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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Shannon Ewan & Ahmed Sidky on ICAgile Learning Objectives and Expert Certifications

Shannon Ewan & Ahmed Sidky on ICAgile Learning Objectives and Expert Certifications


1. Good day this is Shane Hastie with InfoQ, we are here at Agile 2014 and I’m talking to Ahmed Sidky and Shannon Ewan from ICAgile. Shannon, Ahmed welcome, thank you for coming to talk to us today. We know each other but probably most of our audience don’t, would you mind briefly introducing yourselves, Shannon can I start with you

Shannon: Absolutely, thank you, so I’m a career IT Consultant, Agile Practitioner, have international project and program management experience and recently with the growth of ICAgile have joined the team as the managing director to work with Ahmed on the leadership team, so I’m very excited about that.


2. And Ahmed?

Ahmed: I’m Ahmed Sidky executive director of ICAgile, and also career wise enterprise Agile coach.

Shane: Tell us a little bit about what ICAgile actually is.

Ahmed: So ICAgile is an accreditation and certification body with really the main purpose of advancing the state of Agile Learning. We want people to learn more about Agile, instead of learning sort of the fundamentals over and over again, but really picking a discipline and going in depth, learning more in that and reaching the state of competency in those disciplines, and so what we do is we accredit Agile Learning programs and we have knowledge based and competency based certifications, as sort of tokens to motivate people on the way.


3. You talk about discipline but isn’t Agile about cross functional teams and generalizing specialists; everybody does everything?

Shannon: That is a great question and I think that it’s a very important question, I think we are facing more and more as we get into this around enterprise transformation and Agile becoming the new normal and the way organizations ideally want to work, well yes, we do want self organizing teams and people who can dabble in multiple areas, there is still that need for expertise, as an enterprise we need some very strong test engineers, we need very strong coaches, various people who understand adaptive management, who really understand value management, both for a project team as well as for an organization. So the intent is really to look at what is that path, what to people need to learn to really gain that expertise. To honor the generalizing specialists model actually the ICAgile Roadmap does look at this path to mastery which entails, showing expertise in multiple disciplines which is something that we are continuing to talk about.

Shane: So tell us a little bit about that Roadmap.

Shannon: Yes, so the Roadmap has been collaboratively developed over several years by thought leaders from around the world in various Agile disciplines and currently there are 8 tracks, that align with disciplines as we were talking about earlier, and it’s designed to continue to evolve, we have to take an Agile approach to learning about Agile, because if we decide these are the disciplines and lock them in and we defeat the purpose of continuing to evolve and sustain. So the Roadmap is really designed to evolve both within disciplines and also to add new disciplines, especially as we see Agile go beyond IT into corporative support organizations and that type of thing. So the Roadmap, as I mentioned, each track is developed by experts in that domain and it takes, it allows learners to go from the entry level through their intermediary certifications into the expert program which I will talk about more in a minute and then to continue into ICAgile Master Certification.

Ahmed: Additionally really the key focus as Shannon was saying is now looking outside of IT. I think a lot of Agile has focused within IT and the benefits of Agile are, number one realized when it goes beyond IT and the benefits can extend tremendously beyond IT, and so we are launching 3 new tracks DevOps to look at the operation side, Agile Marketing and Agile Leadership, so focusing on Leadership. So those are 3 tracks that are coming up next.


4. So what is the current set of tracks if you have it on the top of your head?

Ahmed: Yes, let me try this out, so we have the Agile Fundamentals, Agile Testing, Agile Development, so there are sort of the core technical ones and then we have the Agile Coaching, Agile Value Management and Agile Management. So the Value Management is more on the business side and then the Agile Management is like Project Management and Adaptive Management.

Shannon: And the most recent edition is the enterprise coaching, so we actually differentiate Agile Team Coaching and Facilitation, an Agile Team Facilitator can be analogized to maybe a Scrum Master role, so looking at the importance of mastering those skills at the team level and maybe moving towards the program level and then the Enterprise Coaching track it’s much more of a system’s view, what are the skills that you really need to transform enterprise, which is pretty exciting and we are excited about releasing that track.

Ahmed: It's been two years in development.


