Skills for developers, skills for institutions

Training doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be led by a teacher. It doesn’t even have to be called training. Key to the success of Dev8D is how it provides training in an atmosphere of friendly, playful collaboration. Developers are given the opportunity to hone their skills and learn new tips and tricks in areas they already understand, as well as developing new skills in subjects which are completely new to them. And as individuals benefit from this training, so do universities. Developers return to their institutions full of ideas for new projects – and armed with the skills and contacts to make those ideas reality.

Dev8D 2010 was divided into different zones, with varying degrees of formal training. At the top of the scale were the coding labs, in which attendees were submerged for several hours in intense training in a specific area such as Clojure or Python. Next were the workshops – group sessions to discuss specific areas such as Linked Data or cloud computing.

The expert sessions hovered in the middle of the formal to informal training scale – as a collection of 15 minute lightning talks, they varied from tips on how to avoid common security faults in university websites to a conversation about how developers could become more involved in climate change issues. Informal training took place in the Project Zone and Basecamp, places for people to show off projects they had built, work on new projects, and chat with other developers. Everywhere you looked at Dev8D, people were learning new skills or developing existing skills.

The most narrowly defined training of the week took place in the coding labs, under the guise of ‘programming dojos’. The programming dojos took the essence of paired programming and dressed it up in martial arts, as ‘Ruby on Rails Sensei’ Tim Donohue explains.

“The way it works is that everyone sits in a semi-circle, facing the screen. As the ‘Sensei’ I introduce a problem and challenge the room to solve it. Two people come up and sit in the middle; one is the pilot, who will be typing code, and the other is the co-pilot, who supports and offers suggestions. (Yes, we are mixing our metaphors!) Every ten minutes everyone moves around one place, so the co-pilot becomes pilot, the pilot sits in the semicircle and someone else comes to the middle as the new co-pilot. Everyone is involved in solving the problem, and it’s a very hands-on approach to learning a new language.”

Tom Morris was also involved as a Sensei in a Scala programming dojo. Tom believes that the real value of this kind of training environment is how it develops more than just programming skills. “You can learn how to do something in a book, but this kind of event offers a lot more,” he says. “A lot of people code by themselves, and so something like this is a good way to improve your skills and your confidence in working with other people. In the programming dojo you have to communicate with other people and make decisions as a group – exactly what you have to do in a work situation, when working on a real project.”

Dev8D is a valuable training resource – a cost-effective way for Higher Education institutions to keep their developers up to date with the industry. While the formalised training is undoubtedly useful, it can sometimes be the more informal training which yields the greatest results.

Dev8D facilitates this kind of informal training by cunningly provides lots of opportunities for developers to talk to one another. Whether it’s by building an arduinos together in the workshop or sharing a power socket in the basecamp, there are ample opportunities to meet friendly people who want to talk about their work and are happy to share their skills.

One developer who made the most of an unexpected training situation was Steve Coppin from the University of Kent. Steve met Charles Severance at Dev8D, and was able to work directly with him to create List8D Moodlefication, a plugin he had been planning to work on at the University of Kent – and which ended up winning second place in the IMS / Blackboard challenge. “Creating the plugin back at the university would have taken us two weeks,” says Steve. “But through meeting Charles we’ve actually been able to do it here at Dev8D in two days, and we’ve done it better.”

Dev8D is not just for developers, of course. Dr Peter Murray-Rust from Cambridge University is a chemist not a programmer, but he came to Dev8D because he was interested in how he might be able to learn from what developers were doing. “I had a very interesting conversation with Ben O’Steen from Oxford University about RFID tags,” says Peter. “We’re looking for ways to track items in the lab, and I’ve come away with some really interesting ideas we can start trying out straight away.”

Ongoing training is important in any industry, but in the higher education sectory it is essential. Insttitutions which don’t encourage their developers to keep training risk missing opportunities – opportunties which may lead to new research avenues, opportunities which lead to commercial applications, opportunities which will help institutions to operate better as a whole.

As budgets are tightened across higher education institutions must get smarter in how they approach training – and events like Dev8D could become increasingly useful in maintaining the skills of the sector.