The Digital Transformer: Renewing the IT Curriculum

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As I discussed back in May, our educational system is a bit behind the curve in responding to digital transformation and underpinning practices such as Agile, DevOps, and Cloud.

Academics are paying attention. For the past 6 months I have been co-leading a team of 11 teaching faculty in Minnesota to develop a report on next-generation IT curricula.

We also were fortunate to gain the support of a distinguished group of industry advisors, including Gene Kim (author of the Phoenix Project) and Dr. Nicole Forsgren (CEO of DevOps Research and Assessment, lead investigator on the Puppet Labs State of DevOps reports, and former faculty member herself).

This report is now available for free and is titled:

Renewing the IT Curriculum: Responding to Agile, DevOps, and Digital Transformation

From the report:

Digital transformation requires new approaches to curricula and instruction. New delivery approaches such as Agile development, Lean Product Management, Site Reliability Engineering, DevOps, and related trends require an updated educational response. A survey of educational and business professionals on workforce needs related to Agile, DevOps, and other topics inform this report, which identifies five competency areas IT, IS, and computing educators should consider in designing next-generation curricula:

  • Dynamic infrastructure and operations
  • Continuous delivery
  • Product management
  • Resource and execution management
  • Organization and culture

The report proposes a set of competencies and learning objectives based on well accepted industry principles, extensively cited with over 100 references instructors can use in developing and adapting courses. The report will be sent out to hundreds of technology faculty across Minnesota and draft copies have already been requested by institutions around the world. It is, to my knowledge, the first systemic educational response to the new world of digital delivery.

There of course have been many questions and concerns raised. Perhaps the biggest concern is that “technology moves too fast” and “academia shouldn’t be about just teaching the latest tool.” Speaking for the working group, we concur! But as the report notes, “we are not faced today with merely another ephemeral technology cycle. Rather, we are experiencing a generational change in foundational models of IT-related delivery and execution, in response to accelerating digital transformation.” The Agile movement’s roots go back decades. But it’s only in recent years that its principles and approaches have clearly emerged as dominant. There still is a lot of waterfall being taught.

There are good and bad reasons for this lag. Change is expensive, and, speaking as a teaching faculty member, we can’t radically refactor our courses every semester and still give good service to our students. So, academia will always be behind industry. But there is a difference between moving at the same speed, a few miles back, versus moving more slowly and falling further and further behind. The problem today is that the gap is increasing. Academia has not had a complete understanding of the interrelated changes to the digital economy. It’s no longer enough to teach a little Agile as part of project management courses.

So, how did we approach the report?

First, the report is clear that it’s not taking on fundamental questions of computing education. The guidance is around what could be called contextual courses: things like requirements management, project management, testing and QA, analysis and architecture, and so forth. As above, we chose five competency areas, and named them carefully to avoid religious debates (like “what are Cloud, Agile, DevOps”). One of the biggest gaps we identified was product management. Currently, product management lives over in the business-school Marketing department, while the developers are over in Computer Science – and this feels similar to the old “business-IT” divide – you’ve got students very distant from each other, in terms of the academic disciplines, and yet when they get into industry they are going to be on cross-functional collaborative teams where software and marketing folks work very closely together. We can and should, as educators, better prepare them for that.

We also put in organization and culture as a primary area of concern. The research is clear at this point: culture matters. As the report says, “Educating students in cultural aspects is important so that they can recognize if the employer’s culture supports high performance. It is also critical for computing professionals seeking to advance along a management track.” In other words, we need to prepare the students to recognize when they are in an organization with a toxic culture, so they can get out of there (to be blunt) for their own career’s sake. And culture is not a fuzzy, subjective thing, as research performed at Google and in the Puppet Labs State of DevOps report shows.

Finally, one of the report’s component’s I’m particularly excited about is the section on virtual labs and simulations. As I’m fond of pointing out to my colleagues, “You can emulate systems today with free virtualization software that would have required millions of dollars in capital just 10 years ago.” I can run an 8-VM continuous delivery pipeline on a laptop (and have one up on Github for anyone to use). With containers, you can achieve orders of magnitude more. It’s amazing what we can do nowadays. Now we just need to start putting it together a little better for our students.

I’ll be presenting the report to the DevOps Enterprise Summit on November 9. We’re considering this a first draft, and want to get lots of industry feedback for a revised version to go out in April – in time to inform fall 2017 course design. We’d love to hear your opinions!

For further information, see dynamicit.education.

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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.

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