5. Good things take time. So what is the take up of ICAgile?

Ahmed: It’s definitely increasing, we’ve hit our first milestone where over ten thousand certified members at this point. We are also really seeing a large intake in the past 6 months within corporations. Many different corporations are coming to us, and it’s almost always the same story, which is: we have our own version of Agile, so it’s not Scrum, it’s not Extreme Programming, we have our own version and we want to offer certification to our employees as motivations for them and we want to do it in house, can you help us? And because we are accreditation based, because we do not focus on a specific methodology and we have learning objectives, we are able to cater to those requests, so they work with us, they create their own course and then we accredit the course and now their own internal employees are instructors and they can now offer certifications for their employees as sort of motivational token. So we are seeing a lot of those kind of requests, which is great because I think that’s critical to see corporations now create their own flavor of Agile, I think that’s when we really see agility start to flourish, when they break the sort of here is by the book, sort of shu level recipe of do this, do this, do this; and now they are actually seeing what works for them, that’s the agility we are looking for and we want to support.

Shane: How do we prevent that from being watered-down in terms of the core values, principles and philosophy of Agile.

Ahmed: The Learning Objectives, that’s the power of them. So we’re actually seeing the organizations that come to us and say: “Here is our course” and we say: “That’s great but you haven’t cover all these Learning Objectives” and it actually provides guidance to them, is like: “Oh, but we don’t do this” ;well let’s have a conversation, why don’t we do this; and so it’s suddenly the Learning Objectives are sort of like the Manifesto and the principles where they protect what people need to learn to know at the basics, and then they can add their own flavor but without breaking what needs to be there, and so that’s the balance. And Shannon, I mean you can talk more about the accreditation program itself.

Shannon: Yes, so I will talk about that and another thought was just triggered in my head around, how do we keep it from getting watered down, I think that’s the beauty of the Roadmap being a path, because that being watered down will eventually have to self correct, people are not going to be able to get to that expert level without having a foundational learning,. It’s like, you know, I could have poor form and make a free throw at 15 feet, but am I be going able to make a jump shot at the buzzer with someone in my face if my fundamentals aren’t sound, and I think that’s where that true agility comes in, so really keeping that rigor along the path and bringing back to Ahmed’s point about the accreditation process, you know that is something that we take very seriously and the learning objectives as I said, were crafted by, world wide experts; there are tips in there in terms of what needs to be interactive, ways that instructors can really make sure that they are driving home key learning points, and we spend several hours working with the training providers both before during and after the accreditation sessions to make sure that they are prepared and they understand the objectives and have ideas of how to meet them and we’ve actually gone through with them and make sure both their material and those presenting the material do understand the value of the learning objectives.


6. You are accrediting the course content against the Learning Objectives and the course deliverers?

Shannon: Well that’s correct, the rigor of the course itself is really what is accredited, however we do make sure that all the instructors, we have that we call Authorized Instructors, so the instructors are familiar with the Roadmap, the material and you know, why certain learning objectives are important without restricting, because we want to be Agile, we want sustainable agility, so we want organizations and trainers to be able to add their own flavor, their own messages and that’s absolutely awesome. We don’t want a canned product coming out and we also want to assure quality, and I think as people are choosing training providers and as individuals are signing up for classes, seeing that ICAgile Accredited, there is a weight to that.

Ahmed: There is a comfort, it’s really, it’s to the student, it’s to the organization to say: “Listen there is been a third independent party, ICAgile, that has looked at this course and has made sure that this course covers the Learning Objectives set by the experts”. That is a comfort today to many organizations because without that how do you know, I mean you’ve done your research, you’ve looked for trainers but how do you know that this trainer and training organization is actually going to give your employees what they need in order to succeed, and that’s what we are really after. And that point around the accreditation, as Shannon was saying, it is linked to the actual course, the instructors we believe that training organizations will put even more effort than we will, to make sure that the instructors present the best image of the training organization. Our interest is to make sure that the instructors know the learning objectives, so that they can dance in class and look at what the needs of the students are without breaking the core learning objectives that need to be delivered.


7. So we touched on corporate getting involved, you’ve talk about training organizations, who else is engaged?

Ahmed: There is a lot of interest right now that is coming up in government space and, Shannon do you want to talk more about that?

