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Q&A with Ahmed Sidky on ICAgile, Community and the Path to Expert

| by Rafiq Gemmail Follow 6 Followers on Oct 30, 2015. Estimated reading time: 13 minutes |

ICAgile founder Ahmed Sidky recently spoke at New Zealand’s annual AgileNZ conference on the topic of attaining institutional and individual Agility.  His talk emphasised the importance of having strong underlying foundations in core Agile practices.

ICAgile work with leading practitioners in a range of disciplines to define a learning path, with intermediary certifications leading to a peer-approved status of Expert.  They have become a respected voice in the space of identifying what it means to be Agile, offering practitioners a development path, driven by demonstrating competence in real world projects. 
 
InfoQ catches up with Ahmed to discuss their raison d’être and how they continue to develop an open model for learning.

InfoQ: How did ICAgile come about?

Ahmed: The beginnings started in 2010. The idea started in 2008, when I had just finished my PhD in Agile and I saw a real gap in the industry.  One of the things I had realised from my PhD was this notion of being Agile, that ‘Agile is a mindset not a process’ is central to organisations succeeding with Agile.  Yet, most of the education in this space was around process and tools and Scrum to be specific, at that point in time.  This desire started to create a learning program which really focussed more on Agile and Agility - and being Agile - more than Scrum or XP, or any methodology per se.  That’s where the initial idea started.

InfoQ: What issues were you specifically trying to address?

Ahmed: In 2010, to be an expert you’d have to speak at a conference, write a book or be in the public eye.  One of the things we really wanted to highlight is that there are tons of true Agile experts living within organisations, who do not have the bandwidth or desire to stand in front of an audience and talk to them.  Who are too busy to write a book, because they are leading teams or leading delivery.  We asked, ‘how do we highlight those experts?’

The second question was ‘how do we provide a path for someone who has just entered the industry and wants to become an expert?’  There was no known path.  That became the impetus for driving this.

We knew it had to be competency based.  It had to be about people who ‘know’ how to do it.  There had to be a path, which showed a progression. From there, we started a journey towards creating this competency based certification.  The model was “show don’t tell.”  You have to show people that you can do it.

We wanted to also uphold integrity within ourselves and provide a meaningful certification.  It was this balance between creating a learning program and the idea of having meaningful certifications, to motivate people to pursue the journey along the way.

InfoQ: Can you elaborate on what characterises a meaningful certification?

Ahmed: We have people certified right now as Experts.  An ICAgile Expert certification means that a candidate had to demonstrate competency in front of a panel of three other Experts through a live video-conference.  This isn’t just an interview of them, because people can talk their way out of things.  This is an actual demonstration of competency.

For example, if we’re talking about Coaching, they actually have to coach for 15 minutes.  They have to mentor for 15 minutes.  They submit a video of themselves facilitating a real team in an Agile practice.  That’s what it takes to pass an expert certification.  We provide an independent entity which does an interview to make sure this person knows what he’s talking about.

That’s very similar to the certification of doctors or other professionals.  It’s basically an independent entity which is willing to take a deep dive with that person and ensure they know what they’re talking about.

InfoQ: How did ICAgile build on existing certifications which were already in the domain?

Ahmed: Here’s the challenge we had at the time, with regard to building on top of something.  Everything in the industry at this point in time was methodology specific.  We wanted something which was Methodology agnostic.  It had to rely on Agile values and principles and generic practices and tools.  So it was really hard to build up on any specific methodology.

We looked at what was available and went underneath it and said, ‘what is the foundation of this?’  We then defined the learning objectives at that level, to accommodate for Scrum or Kanban or DSDM or SAFE or DAD or LeSS, to accommodate for any current, future or tailored methodologies.  When you go that level under, you are actually saying ‘to teach people about the Fundamentals of Agile, they need to know about these concepts and one or more tools to adopt them.  We weren’t prescriptive about the tools.

For example we specifically said, ‘people need to learn to limit WIP.’  They can limit WIP through WIP limits, timeboxes or however they choose.  They need to learn the concept.  It was therefore hard to build on top of what was there.

If we force people to learn a methodology, you ask ‘if I’m going to invest teaching my people SCRUM, how do I know they are going to be Agile?’  They may do SCRUM, but are they Agile?

