Lessons from a Software Engineering Dojo

[Here's a recap of the first talk I gave at XP2010. Since it was a Lightning Talk, rather than posting slides I've summarized my talk and added references directly in this post. I welcome comments and discussion.]

Craftsmanship is an interesting model for thinking about how to teach someone to become a great software engineer. Industry hasn't always done the best job taking advantage of this metaphor for enabling training and instruction. Sure, there's agile coaches and conferences like XP2010 where peers can collaborate, but rarely does an organization, a business, deliberately encourage and enable engineering growth for the software engineers they hire.

As we learn how to build software we go through the three stages of craftsmanship.  For most of us, we are apprentices in university, taking courses and learning the basics of computer science and software development by imitating our professors and the books we read.  We are journeymen the first few years on the job as we start our careers, applying the lessons we learned in school in practical setting and trading tips with fellow journeymen.  Eventually some of us pass some kind of test under the tutelage of a master and are ourselves declared as such.  The frustrating part is that so few people find masters to help when attempting to cross the threshold from journeyman to master.  How do you know when you've made it?  Where are these great masters, these mentors for helping to learn how to be a great software engineer?

Wouldn't it be great if there were a place, a dojo if you will, that we could go to practice with other journeymen under the guidance of masters, interacting with apprentices just starting out on their craftsman journey?  As it turns out there is such a place.

The Master of Software Engineering program at Carnegie Mellon has been teaching professional software engineers how to build software better for just over 20 years now. The faculty and staff at the MSE have honed some practices that can be directly applied in industry. Normally I wouldn't advocate transitioning academic education practices to an industrial environment but the MSE is a near perfect hybrid of industry and academia. The studio project, the capstone project which forms about 50% of the curriculum is a long duration (16 months), real project with business clients who expect software that will provide real business value. Commitment varies and during the summer semester, student teams are working on the studio project as a full time job, dedicating over 40 hours a week to the project. In addition, unlike most academic programs, all students are experienced engineers with at least 2 years of industry experience.

A dojo is a place for training, a place where a variety of students with different backgrounds come together to practice and become better at their craft. So while the MSE makes for an excellent dojo, it's not easy for everyone to move to Pittsburgh for 16 months of intense study.  So, how can the success of the MSE be applied within industry? I think that there are six key practices where the MSE excels that industry should take note for training and professional development.  These are practices which can be applied in nearly any business setting with effective results.

Education - In school we can take classes. On the job we can read books, start discussion groups, read blogs, and go to conferences. Education becomes a catalyst for growth.

Mentoring - Mentors are guides who encourage growth by asking probing questions and pushing those being mentored out of their comfort zone. Mentors are there to dust you off when you fail and never directly solving problems for those being mentored (a favorite technique of the MSE mentors is to answers questions with questions).  In the MSE program, every student meets with a mentor once a week for 30 minutes to discuss how the project is going and thoughts on software engineering. This is a significant commitment for industry and so holding mentor meeting perhaps over lunch maybe once a month is sufficient. The point is to help novices and journeymen to find masters for guidance.

Proposals - Proposals help teams focus on the think-act-reflect cycle for approaching software from an engineering perspective. In a proposal, teams think through methods, processes, and techniques that will be used and this written (it may be brief or as detailed as necessary) proposal becomes the basis for evaluation and reflection for the team. In essence the proposal acts as a plan for determining an approach to software engineering practices.  The whole point is to get student engineers to start thinking in terms of the simple to see but takes a lifetime to master, cyclic think-act-reflect approach to problem solving.  See this article from my studio team's reflection blog on understanding when decisions are made and the complete archive of proposals from my team and others are available from the MSE studio archive for some concrete examples of how proposals work.

Presentation & Critique - Communication and collaboration is a powerful tool for learning. During a presentation and critique, a team presents a proposal and that proposal is the critiqued by both mentors and peers. The comments and questions are then taken into consideration when revising or changing proposals. This is a powerful tool that doesn't cost much and fosters knowledge sharing across an organization.

Peer Collaboration - This is so obvious I shouldn't have to say it but simply talking to peers is one of the most often overlooked sources of information and learning. Many professional environments inadvertently create physical barriers which further prevent collaboration. Team lunches are nice for getting to know each other, but genuine collaboration must involve asking hard questions and then collaborating with a diverse group of individuals to help answer those questions.  Presentation & Critique is one way to facilitate this.  Setting up the environment to encourage collaboration is another.

Reflection - I have come to believe that this is the single most important practice in software engineering. If only more professionals would take the time to reflect on what they do and use that reflection to drive improvements then many of the most difficult problems we face as an industry would begin to resolve themselves. Effective reflection is ongoing, mentally intense, and difficult to do well. It involves both hard data and soft feelings.

All of this combines to create a place filled with passionate software engineers of all different levels of mastery, each learning from one another, and taking the field of software engineering to an entirely new and better plane of existence.  If you are ever in the Pittsburgh area, please stop by the Cave (the place where the studio teams do their work) for a tour!  You can contact information and further details about the program on the MSE Website.


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