Shannon: Well just being based in the Washington DC area, there is a lot of transformation work happening in the government space and yes, there are some certifications out there, there is more being invested in not just consultants coming in to work on government transformations, but how do we truly transform government IT and beyond, as I said before, we want to go beyond IT, and so really looking at what are the right training programs to invest in as a government agency to really bring people along, help them transition into new role, I mean not vastly different roles, but how does at this Agile transformation really impact what they are contributing to the organization.

Ahmed: We’ve recently had, and this is again the awareness of ICAgile increasing; we’ve had a government agency reach out to us and say: “We want specifically ICAgile accredited training” and I was really curious and ask why specifically ICAgile. They said well: “We looked at the other alternatives and we need something that focuses on the mindset not just the practices” and this is something we are really proud of within ICAgile that you know, from day one we’ve always said: “Agile is not a process only, it is a mindset, it is a way of thinking” and to truly enable people to succeed on this journey, they have to start by understanding what this mindset is, and I think more and more people are starting to recognize that and I believe that’s a really good sign because that is what will enable sustainable agility when people change the way they think.

Shannon: Absolutely and just to tag on to that, thinking of having had some Agile transformation experience in the government space myself as a coach, there are a lot of barriers to what some people might look at it as a quote traditional Agile process even though we’ve said that we don’t really believe there is “an”Agile process. And teaching that mindset, what I’ve seen happen with government executives who really truly believe that this is the way to go, they find ways to say: “Ok, yes we have all these regulatory requirements, how do we do them in a value based way?” How can I tailor this process so there are not constrained by saying: “Well we can’t fit our security testing into a sprint so therefore we can’t do Agile”, they’ve got the mindset, they understand, they apply the principles and they find a way to make it work.


8. What about Academia?

Ahmed: Academia (thanks for bringing that up) There is an overwhelming interest right now that’s happening from Universities specifically. They're already teaching, many Universities are already teaching, Agile within undergraduate or graduate programs, and the connection now has becoming well, why don’t we offer them something that is recognized at the end of their class, so that actually this helps promote their career growth, and helps them in their jobs search and so forth, and so the fundamentals of Agile, the ICAgile Certified Professional is becoming something that a number of Universities are looking into accrediting their undergraduate courses, software engineering, project management courses and using the ICAgile Learning Objectives, you know a couple of Universities actually brought their faculty from the Business school, from Computer Science school, they set down, they actually have a sort of an Agile round table even looking at using Agile within the University now and running University operations using Agile and extending it, but really looking for the students to give them the fundamentals of Agile, the ICAgile Certified Professional, as they graduate. So it’s a growing interest and we are really happy because hopefully and I hope most people in the Agile Community would agree with this, in 5 years I would love to see none of us, no Agile experts teaching fundamentals; that people would be graduating with that, and our focus will be on specialties that are currently available and new ones that we don’t know about yet.


9. Speaking of some of that stuff we don’t know about yet, what are the future tracks, what’s the direction?

Ahmed: What’s the future? Well the future is a couple of things and from a track perspective we are really looking at Agile Finance right now, and to look at one of the big challenges from most corporations that are moving towards organizational agility, is how do we match the finance and governance, legal compliance and those things, with the way things are funded and capitalized in Agile Product companies or Agile Service companies.

The other one is HR or Talent Development and with that we're even looking whether as part of that or branching out of that, but there is a large amount of interest in what’s called Adaptive Learning. So almost think of Agile Education and reforming the way people learn, and whether there’s going to be part of the track on human development and talent development in HR or if it’s a separate track we don’t know, but there is a working group already assembled right now, discussing is there even a track here, are there a set of Learning Objectives that we could do and we are talking to a number of people that have Masters and PhD in Alternative Education and Agile Practitioners that come from a teaching background as well. The other part of the future that I’ll let Shannon really talk about more is extending the Expert certification program. And Shannon was instrumental in starting that so I'll let her talk about that.

