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IT training programs stall amid search for best practices

Without a standard set of best practices to refer to for IT training programs, or any industry consensus on the best general approach to training, large enterprises have begun to trail smaller, more nimble counterparts in the efficiency of their software releases.

If a genie popped out of a bottle and offered Mark Tonnesen all the tools to revamp his company's IT training programs, this is what he would wish for:

First, Tonnesen, the CIO at Freedom Financial Network, a financial services company focused on consumer debt reduction in San Mateo, Calif., said he'd like directions to a reliable source of diverse IT employees. But nobody seems to have discovered such a source -- and with a widespread IT skills shortage, a wellspring of untapped IT talent seems an unlikely find.

Thus, secondly, Tonnesen said he'd wish for access to a repository of information on the types of IT training programs that work for other companies.

E-learning resources such as LinkedIn Learning, Skillsoft and Udemy teem with DevOps and Agile best practices information, but Tonnesen said he'd prefer a set of procedures vetted through real-world experiences.

Digital transformation poster children do exist. In fact, they are plentiful -- companies with their own Agile and DevOps training programs have increased in number the last few years. Home Depot, for example, has made waves since 2018 with its OrangeMethod to upskill retail employees into programmers. Capital One's internal Technology Development Program is widely considered exemplary. Tech vendors, too, are rolling out new IT training programs for employees, most recently and notably Amazon's Upskilling 2025, a $700 million program that the behemoth intends to use to retrain 30% of its workforce -- some 100,000 employees -- by 2025.

Mark Tonnesen, Freedom FinancialMark Tonnesen

While a company the size of Amazon may be able to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into internal IT training programs, smaller companies such as Tonnesen's will need simpler and -- ideally -- cheaper means to achieve similar results. Without a large company's critical mass, even a small on-the-job IT apprenticeship program is difficult to establish.

"We can't do an IBM-style three-year internal [IT training] rotation, because we don't have 100,000 people -- I get about four IT hires a year," Tonnesen said. "When you have only 60 or 80 engineers, it's tough to train four people right out of college."

Hence, his desire for a set of templates for IT modernization, based on industry-standard best practices in Agile, DevOps and digital transformation.

However, no such standards appear to be forthcoming.

Large orgs struggle with software velocity and stability

The search for consensus on IT training program best practices comes at a potentially worrisome moment for enterprise IT departments, as the need for efficient software delivery increases. A research survey conducted this year by Google subsidiary DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) showed a statistically significant discrepancy between software release performance in large organizations and the most elite performers in the Agile and DevOps world.

"Companies with 5,000 or more employees are not developing and delivering software with as much speed or stability [as top-performing organizations]," said Nicole Forsgren, DORA founder and CEO, now working in research and strategy at Google. "They tend to have more tightly coupled [application] architectures, which is often one of the biggest constraints, and heavyweight change processes."

In addition to legacy architectures and outdated change management, IT consultants have observed that large organizations are more often structured in a supply chain model involving multiple sub-organizations and contractors. Such a format makes it more difficult to realign organizations according to Agile concepts than those comprised solely of internal employees.

"Those enterprises are having a lot of difficulty breaking down some of those [old] patterns," said Mike Wolf, managing director at KPMG, an accounting and professional services firm based in New York that works with large enterprises on digital transformation projects. "They need to change how they interact with [supply chain] vendors, their expectations of what those vendors should deliver and how they pay them."

There is a larger aversion to cultural change in enterprises that smaller companies don't have the same problem with.
Mike WolfManaging director, KPMG

Such organizational inertia will take time to resolve, especially when enterprises are locked in to multi-year contracts with suppliers. And that's to say nothing of the human factor of aversion to change within large and established organizations, where specialized job roles have been in place long enough that altering them will be difficult.

"The obvious elephant in the room is, you are taking startup principles, and applying them in places where people have worked for 20 years," Wolf said. "Things like, 'I've been a point-and-click Windows admin for 20 years, and now you're telling me I have to go learn some Linux command line.' There is a larger aversion to cultural change in enterprises that smaller companies don't have the same problem with."

Early IT training standards efforts diverge

Some consulting firms and vendors see common patterns in IT training programs, whether they're developed internally at companies such as Amazon, or delivered via consulting and managed services engagements. A few industry organizations, such as the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and the Scrum Alliance, already offer a standard set of curricula for large-scale Agile and DevOps training.

