I took this principle to heart when in February our group of eight new joiners flew to Pune, India to attend ThoughtWorks University (TWU). Our TWU batch was a big one; usually, TWU is conducted simultaneously in India and China, but this time the China class was cancelled due to lockdowns imposed by COVID-19. Half of the new joiners who were supposed to go to China were rerouted to India with the other half going to Brazil. All in all, around 80 of us flew in from Australia, Brazil, USA, UK, and Germany. Of course, there was also a huge delegation from India.
For many of us, one of the biggest challenges was getting used to spicy food...literally everything was spicy. One thing that blew me completely away though was the variety of Indian desserts - everything is so good. Indian carrot halwa is one of the best things I have eaten in my entire life.
Now, with this mandatory detour into Indian food done ...
TWU is a 5 week-long intense training programme for university graduates, career-changers, and bootcamp alumni with the aim of preparing them to be successful consultants at ThoughtWorks. TWU consists of courses, workshops, and client engagement time. Client engagement involves you and your team of developers, business and quality analysts, and experience designers delivering a software product to a client. Though a client is usually a ThoughtWorks employee wearing a product owner hat, it helped us get real-world learnings from the experience.
Knowing that there were going to be last-minute changes due to lockdowns as well as many people in the TWU class, I had a feeling that it would’ve been impossible for the trainers to provide the same type of experience to everyone. I knew that to get the most out of TWU, I had to be very precise about the sort of help I needed from the trainers.
I’ve been a developer on a number of software projects, so in TWU I wanted to spend some time pairing with business analysts to improve my analysis and consulting skills. Once the client engagement started, I found myself juggling my time between development and business analysis work. At the same time, I was also trying to maintain a high-level overview of how the team was doing and help whoever needed help. When one tries to do many things at once, they can get a feeling that they’re unable to focus properly on anything. I had good days when I felt that I was being genuinely valuable to the team and days when the context switching was too much.
I talked often to one of my trainers about the challenges of balancing my responsibilities. It was evident that if I’m not able to do everything, I had to make compromises. In practice, this meant that if I wanted to spend part of the day analysing upcoming stories or helping out another pair with designing the solution for their tasks, I couldn’t focus exclusively on one specific story. My trainer encouraged me to be more transparent about my goals and challenges with the team. When you take the role of acting as team glue, the results of your work might not always be visible, thus it becomes important for the whole team to be aware of the ways you’re aiming to contribute. When you don’t do this, you encourage the divide between the way you and your teammates see your contributions.
Another valuable lesson I learned was the value of mentoring through Socratic questioning. This means asking questions to discover answers. People tend to internalise lessons better when they’ve taken the journey from the problem to the solution. As an engineer and a problem-solver, I tend to jump in with a solution when I see a problem. It takes great resolve and patience to hold yourself back and let people arrive at the solution themselves. People also gave me feedback that I should give them some time to figure out the answers instead of immediately suggesting the solution. I found the Socratic method of asking questions to guide people really helpful. Teaching people to fish is usually a tougher challenge than simply giving them a fish. It boils down to the principle of empowering people to become self-sufficient and emphasising solidarity instead of charity.
Unfortunately, my group’s TWU experience got cut short because of COVID-19. We were sent home a week earlier, which turned out to be the right decision, since days later half of the world seemed to go into lockdown. Though the ending was abrupt, what gave me comfort is that I learned more about myself and made new friends across the world. ThoughtWorks is an amazing company that truly values diversity and having a global network of connections, and nowhere is it as evident as in ThoughtWorks University.