtworkers for training, since their program was so effective. Importantly, the Bangalore location would also provide, for most of our people, their first personal experience of living in the developing world, instilling social consciousness by seeing how billions of people live.
Initially the curriculum was comprised of five weeks of classroom training—learning the concepts of Agile and how they fit with what was learned in school; how we work together, and with the client, on projects. The program culminated in a final week structured as a project simulation, with the trainers—who are experienced Thoughtworkers on loan from their billable work—acting as the client.
Learning is not a spectator sport
After a few years, in 2009, with the initial TWU grads having experienced a number of real projects, we conducted research to find out how we might improve the onboarding. What people told us was that by far the most valuable part of TWU for them was the final week—the mock project: their opportunity to put concepts to the test, seeing how everything fit. The coaching, learning from each other and one-on-ones with the trainers were also valuable; but the classroom training was consistently at the bottom. So what we found, was that the most valuable part of the curriculum was being given the least time.
We set about to change that. We could condense the classroom training to just a week or so. We could put students on a mock project for five weeks, to teach concepts as a consequence of the project.
But our Three Pillars inform decision-making at Thoughtworks, and mock projects would only have helped the first two Pillars. Project simulations would allow us to get our new hires ready for billable projects—that’s the first Pillar: being a sustainable company. Simulations would also achieve the second Pillar: to champion software excellence, by exposing students to the newest technologies that they will use in their work.
Our third Pillar is promoting social justice. Mock projects would leave no lasting benefit, other than the learning. So, rather than setting up mock projects, we came to think wouldn’t it be great if we could match our incoming TWU classes with worthy organizations having a need we can fill in five weeks?
The Goldilocks problem
It’s not as easy as that, really. Because our ultimate objective for TWU is learning rather than delivery, we have to carefully evaluate potential projects. Is it something that a small team (we want the team small since coaching and one-on-ones are an integral part of the experience) can accomplish in five weeks? Is the work something that achieves our training objectives? We have to consider the technologies involved, the ability of the client to actively participate, as well as the type of work.
This is where our Social Impact Program comes in. We make contacts with potential clients, to discuss opportunities and look for matches: projects that meet the training needs of TWU, and will have the potential to make a difference in the world at the same time.
How it comes together, for good – the Sukrupa projects
One of the first clients for TWU was Sukrupa, a Bangalore charity whose mission is to educate children and help break the cycle of poverty in India’s urban slums. Sukrupa had needs that fit our criteria, including a new payments-processing facility to their website to enable donations and a better system for student records.
A few weeks before a new TWU session began in January 2011, Thoughtworks trainers, themselves experienced project consultants, spoke to Sukrupa and SIP leaders to prepare the new team for a fast start. We evaluated the technology stack and got architecure and infrastructure set up in advance.
The incoming graduates were immersed in a week classroom training: how we do projects; how we work with clients. The next week they began work with their first client, a team of volunteers and leaders from Sukrupa, including the founder of the organization. The project duration was fixed at five weeks, so the team had to figure out how to scope stories, estimate, and figure what could be done, fast.
They ran into real-world issues: the Sukrupa volunteers were absorbed with ongoing work, quite important work, aside from the TWU project. The team had to make some decisions to keep things moving on schedule, always relying on the joint project vision from the Inception, and their knowledge of Sukrupa’s mission. Everything was regularly checked and recalibrated at the weekly requirement’s meetings and showcases.
With the support of their trainers, by the end of that TWU session, in just five weeks, the class had launched a new website that not only lets Sukrupa accept donations from anywhere in the world, but makes it easy for volunteers to update news about the work and the children, to begin building a community with their donors.
We want every new Thoughtworker to understand how hard life is in much of the world, and why our Third Pillar is so important to us.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.