However, such plans for organizations of any significant scale remain highly complex to implement, and IT training programs of any stripe require experiential learning and implementation practice to be effective, not just a curriculum. The last mile of IT training programs -- classroom instruction, hands-on training and advice on business reorganizations -- remain the bailiwick of consultants, whose services are typically outside of small and midsize companies' price range.

Some consulting firms want to draw up a set of standard practices to serve as a template for IT training programs industry-wide. For example, Cprime Inc., an Agile software development consulting firm in San Mateo, Calif., recently signed a partnership with Netherlands-based DevOps Agile Skills Association (DASA) to develop curricula and best practices for IT training programs tailored to various roles within typical organizations.

"If you're a product manager, you don't need to know about the nitty-gritty of Jenkins pipelines; you just need to understand certain concepts," said Chris Riley, DevOps delivery director at Cprime. "[DASA] has different directions you can go in if you're a product manager, if you're a technical architect, if you're an implementer or if you're in security and compliance."

Cprime also plans to use a recent acquisition of Blue Agility to create packaged kits for role-based IT training programs that it will offer as a subscription, but DASA may offer an open source means to obtain the same information, Riley said.

While there are efforts afoot to democratize IT training programs, one problem in these early stages is that there isn't any consensus on a single industry standard. Two Agile training programs geared toward large organizations already exist that position themselves as industry standards in SAFe and the Scrum Alliance. Each method has its own set of certifications for IT training and program instructors. While the Scrum Alliance focuses primarily on Scrum, an Agile team organization approach, SAFe addresses a broader set of DevOps and Agile concepts. Other Agile training industry organizations include Scrum.org.

Ken France, CprimeKen France

"SAFe and the Scrum Alliance are competing frameworks, and even though Scrum is a core foundational aspect of SAFe, the certifications associated with them are different," said Ken France, vice president of Cprime's scaled agility practice. France is a certified SAFe Program Consultant Trainer. "[There are efforts to knock down] the walls [between the organizations], but the damage has kind of been done, which is unfortunate."

Other IT experts criticize such certification programs as too commercially motivated. They argue that a broader body of knowledge that covers not just Agile and Scrum, but also BizDevOps concepts such as organizational data management and governance should be available as free and open source content, complete with version control on GitHub.

"I firmly believe that if we say to the world, 'this is industry best practice,' my students should be able to access it for free, and that is simply not in their business model," said Charles Betz, an analyst at Forrester Research and a faculty member at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Betz donated material from a textbook he wrote to a tech industry consortium called the Open Group, which republished it as the Digital Practitioner Body of Knowledge Standard (DPBoK).

"Under consortium governance, [DPBoK] is going to be open sourced -- we'll be able to change it with a pull request," Betz said.

But this is just a start, in Betz's view. He said he'd like to see industry groups with more clout get involved in standards efforts, such as the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

"ACM and IEEE curriculum is woefully behind, and they need to fix it," Betz said.

'Dojo is a no-go': Google dissents on IT training philosophy

If independent organizations can't agree on IT training program standards for the industry, such standards may come from a household name vendor that can reach a massive customer base, such as Amazon or Google.

So far, neither vendor has indicated whether they intend to offer such programs. Google published a set of DevOps transformation guidance documents this month based on DORA's research findings, however, and will follow up with blueprints companies can use to implement grassroots organizational change and site reliability engineering techniques.

It's very unlikely that Google's DORA will align with SAFe, the Scrum Alliance or any other program that calls for classroom study according to a standard curriculum, though.

"The challenge with Scaled Agile Framework is that too often, very large organizations can see that as an endpoint rather than a stepping stone," Forsgren said. "If you use a maturity model to fit several organizations, you don't see good outcomes, but if you instead teach organizations how to set their own strategy, following the Theory of Constraints, which we outline in this year's report, you see much better outcomes."

Forsgren also expressed skepticism about the wider applicability of internal corporate IT training programs implemented in recent years at large companies such as Target. These programs are sometimes referred to as dojos, after the Japanese term for a space for intensive learning.

"Dojo is a no-go," Forsgren said. "[In the most recent survey], the highest performers focused on structural solutions that build community to practice grassroots proof of concepts as a template and as a seed [for transformation]."

By contrast, dojos were used by high-performing organizations just 9% of the time, according to DORA's research.

"A lot of dojos are hitting the news, but they're only getting the news for a few cases," Forsgren said.

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