InfoQ: ICAgile has a very strong community orientation.  How does this balance with it being a for-profit organisation?

Ahmed: ICAgile, structurally, is a for-profit organisation.  The reason is Governance.  This was a very deep point of discussion at the beginning on ICAgile.  We’ve seen the evolution of nonprofits in the Agile space, whether it be the Agile Alliance or the Scrum Alliance or so-forth.

We wanted to preserve a very specific mission, to deepen people’s Agile knowledge and support sustainable Agility.  So at that point in time the decision was to structure it as a for-profit, so the Governance structure may remain intact and it would not require a rotating board of directors.  That was the decision there.  As any business entity it has to sustain its existence, that’s for the good of its constituents.

However ‘look at its behaviours.’  To ‘know’ an organisation, whether it’s for-profit or not, is not by its org-structure.  It’s by their behaviours and attitudes in the industry.  That’s why I invite readers to really look into this deeply.  Look into the ICAgile model and the models of others.  Ask who is out there to advance the industry and who is out there to advance profits.  I’m not making any accusations what so-ever, I’m really inviting readers not to judge a book by its cover.

InfoQ: Can you tell us about the community centric model which you’ve adopted within ICAgile?

Ahmed: We rely heavily on the community.  We don’t have renewal fees.  We try to adopt the University model.  The goal is to help you advance to your next step.  Not to milk you where you currently are.

We are not a training organisation.  We facilitate the gathering of learning objectives from experts and sit them down.  We pay their expenses. We do not sell courseware. The service we provide is to accredit courses.

For full transparency, none of the experts contributing to the learning objectives are paid by ICAgile, they are doing it for the good of the community.  Which is why the decision from all of us was “we’re going to make this creative commons.”  This information is way too valuable for us to hold on to.  We facilitate it, use our venues and bring everyone together.

We don’t provide courseware or training.  If we look at SAFE, they are a certifying body, a provider of courseware and a provider of training.  We’re an accreditation body in our essence.  We certify individuals and we accredit companies and training companies.

So the whole paradigm depends on the first few rounds of experts trickling down, before there is real traction?

It’s a journey.  It will take time, that’s why when people ask what’s the adoption rate, I respond “it’s good.”  We have over 20,000 people in the journey right now.  How many have graduated as experts?  It’s in the ten’s.  That’s fine.

InfoQ: How can an organisation seek accreditation for a course which delivers ICAgile learning objectives?

Ahmed: The learning objectives are out there as creative commons, you can use them however you want.

If you want your course accredited, we offer a service.  Accreditation means that we have experts on staff, who sit down and review your courseware, slide by slide ensuring that it maps to the learning objectives.  We don’t look at outlines, but the actual material, ensuring that it covers the learning objects AND, this is a key point, is in the student’s best interest. 

This service does have a financial component.  It’s between $2000 and $3,500, depending on the course and the size of the course.  That’s what we’re talking about and it’s NOT an annual fee.  We don’t have fees for instructors.  So in your organisation, you can have up to 5 instructors on that call, who get authorised to teach that material.  

This is a collaborative process.  We provide independent advice on courses.  We are a third set of eyes looking at your courseware from an independent perspective.  From experts who are deeply familiar with the domain.  The experts who accredit your courseware are not trainers.  They may have trained in the past, but are not training right now.  This is important because we have to protect your IP.

We have become a trusted body to accredit courseware in the Agile space and we thank the community for this.

InfoQ: How can an individual become an ICAgile recognised expert?

Ahmed: When we started out, we needed experts, so the only people ‘grandfathered’ into being experts, were the track designers themselves.  The people who set out the first learning objectives, were the Experts.  We asked them, what do we need to do?  They defined a competency rubric, inspired from the learning objectives.

We asked what a beginner would look like?   What would a developing person look like?  What would a competent and a proficient look like?  Now what do we do?  We wait.  Why?  We get people through the journey.  It wasn’t until almost two years after the learning objectives were written that we had our first Expert pass the certification.  Why?  It takes around two years to the journey through the Agile Coaching track, The Fundamentals of Agile, Agile Facilitation and Agile Coaching, and then you had to wait a mandatory 6 months to practice what you had learned, before you could apply. 

