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LevelUp: Lessons on the Real World

In early 2013, ThoughtWorks was invited to speak at a series of guest lectures for an Australian university, targeting undergraduate and graduate students of Computer Science and Information Technology.

After the lectures, the audience asked a number of questions and it soon became obvious a divide existed between industry practices and the university curriculum. Unit testing, agile software development processes, and iterative design were virtually unheard of, and more advanced topics such as continuous delivery or continuous integration were completely absent.

Our own graduate recruitment process further highlighted this disparity. On further investigation, it was discovered that universities were struggling to keep abreast of the fast pace the technology industry moves at. Internships were providing a bridge for a small number individuals; however companies just don’t have the capacity to match market demand.

A totally different approach was needed to support students exiting university, and entering the IT industry.

In less than a month from ideation, a curriculum was designed comprised mostly of hands-on exercises with accompanying lectures/presentations.

Dates and times were set. Flyers were sent out to university professors, clubs and student organisations. The course would run one night a week, for six weeks.

The student response was overwhelming. Over 40 students registered for the series, and around 20 committed - with over a 90% attendance rate.

At the end of the first series, the feedback from students was clear: the lectures and exercises were great, but they lacked cohesion. The students wanted a seamless experience - bridging the gaps and showcasing real life examples they could really learn from.

What also became clear was that the students wanted a bigger departure from the classroom. Students wanted a real project.

The idea was terrifying. How does one orchestrate a short course where a realistic project can be designed, developed, and delivered - working only one evening per week over six weeks – with only a team of raw graduates and a small group of already-busy ThoughtWorkers?

It was important to provide as realistic an experience as possible. Attendees would need the freedom to be creative, but also to be a product owner with “business” requirements. They needed to be able to start development from lesson one without any domain knowledge or setup.

A game was the perfect fit. Everyone has played at least one videogame in their lifetime – and, besides: games are fun.

The initial program planned each project session preceded by a short (20-30 min) lecture to supplement project work. However, it was quickly discovered that the best learning was happening during project development under the supervision of experienced coaches.

“The LevelUp experience gave me a base foundation from which I could expand my knowledge and was crucial in attaining employment within the industry. It gave me an awareness of bad work practices and helped me to avoid companies that endorsed them. LevelUp helped me to formulate a plan of attack for entering the IT industry as a Software Developer and as a Consultant. I had never before heard of the Agile methodology. University had never touched upon real world workplace practices/processes/methodologies.”

– Anthony, LevelUp Student

Having self-selected into the program, the engagement from the students was high.  Many asked to visit after-hours and on weekends to spend more time on their project. Their enthusiasm was infectious - and the coaches were only too happy to give back and put in a few extra hours.

Since then, LevelUp has evolved substantially from the first session - which consisted of a crowded office surrounded by crude whiteboard sketches. Students are pushing instructors, asking for more challenging work, even homework.

LevelUp spread from Sydney to other major cities within months, and the response it has received spread the enthusiasm internationally. The first event outside of Australia was in Johannesburg, South Africa with Kampala, Uganda and Bangalore, India fast-following with planning already underway.

The educational landscape of technical courses in the developing world presents a completely different set of challenges and rewards. Budgetary and technical constraints drive different, creative solutions to the problem of bridging the global digital divide.

Future success for LevelUp is dependent on continuing to encourage students like Max, who after completing LevelUp sent a note saying “An interviewer told me I'd given a better run-down of Agile methodologies than developers who'd spent ten years doing it”.

We are trying new ideas all the time - constantly improving and innovating from the original concept. The latest release, LevelUp EXP was devised as a one day event between the longer courses to reach a new set of students and develop the lectures. This conference style event helped broaden the LevelUp experience for students who were curious about the industry.

LevelUp has been brought to life by a collaboration of dedicated ThoughtWorkers. From it’s earliest days to it’s now global reach, the project has evolved and taken shape iteratively. The vision is to continue equipping students with the industry tools they need to be successful in the ever changing technology sector.

With special thanks to Andrew Jones, Sam Gibson, Leonor Salazar, Sam Massey and Pete Chemsripong for their contribution to this article.