The Digital Transformer: Digital (Re)Education

askham_aug_colRecently, I watched The Intern. Have you seen it?  It stars Robert De Niro as Ben, a 70-year old widowed retiree whose boredom leads him to apply for a job as a “senior intern” at an online fashion startup. The company has all the accoutrements: digital culture, an office masseuse, and a 24-year old CEO (Anne Hathaway as Jules) who rides a bike through the office.

It’s a charming, grown-up movie, easy to watch. At first I feared there would be a bunch of cheap age-related humor at Ben’s expense ,but he’s a savvy and emotionally intelligent dude with many years of business and human, experience. He pays attention and doesn’t commit stupid faux pas.

The characters are mature and believable, the situations realistic. Critics who fault it for being slow and lightweight I think are missing the nuances, such as a scene where Ben takes pains to make someone else look good. It’s worth seeing the movie just for that short study in leadership.

Watching this account of generational contrast, leads me to this blog. Ben is adaptable. He goes from a feature to a smart phone, updates his computer skills, and gets on Facebook. And, as the movie progresses, it’s clear that the important things are timeless.

As I look out across the digitally transforming landscape, I see millions of Bens, who are in no position to retire. I also see underemployed millennials looking to get a foothold in the new digital economy, one of the bright spots in today’s job market.

And I see a large and complex educational system intended to help people of all ages develop the appropriate skills and capabilities to participate in this economy. We all pay for this system, through federal and state taxes, and tax revenues foregone in support of non-profit institutions.

I’ve been spending some time lately looking into the state of IT education. This system is more like Ben than Jules, also in need of some updates.

We’re seeing a new IT-based digital economy, informed top to bottom by an ecosystem of ideas influenced by Agile software development. We’re also seeing broad rejection of certain practices, including waterfall software development, formalized project management, and heavyweight process improvement frameworks.

I was exposed to all of these practices in my MS in Software Engineering (2001-2003, U of MN). For the most part, they were presented uncritically, and many textbooks are still in print reflecting these ideas. An entire generation of educator Bens has been created to transmit these ideas, which increasingly do not serve.

Here is what I believe Ben needs more of, in terms of themes and learning objectives:

We need more coverage of Agile and its impacts in both newer digital and traditional IT organizations, and on the workforce. We also need more attention to Agile’s broadening as a “movement” beyond core software development concerns. As an ecosystem, it is increasingly influential on higher order management approaches (e.g. Lean Startup) and IT operations (DevOps).

DevOps practices such as test-driven development, continuous integration and deployment are resulting in remarkable, widely reported claims of order-of-magnitude improvements in IT delivery (both speed and stability) when these techniques are applied.

Applied topics like development pipelines have historically seen as employer-specific, but these practices are becoming more consistent, well documented, and general. They are also nontrivial, and call for formal training and education. I continue to hear of high demand for engineers with these skills, which are learnable by people of any age.

Scrum has been widely taught for some time now. Is its central role of Product Manager well covered by traditional education? What skills do product managers need? Where are they trained and educated? What is the emerging relationship of product to project management?

What of cross-disciplinary implications – is product management essentially a business school concern? Where is the “handoff” to classic requirements management, as taught in the IT curricula? Industry direction is to maximize the rate of feedback between product vision and implementation. How can the education system support this? Joint courses between B-school MIS programs and Computer Science departments??

Here is a hard one. Does Project Management remain a required course for Software Engineering and Management Information Systems students? I have heard that UC-Berkeley’s School of Information has replaced their Project Management course with this Lean Product Management course .

I am also hearing reports of declining interest/use of “traditional” frameworks such as PMBOK, ITIL, CMMI, and COBIT, which are sometimes the basis for MIS and IT courses. My impression is that digital startups, such as we see in The Intern, do not use such guidance, even when they get large. Older organizations that have based their IT management on such guidance are experiencing friction across generational lines and when investing in new, primarily digital product lines with new thought leadership. This transition is broad and increasingly contentious, and yet in my view receiving insufficient attention from the academic community.

I see increasing attention to the cultural factors of delivering digital value, such as Amazon and Spotify organizational approaches (“2-pizza product teams”). Yet where is this taught? Can technical educators continue to disregard such topics as too “soft?” Are we producing students who have no understanding that such factors may profoundly affect the success of their organizations and therefore their careers? See for example the recent Google research on high performing teams.

The challenge of “scaling Agile” is a hot topic, and in my view is suffering from a lack of rigor (hello, industrial engineering? Organizational research & theory?) and therefore falling into petty bickering, cargo-cult thinking, and tribalism.

And what of virtualization, Cloud, containerization, infrastructure as code, and Web-scale IT, including quantitative performance analytics and engineering?  Again, I hear reports of increasing demand for engineers with these skills. I am not aware of any institution in my area teaching hands-on Web-scale engineering, as represented (for example) by the writings of Thomas Limoncelli and John Allspaw.

Of course, teaching to this new world requires a platform. How can we provide students more realistic experiences with full-stack, full-lifecycle testbed environments so they are better prepared for internships? One thing I am hearing from local companies is that interns are just too much work. I think the education system has to fix this.

As we see in The Intern, dogs of any age can learn new tricks, and yet core principles and values are timeless. The education system has pivoted before, and can do so again. If you are interested in this topic, please reach out to me; I am seeking to add to my network on this front.


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About Charles Betz

Charlie Betz is the founder of Digital Management Academy LLC, a training, advisory, and consulting firm focused on new approaches to managing the “business of IT.” He has previously held positions as enterprise architect, research analyst, developer and product owner, technical account manager, network manager, and consultant. From 2005-2011 he was the VP and chief architect for the "business of IT" for Wells Fargo, responsible for portfolio management, IT service management, and IT governance enablement. He has also worked for AT&T, Target, Best Buy, Accenture, and the University of Minnesota. As an independent researcher and author, he is the author of the forthcoming Agile IT Management: From Startup to Enterprise, the 2011 Architecture and Patterns for IT Management, and has served as a ITIL reviewer and COBIT author. Currently, he is the AT&T representative to the IT4IT Forum, a new IT management standard forming under The Open Group. He is a member of the ACM, IEEE, Association of Enterprise Architects, ISACA, and DAMA. Currently, he serves on the board of the Minnesota Association of Enterprise Architects chapter and is the organizer of the Agile Study Group, a working group of local practitioners and faculty examing Agile methods from the perspective of theory and pedagogy. Charlie is an instructor at the University of St. Thomas, and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with wife Sue and son Keane.

  • Richord1

    Software development methodologies and management methodologies come and go like the seasons. What remains the same is the rate of failure of software development projects.
    Each mythology (a synonym for methodology) camp professes they have the silver bullet. Most software I have seen regardless if they followed waterfall, Lean, Agile, CMMI mythologies looks like it was hacked together. Expediency trumps architecture and engineering discipline in most software projects. Software is put into production with “bugs” as acceptable practice. Continuous releases are the norm to “fix” the bugs.
    We often see references to successful companies and their use of the latest mythology but did these same companies actually apply these practices in the formative years or did they follow the norm; “if we build it they will come”? Did Amazon “lean in” to success? I suspect not. They were too busy trying to change the world of retail.
    The reality of business remains expediency driven. Call it Agile or call it hacking. To me its the same. Poorly designed software. The bug ridden results are proof enough for me.