Once you’re ready for the expert certification, you send ICAgile an email and a mentor takes you through the process.  You’d have a video conference with three experts, who ask you to prepare some material.  The experts would look for examples around facilitation and teaching to be provided in a video.

We have government officials from the US Government who have gone through this process, using their own material.  Some organisations need to blur things or beep things, but that’s the bar. 

Once you become an Expert, how do you renew your certification? Not by money.  It’s actually through a process of volunteering 12 hours a year to sit on panels, either evaluating, facilitating or mentoring new people coming into the process.


InfoQ: How do you go about identifying and developing new tracks?

Ahmed: We listen.  ICAgile isn’t just adopted by individuals, it’s adopted by corporations.  There are a number of corporations who have selected ICAgile as their learning path.  In talking to these corporations and listening to where the industry is going, we hear questions like ‘what do I do with my finance learning.’  So we’re now asking the question of what does a Finance Track look like?  Is there such a thing as Finance Track, or is it about Business Agility with a Finance elective inside of it.

Coaching is one of our most popular tracks.  I think it was a great idea to start this, because there was none.  What you had in 2010 was the Certified Scrum Master and that was really an introduction to Scrum.  It didn’t train you in deep facilitation or professional coaching practices.  

We gathered the experts and practitioners in that field.  Who was talking about Agile coaching at that time?  Lisa Adkins had just written a book.  Michael (Spayd).  Marsha Acker, who is a professional in the facilitation space and knows organisational development and has an XP background.  People may not know Marsha Acker’s name, but we know that she’s a professional and a practitioner in this space.  I was also a contributor to this track, I hired Coaches and developed Coaches.  We sat down for two and a half days with index cards and asked, what do people need to learn?  

The funny thing is that when Lisa and Michael, accredited their own class against the learning objectives, they didn’t pass the first time.  They had gaps.  Which was a testament to the process.  I remember Alistair Cockburn was one of the main creators of the Fundamentals of Agile track.  His course didn’t pass the first time.

The reason is that you have two different perspectives.  One perspective is ‘what do we need to learn.’  The other is ‘here’s my course.’  The feedback is you’re stretching it, ‘maybe you need to add some content.’

That’s the dynamic.  What we look at is what are people talking about?  What is the need right now?

InfoQ: What are some of the other tracks you’re working on?

Ahmed: We’ve been talking about DevOps for years.  It’s only in the past few years that we’ve been able to articulate what people need to learn in the DevOps space.  It’s been a year and half in the development of that track.  We’ve recently gone to people from Chef, who are experts and leaders in this space.  We’ve asked them to review and contribute to the track before publishing it and they are happy to do so.  I’m humbled and proud to bring collaboration to a community which wants to collaborate but couldn’t find the platform to.

People talk about Agile Marketing, so we went out and searched.  We put a year and half long effort into developing an Agile Marketing track.  After the track was developed, we didn’t publish it.  Why?  We didn’t think it was up to par.  The industry is still developing in what Agile Marketing means.  So, as we didn’t see substantial competency building, even though I’m telling you I have a 20 page Agile Marketing draft, we didn’t publish this.  It seemed more like Scrum for marketing, it didn’t feel like it had a coherent layer underneath.  That’s not to say anything about the experts who were doing it.  It’s saying, we’re not there yet.  Let’s table it and see where the industry evolves with this.

InfoQ: How do you keep the tracks current?

Ahmed: Every two years we pause and ask ‘do we need a refresher?’  If we need to, then we kick off an effort and it takes a couple of years to refresh the track.  If not, we keep it for another iteration.

Since launch we’ve refreshed two tracks.  The testing track was completely re-done after launch.  It took two years to build and launch the track.  Two years later we recognised that the space had evolved.  We recreated the track and brought in new experts to collaborate with people from the old track.  Shout out to Sharon Robson, Jeff Payne and Janet Gregory.  A phenomenal effort doing that.

The other track which was completely renewed was the Management track.  Now we have Pat Reed leading that effort.  Upcoming, I believe there may be a refresher in the next few years for the Coaching track, this space has evolved as well.  The Development track also requires a refresher.

InfoQ: What advice would you give to individuals who want to study the learning tracks, independently of training organisations?

Ahmed: The one piece of advice I’d give them is to track your own learning, so you can pursue a journey.  Go deep.  Go for it.  Go for the entire journey.

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