There’s a lot of tech at King. And a lot of people working in tech. So how do we make sure those people have the right skills and knowledge to do that – and also to develop and prosper in their careers in general, through tech training? This is where the Tech Academy comes in.
What does the Tech Academy offer?
We’re a small team – led by Per Malmén in Stockholm, and then there’s me in London, but one with a big mission – to make sure that everyone in King gets the tech training they need.
So what classes as tech, in this situation? Well, it’s hard to define, but really, if it seems tech, we’ll do it (we leave PowerPoint and Excel well alone, mind you). In terms of audience we cover the game developers, and the backend developers, and the data scientists, and the artists and technical artists, and even marketeers and accountants – anyone in King, in fact, if it’s tech training they need.
What sort of things do we cover, then? We cater for languages (courses include beginner, intermediate, and advanced C++, Java 8, Scala, Lua, Unity, Angular JS) and tools (such as Gradle, Git, Jenkins, Docker). We also cover techniques, such as BDD and TDD.
Then there are some courses that defy categorisation. A course on Game Development Mathematics? Check. A Learn to Code course in Scratch for those non-technical types in King who’d like some insight into what their colleagues get up to? Check. Electronics Fundamentals – just for fun? Check.
Why do we have a tech academy?
Let’s talk a little bit about why the Tech Academy exists. I’ve worked in training for over a decade, and have experienced quite a few different organisations, and King is somewhat unusual in that training isn’t always about immediate business needs. Of course, often people attend training on subjects they need for their role, but just as often people attend training because they want to learn something new, in order to enhance their skillset.
Tech teams here have a lot of freedom in how they go about things, in terms of the languages and tools they use, so there’s rarely any company-wide push to train everyone on a particular tech topic by a set date, which is often the case elsewhere. Instead teams will come to us and ask if there’s training on a particular tool because they are going to adopt it on their next project, or people will attend training on a language that they won’t use in their current work but that would potentially enable a future move to another project team. Tech training at King is not about, ‘Let’s give you just what you need to do your job and no more,’ but is much broader than that. It asks what will enable you to deliver things better for King, and at the same time allow you to continue developing your own skillset.
How do we deliver tech training?
Then there’s the how…
One key way of delivering the tech training here at King is via the classroom. Old-school is sometimes the best school, and we’re very keen here on having lots of labs and hands-on exercises in our courses, which lends itself well to classroom training. We tend to use external courses as a last resort (we find they’re often too generic with regards to content); instead we track down the best subject matter experts (SMEs) within the business and gently persuade them to create and deliver courses – they’ve got the experience, the authority, and all the best stories about when things go wrong, not to mention the ability to Kingify the course (i.e. talk about how we do things here specifically, and give King-related examples).
The culture here is such that people are really happy to share what they know with their colleagues, and there’s obviously a kudos attached to being an acknowledged expert in a topic – and of course the act of creating and being ready to deliver a course means the trainer gets an opportunity to really dig in deep to the topic and increase their knowledge even more, which is another benefit for them. The Tech Academy then backs them up with help and advice on course content and structure, and delivery skills training if they want it. Courses tend to be a day or two long, and feedback both immediately after and four weeks later is generally really positive, and always helps us to keep improving things further.
Limitations of classrom training
So classroom training works well for us. But it does have its limitations. I mentioned above that we as the Tech Academy team are split over two sites. For tech training in King, our audience is split across nine sites – six in Europe, and then Singapore, Shanghai and Seattle. Lots of different locations, and several time zones. This of course brings its own challenges. We also have to factor in that the subject matter experts have real jobs too, of course, so developing a new course can take quite a while (three to four months, on average) depending on their workload. Then to deliver it takes more time away from their desk – and if they need to do that on sites other than their home site, that takes even more time – we do get other SMEs to learn courses once they’ve been piloted, so that more than one person is able to deliver any given course, and ideally we have these SMEs across multiple sites to ease the travel burden. The opportunity to see the other sites is often appreciated by our trainers (summer courses in Barcelona seem particularly popular, for some reason…), but it can mean delays in when courses can be scheduled – which means delays in when the learners can access the course. Not so much a problem when people are attending a course for interest, but difficult when it’s a topic they need for their project.
