Big Red Scrum

30th November, 2014 No Comments Cornell Tech , NYC

As noted in an earlier post, I started spending a day a week at Cornell Tech this fall.  One of my responsibilities has been to help teach the Studio class for Masters (Computer Science (MEng) and Business (MBA)) students.  The format of that class is unusual, perhaps unique, for graduate programs, so I thought it worth describing a bit more here.  I hope this approach, together with other experiments conducted at Cornell Tech, provide lessons that other institutions can borrow and build upon.

Throughout the Studio course, students work in teams of three to five students comprising a mix of MBAs and M Eng majors.  Each team is paired, on a double-opt-in-basis, with a company to undertake a project over the course of the semester.  Participating companies include start-ups and large public entities, and project topics vary greatly.  The project topics and objectives are determined by the students and the company representatives, but all involve building and presenting a demonstrable (web or mobile) product by the end of the term.

Teams can meet whenever they like, but all teams gather for Studio on Tuesday afternoons starting at 2:30.  No other classes or activities are scheduled for the Masters Students after 2:30 on Tuesdays.

At the start of each studio session, the students meet in groups of five to six teams.  These “scrum” sessions are highly participatory; each team gives an update on its progress and goals for the current week and elicits feedback and help, where needed, from the other scrum participants.  The scrum is led by a “scrum master” (my role this fall) who keeps the discussion moving, ensures all teams are aware of upcoming deadlines, and endeavors to create a productive dialogue among the scrum participants.

This meeting is akin to a regular scrum or “stand up” that some commercial product teams hold, though it is different in a number of ways.  Most obviously, the Cornell Tech scrum is hosted in an academic setting, so there is a particular emphasis on learning; scrum is a unique opportunity to learn from other teams – their technical choices, failures and successes as well as their more general processes and interpersonal dynamics.  Of course, scrum and the studio are also opportunities to learn from one’s own team as well as the “teacher” (scrum master).  The Cornell Tech scrum also differs from a typical stand-up in a professional setting in that the teams all working on unique, unconnected projects.  This fact means that, though there is less detailed knowledge about one project outside its team, the diversity of projects facilitates broader discussions and cross-pollenization of ideas among all the students.

The Studio teaching team and students came to this format organically.  We originally tried a single, large group kickoff session each Tuesday during which a practitioner would give a brief talk (and the teams would generally not speak except to ask questions).   After the large session, the co-teachers would split up to meet with teams on a one-off basis, often interrupting productive team working sessions to check in.  The scrum format was much more successful, in that it fostered support and learning among the students while also preserving productive team time after scrum.

Although studio and scrum are not appropriate for every team, or for every academic setting, as many designers and developers will tell you, it can be a very effective tool for keeping teams on task and enabling groups of teams to stay connected to one another.  It was definitely fun!

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