Shannon: Sure, so we’ve had, definitely had some success with that this year in 2014 and really increasing the pipeline of candidates interested in taking it to the next level, and this is what you know, the truth behind this as a Competency Based Certification really comes into play, I’ve worked as a facilitator of some of the expert sessions and we are talking about rubber to the road, this is not just taking a test; you're in front of three experts on a virtual meeting with industry recognized experts, doing live coaching demonstrations, doing live mentoring demonstrations, showing videos of facilitating Agile Practices and speaking to that and how you adapted . One of the assessors very rightly said “we definitely have not design a check the box exercise”; it really isn’t. And for me, just helping facilitate the process, it really is an amazing thing to see the passion not just from the candidates with the courage to go through it, also the track founders who really their motivation is 100% about, “these are the types of testers we want in the world”, “these are the types of coaches that we want in a world that we can be proud of”, so it’s that commitment to excellence. For the sake of really just being good at what we do and creating great enterprises that I found, it’s just been a lot of fun quite frankly and we look forward to continue to expand those programs because each discipline really is going to have different methods of showcasing that expertise, and we are going to get as creative as we need to get to make sure to keep that rigor there.

Shane: That’s a high bar.

Shannon: It is a high bar and while we want to have a lot of interest, the key is that it's a Competency Based Certification, so you’d mentioned, you used the term “watered-down” so how to keep things from getting watered-down we really have to keep our eyes on the ball in that regard.

Ahmed: So for that reason so that’s, from day one that ICAgile started, the idea was if we look at the Agile Space we are missing meaningful certifications that are based on competency . Certifications have their value and I know this is a very touchy topic in the Agile Community, but let me talk about it for a minute. I don’t think most people are against certifications per say, we’reagainst meaningless certifications or misguiding certifications, but being as part of the industry, taking the part of a person that used to hire coaches, I want to make sure, and in the hiring process it’s very hard, I can’t in an interview say: “Ok, get up and coach us”. I want to make sure that I am investing in a person who actually did not just sit with the team but knows how to really coach, how to really mentor, how to start a team, how to handle conflicts, I need that assurance, and what we wanted to do from day one in ICAgile, is create these meaningful certifications that are based on what we call “Show, don’t tell”. There is a lot of people in our industry that are great talkers, we can talk the talk, but when it comes to actually do, they fall below par and what we wanted to do is a certification that will highlight the experts, meaning people that actually have demonstrated competency to others. Today Shane, a lot of the experts in our industry are recognized by who’s published a book, who’s published anarticle, who spoke at Agile 2014, and while these are potentially experts, there are a lot of unknown experts in the industry, people that are in corporates doing this day in and day out, we want these people recognized because we believe that there is a lot to be learn from these people. They are doing what we are talking about, and so if we can highlight them, and the interesting point is I would say 90% of the experts that have applied to date are from corporates, they are not independent consultants, they are not coaches, they are not people that are looking to just add a credential, they are people that have pursued the path that started, and I know some of them personally, that had started not knowing what Agile is, and over the past 3 years have learned the fundamentals, have learned facilitations, have learned coaching and practice that worked with teams and now they say: “Can I pass this bar, can I be recognized by my peers as also someone who knows their craft” and for us that’s a great bar to set and we have multiple knowledge based milestones called certifications, because we understand the industry, we are not calling them certificate of completion or anything, these are knowledge based certifications and what we really care about are the Competency Based Certifications, the experts and the master Agilist.

Shane: Tell us a bit more about that Master Agilist thing.

Ahmed: I handed back to Shannon. Shannon: Yes, so again this is an interesting subject because we talk about Mastery and you know, in my head, my personal view, you are always working towards Mastery, it’s a journey not a destination and so we’ve talk a lot about what exactly does that entail, and one of the things I mentioned earlier was expertise in multiple disciplines, we are actually looking at a kind of point based system in terms of your expertise versus contribution to actual enterprise agility. There is a bunch of different categories in terms of getting someone at least to the level where they qualify to then come meet with the assessors to actually go through to the Agile Mastery. to datewe have not, because this is something that we are taking very, very seriously, it’s not like we are looking for the token master, how does that really align with what ICAgile is about, how we want to contribute to the industry and what individuals are bringing and showcaseing.

Ahmed: And Shane to the viewers I think it’s important to know that it took 4 years, 3 to 4 years to come up with the Competency Based Certification, we have tried multiple versions of this, and to your point it is a high bar, and we have finally find the model that has worked, people have graduated from it and to get to the Master Agilist we don’t anticipate 4 years, but we will take the right time, we will won’t rush it, because I think what’s more important than having it ready at hand, is having something credible, meaningful, that people can look at, aspire towards and say yes. This person using this designation, because words have a difference, when I call someone Master Agilist and they are not, that will devalue not only the person or ICAgile, but the industry, and so we really need to make sure that when we put a name to a certification, it is up to par to the qualifications and capabilities of the people.