Additionally, to get the size of audience that’s worthwhile can take a while too. Audience size varies from course to course; we generally let the trainer decide on their preferred class size, and a lot of our trainers, especially if they’re travelling, prefer to work with groups of about 10-15 people. This minimises the number of times the course needs to run, which minimises the SME’s time away from their work. Unfortunately this means those on the smaller sites will often have to travel to one of the bigger sites to attend a course, because it’s rare (though not unheard of) to get this kind of audience size on their site for any given course. Even on the bigger sites, after the first run or two of a course, demand drops off, and then those still wanting it may have to wait some time for there to be a large enough audience again.
So we’re broadening our scope when it comes to delivery methods. We recently launched our first e-learning module, Introduction to Git; I developed this using Articulate and Camtasia, based on content from the SME who used to deliver the classroom version. Now anyone who needs this course can access it as soon as they need it, rather than having to wait for a scheduled course (feedback after previous courses clearly showed us that this was often too late). Moreover our SMEs can now concentrate their time spent training on more advanced content. There will be much more e-learning to follow, on a wide variety of topics; I’ve just started two more, on SQL and HQL, with modules including interactive exercises to help replicate the classroom experience of hands-on labs.
We’ve also been using e-learning developed by others. There’s so much tech e-learning out there on the internet, a lot of it free or very low cost, and whilst the quality varies, some of it is great, again incorporating hands-on labs and exercises. So we recently ran an experiment, using an e-learning course to get people up and running on Scala, but with a twist; we booked it as a classroom session and sourced a local SME to be there to kick the day off, and then to pop back in every now and again to answer any questions that arose (we could also summon him by instant messenger, as if by magic…). As it happened, we didn’t need him very much at all; the e-learning course was great in itself, and some energetic group discussions resolved the few questions that arose, but I think having a live expert available is definitely a plus on these occasions. We learned some lessons – for the next run the group will do some work to set up their development environment in advance, and we soon realised that this particular course needs two days, not one. But overall, it’s clear that this way of doing things, for this topic, works well.
This delivery method has many upsides – it’s fast to get a course scheduled and run (no need to wait for development time), bringing everyone together in one room to do it enables discussion and learning consolidation (as well as minimising the distractions and interruptions that would invariably arise if people did it at their desks), and the SME isn’t necessarily spending a whole day or two supporting the course. In addition there’s no minimum class size, and we can set these sessions up on any site; if there’s no SME on the site in question, then we can dial in via video conferencing for the Q&A sessions. We’re now looking at using the same approach for AngularJS, as well as scheduling more of the Scala sessions on other sites, and we’ll keep an open mind about using it for other things; but it lends itself well to generic, non-King-specific topics, where there’s some excellent e-learning available.
Of course, it won’t always work; the quality has to be there. As an example, we investigated creating a similar course on another topic but could not find any good e-learning for that, so we’ve come back in-house and an SME is creating a classroom course for us on that. It’ll take longer, but it’ll be much higher quality – and sometimes that’s the right trade-off.
There are always going to be times when the best learning outcome involves having a live instructor. To that end we’re planning to try remote learning, using a tool such as Adobe Connect, which will give us a virtual classroom that people on any site can enter. That way they’ll see the instructor, and the materials, and the system in use too; and we’ll be able to incorporate live exercises, as the trainees will be able to share their screens with the instructor to get feedback or advice. Our current plan is to try this with the Game Development Mathematics course, which currently runs in a classroom in Stockholm, but which was very popular with people on other sites expressing interest when we first announced it. This will also work well as a trial because it’s a couple of hours a week for ten weeks, so we can start our virtual classroom adventure with shorter sessions before building up to full day and multi-day courses. Of course, we’re also going to have to look at the structure of virtual classroom courses, because it’s not the same as being in a real classroom; we’ll need to incorporate the best techniques and tools to keep the learners engaged and interested, and the Tech Academy team will certainly be on hand to help with this side of things.
So in summary, we already do a lot of tech training at King, but we’d like to do more; and as well as introducing new topics, we also want to make it easier to access our training wherever the learner sits and, where feasible, whenever suits the learner best. To achieve this will take time, and experiments, and learning from our failures; but our learners are an enthusiastic, open-minded bunch, who seem to appreciate our efforts as much as we appreciate their engagement.