Teaching kids Kanban and coding

Last week I volunteered to take part in Money Day at Furzedown Primary - a school for kids aged 5-18 with special educational needs.  I've never taught before and I don't have kids myself so I really did not know what to expect but it was an incredibly rewarding and fun day. Money Day introduces primary school children to the world of work by getting them to write a CV, go to a mock job fair, take part in interviews and experience a day of work.  They even get paid a very small amount at the end of the day.  My job was to represent a pretend web-design company and teach the kids to build a website.

The day started like this...

All the kids filed in to the assembly hall, clearly very excited and sat cross-legged on the floor. The teachers set the scene about the world of work (with a cautionary word about unemployment too) and gave a run down of the agenda for the day.  There were five companies with jobs on offer: garden centre, department store, office, web design and a cafe.

There were presentations from a couple of older pupils that had set up a business selling hand-made wooden ornaments at local craft fairs, another from an ex-pupil called DJ Jack, a couple from the teachers and then my presentation. The best bit was telling the kids that when I asked them 'who da boss?' they had say that I was; on first practice I had forty kids point at me and shout 'You Da Boss!' Crowd control badge unlocked!

They then had to go off and apply for a job at the 'recruitment fair' that had been previously set up. They queued at one of the employer's desks to run through their CV's which described their best qualities, such as 'I like to help people',  'I like playing games', 'I walk the dog with my mum' and I asked each of them a few simple questions: 'why do you want to become a web-designer?'  Some of them were very clued up and were mostly only 9! I was very impressed, although one boy responded confidently 'PLANTS! I like plants!' - bless him. I sent this fellow over to the garden centre queue.

I had 5 jobs going: 1 Project Manager, 2 Designers and 2 Developers.

Screen Shot 2012-06-24 at 17.03.15
Screen Shot 2012-06-24 at 17.03.15
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Screen Shot 2012-06-24 at 17.03.00
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Screen Shot 2012-06-24 at 17.03.29

After picking my team and signing our pretend contracts we went back to the classroom.  I asked who wanted to be the project manager and a confident chap called Bailey put his hand up, I appointed him and he obediently replied 'Ok Boss!' There was less certainty about who'd be the designer or developer.  Playing with computers and taking photos held equal appeal.

Objectives, design rules, users and our backlog

I set  our objectives for the day, which were:

  1. Tell the story of Money Day
  2. Publish it to the the Internet and tell people

We discussed what makes a good website and a bad website. They all love CBeebies and YouTube; they'd all heard of eBay and Amazon but they reckoned the key to a good website was 1) brilliant backgrounds, 2) clear layout and 3) good information.   These became our design rules.

Here's Bailey posing in front of our first card wall.

Bailey, the Project Manager
Bailey, the Project Manager

They very quickly identified that the number one user for this website was going to be their parents, followed by teachers (theirs and from other schools) and lastly their friends.  They got to this point unprompted and with real confidence which I thought was remarkable and exactly the answer I would have given.

We then created a backlog of cards, imagining ourselves as parents, teachers and friends and discussed prioritisation.  The two cards we prioritised were 'What kids are doing today' and 'comments about Money Day'.  The designers quickly went off with the cards, their cameras and notebooks around the school and the developers helped set up the FTP software and create a basic HTML template.

Backlog and users
Backlog and users

Multi-disciplinary team delivers

When the designers came back they selected some images, we did some pairing to reference the images in the HTML file, added some text (their words) and we were good to deliver our first website. Bailey sounded the bike horn, we high-fived and he awarded the team with stickers - just like real work.

The Delivery Team
The Delivery Team

Instant feedback from 'users'

I tweeted that we'd delivered the site and asked followers for feedback.  We got some lovely replies back and the kids could not believe that grown-ups with proper jobs had seen their work.  It helped that I was able to say 'this person works for Channel 4, this person worked at the BBC...'.  They loved it.


What Money Day taught me

Teaching is bloody exhausting.  I'll be careful not to take the piss out of teachers getting home at 4pm and taking long holidays.  I think I passed out on the sofa even before my nightly fix of Newsnight.

The class room was very similar to my workplace.  There was bunting everywhere- just the GDS office - lots of bright colours and cards on walls, stickers, toys, progress charts and circle-time.  Actually, the smaller seats suited me quite well given my little leggy-wegs.

And then there's the stuff that people desperately try to fight back.  In my world it's the gantt chart, pointlessly long documents and corporate buzz words; in teaching it's words like 'step vocabulary, plenary, WALT' and the rigidity of tests and the National Curriculum over creative learning and singular focus on the children rather than The System.