10. Excellent, jumping back a little bit, let’s talk a bit more about these Learning Objectives, how do people contribute to them, how do we know that they are valid, that they are good?

Ahmed: We do a random word generator. It’s a process, it really is a long process and the way we do it is first identifying the experts. So we look at the let’s say we were talking about Agile Leadership, so we first look and say: “Ok, who are the people that are talking about it and do it?”. All tracks usually have a combination of what I will call though leaders, consultants, contributors to the body of knowledge and practitioners. We always have this balance of both, and so with Agile Leadership just as an example, I don’t know why I pick that example, but who are the key people talking the talk and doing this, and we look outside of the Agile Industry as well, and then we say: “Ok, who are practitioners?”, let’s find the practitioners that are actually, we can point and say: “This person is an Agile leader, everyone will recognize that” and then there is a process of telling them what is ICAgile and having them to agree, these are usually very busy people, having them to agree to volunteer time to first of all sit down together and, usually it’s a phenomenal because multiple points of view now are for one of the first times being put on the table together and discussed and argued to come to consensus on, and I don’t want to call it a body of knowledge, but a set of Learning Objectives, because it is not a body of knowledge, it is here is what people need to learn.

Shannon: And we get to use our facilitation skills, in the processes..

Ahmed: We get to definitely practice our facilitations skills there. So once the group has agreed, we pick one or two core people and ask them to find other people in the industry because we may not know who are the right people in the industry, so we assemble the groups , we call it Core Design Group and Review Group, and then the Core Design Group meets. It is a lengthy process, they meet multiple times to draft the Learning Objectives, polish them. Most tracks have around 20 pages of Learning Objectives, so people can visualize, we are talking 60 to 90 Learning Objectives per track. This is a substantial amount of work, so based on their schedules we divide that up into working sessions. It’s usually a combination of a face to face kick off, multiple remote working sessions and a face to face wrap up, and then this is sent out to the review team, we get feedback, the feedback is incorporated and once that it’s done then we release what we call the Beta release out. The Beta release goes out and when it goes out it means that training organizations and corporations can start accrediting against these Learning Objectives. Things remain in Beta for a while, until we feel that we are getting less and less feedback, because once organizations actually start using the Learning Objectives to accredit courses , then is like: “What do you mean by this? Well no one wants to learn this, or this is really complicated, no one could learn it in the way you’ve wrote it, you need to brake it up into 4 or 5” . So all this feedback is now great because, and sometimes the ironic part is the actual track designers may actually be providers as well, so when they turn around to actually build a course based on the Learning Objectives, they look and: “Who wrote this, oh me” but this actually doesn’t make any sense as a track designer, and then there is a discussion with the committee, is this really a valid point or not, and so the review cycle is pretty rigorous and it’s never ending. We had released the testing track 2 years back and we just re-released it 3 months ago sort of version, I don't knowwhat to call it version 1, version 2, but the key is the continuous improvement. The same thing happened with the development track, the value management track has been refined. So all the tracks are in constant state of motion and we need them to be like that or else I think will lose our agility all of us.

Shane: So training providers then have to keep their material up to date.

Ahmed: Definitely, and I think that’s great for them and for the students.

Shannon: And we do that in a manageable way, so it’s not like every time there it’s a minor change or something, we do have kind of built in review cycles for that and we support our training organizations in keeping materials up to date and it’s always a 2 way process as well, you know a trainer will say like: “You know I really feel as I’m talking about this topic, it doesn’t make sense to do it without introducing this”; same thing let’s go back, let’s look at this, let’s review do we need add something, this is make sense, do we need to talk to our other providers who are looking to the same material.

Ahmed: And it’s for the community by the community, we have taken a commitment upon ourselves even that we’ve invested countless hours in this, this is Creative Commons, this is for the community, this is not for us to, call our intellectual property at all, we actually want the community to use this to design their training programs, this is our contribution to the Agile Space.

Shane: So somebody could take these Learning Objectives and build a course with or without they choose to accredit it.

Ahmed: Long is the state of the Agile Learning is being advanced, we’ve achieved our mission.

Shane: Shannon, Ahmed thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today, really interesting and looking forward to see where this grows to!

Thank you Shane!

Nov 19, 2014