The kids totally got the Kanban wall by the way and the idea of delivering things incrementally. It made perfect sense to them and I did not need to explain anything twice.  In fact one of the teachers said she might start using it to organise their days.

It was great to see that they were excited by the Internet and making things and I would recommend the experience to anyone. I had great fun and all my team would would fit in perfectly well in a workplace like mine. I'm sure their parents would be proud.

Agile does work in government

Some feel that agile is poorly suited to government and is just a fad. One of the principle objectives for this project was to demonstrate that an agile approach can work. For us that meant delivering a prototype that:

  • demonstrated a user-centred central government, single domain website
  • used a small, multi-disciplinary team of developers, designers, editors, sat in the same room
  • came in for a budget of £261k and was delivered by 10th May

I drew upon Scrum for a structure to manage the project but I knew not to over do it.  In my experience projects can quickly become about the process and not the product, with everyone getting hung up on big ‘A’ Agile.  I claim no particular expertise – I am a practitioner and you have to allow room for pragmatism.

Working iteratively, within an agreed upfront budget and time box allowed us to get a prototype out the door quickly.  In that time we were able to deliver two releases of the software before finally releasing to the public 3 days ago. We have been pretty open throughout the development and that has been useful for us as a team and hopefully for those people outside of the project room with an interest too.

This is my view of how things developed and some of the challenges we faced.

Obsession with user need

We spent the first two weeks in February recruiting a team from inside and outside of government, talking through the scope, agreeing some design rules and agreeing a vision for the Alphagov product based around the recommendations of Martha’s report.

We ended those two weeks with a list of priortised user needs (based around search analytics from Directgov, Hitwise and departments), roughly grouped into functional areas and stuck to the wall. Each card (or user story) represented a user need, prioritised roughly from left to right and top to bottom.

Crucially also there was a fair amount of@tomskitomski and @memespring‘s product experience. All this was more than good enough to get on with twelve weekly development sprints.

Small ‘a’ agile

We kept the rhythm of the project with daily stand up meetings, weekly show and tells, and certainly in the early stage of the project we’d get our heads together to work out as a team what worked and what hadn’t.

We talked a lot – regular interruptions across the room were accepted, sometimes there were creative tensions but crucially everyone worked alongside each other in the same room with a focus on delivering a product.

The product evolved as we moved through the weeks and our view of the product changed.  A language developed around ‘glue’, ‘gov’, ‘tools’ ‘guides and answers’.  User stories cards became a mix of user needs and  placeholders for a bunch of tasks.

We used a backlog and estimated the size of each story card  to negotiate the weekly work loads. But the team did not get hung up on the concept of velocity (apart from @jamesweiner who thrived on story points and would try to game the system to deliver a ‘winning’ week).

Mostly though we organised ourselves around what felt right.  In fact, for the last two weeks we relied totally on a list on the wall of ‘things to do’ – because it was the quickest and simplest way of polishing up what we’d already done.

The now infamous Sprint #5!

We (or rather I) didn’t get everything right. By the end of sprint 5 I was just about ready to hang up my Excel and opt for a life at the RSPCA.

One of the challenges was balancing momentum with getting the team together.  I started on the project in the last week of Jan, by Feb the 5th we had Richard on board along with Jimmy, Dave, Helen, and Peter.  It wasn’t until mid-March that we had afull team in one place all of the time.  This was disruptive and made syncing design and development through iterations of development and working together that much harder.  In Sprint 5 we only delivered a couple of stories and Sprint 6 was equally tough but thanks to a monumental effort and some pragmatic concessions, we delivered.  From then on we properly started to fly.

A talented, self-organising team.

Most of the Alphagov team are individually capable of designing and building digital products and despite everyone having a role with a title, the boundaries are difficult to establish in practice.  We knew who the drummer was, that be Russ, but everyone was capable of being the lead guitarist – so to speak.

Like every other project team it took us time to settle into each other but by working so closely in one room, with space to draw on the walls, with the minimum of interruptions and a single focus around product we were able to produce a lot in a short space of time.  We launched a day later than we announced, partly to do with the rhythm of comms, but happy to suck up an extra day to tweak and take the password off in good order.

The quality and amount of feedback and active debate on TwitterFacebook andGetSatisfaction since then has been phenomenal.  We are responding to feedback and able to iterate the product day by day. That’s got to be a more effective way of consulting with people to design products that help them deal with the Government online.

This project was not just about the team in the room. A tip of the hat to Chris Chant and Tony Singleton for taking a chance and giving us the space to do this, and to  Jimmy LeachNeil Williams, Darren Leafe, Simon EverestDavid PullingerNeil Franklin and many others in the Civil Service that helped make it possible.