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BP stresses importance of apprentices to its DevOps and digital transformation plans

BP explains why IT apprentices are central to the success of its agile and DevOps ambitions, as well as its wider digital transformation programme

One of the enduring truths about DevOps success is that it weighs heavily on the culture of an organisation, rather than the technology that is chosen to underpin its agile ambitions.

The attitudes and behaviour of the people within an organisation largely dictate the pervasive culture, which is why it is so important to find individuals who contribute to creating a supportive working environment where DevOps can thrive.

It is this issue that BP is seeking to address by hiring school leavers as apprentices, who get to work for the FTSE 100 company while studying for qualifications in software and web development.

“Apprentices bring energy, enthusiasm for technology and an open mind, and are able to challenge the way we do things,” says David Jamison, head of learning and shared services at BP.

“We are finding apprentices who have really strong A-level results, who are passionate about technology and want to work in this sector, and we think we can really match that sort of supply with what we need at BP.”

The apprentices the oil giant tends to attract have a mix of technology and life experience, and have not become “indoctrinated” in certain ways of doing things in the workplace, he says.

For example, BP’s apprentices are not starting out by having to unlearn everything they know about waterfall software development processes and methodologies.

“In college and school, you get taught these generic waterfall principles, but you’re only taught it so you know what not do, but no one ever tells you what you should actually be doing,” says Marie Foster, an apprentice currently working as a junior DevOps engineer at BP.

Apprentices bring energy, enthusiasm for technology and an open mind, and are able to challenge the way we do things
David Jamison, BP

Since she began at the company, Foster has been fully immersed in a team where agile working practices are the norm, while being encouraged to get straight to work on tasks and projects that directly contribute to the company’s wider digital transformation efforts.

“My typical day usually starts with checking that all our applications are up and working properly, and then I move on to preparing things to be worked on, following the agile process, and making sure everything is ready to be picked up, triaged, and all that kind of stuff,” she says.

“Then I start picking up tickets or continue working on tickets I was working on previously, and jump around different members of my team to get help and assistance as and when I need them.”

Thinking digital

The company is in the middle of a large-scale, technology-led push to boost business agility, so that it is better placed to respond rapidly to changing market conditions.

Part of this work will see BP go “all-in” on public cloud in the years to come, as it seeks to offset the business impact of falling oil prices.

Speaking at the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Re:Invent customer conference in November 2016, the company said the move would means shifting at least 3,000 applications and 7,000 servers off-premise.

Since BP’s apprenticeship scheme started two years ago, Jamison says the company has worked hard to ensure that participants – 15 so far – are given meaningful work to do.

“There is a perception outside of apprenticeships that they are all about making tea and coffee and not really being involved in real work,” says Foster.

“But from day one, I had my mentor and [was integrated] as a functioning part of the team, not as an aside. I am treated as a regular team member, and there is no focus on the fact that I’m younger than other people, for example.”

Importance of integration

Apprentices are actively encouraged from the start to contribute ideas and share with the wider teams what it is they are working on to aid their integration into their organisation, while opening up opportunities to learn on the job.

For example, Foster points to the “stand-up” meetings her team take part in each day. “It is where we discuss what we’re doing at the moment, and where we can ask if anyone needs help and advice, which for apprentices is especially useful because we’re still getting used to who is best at what application,” she says.

“So, in the stand-up, you can have someone say ‘you should try this’ and then you think ‘oh, I never thought to do it like that’. It is a really useful exercise.”

I am treated as a regular team member, and there is no focus on the fact that I’m younger than other people
Marie Foster, BP apprentice

Apprentices are also encouraged to mix with senior management and are given opportunities to share their ideas with them.

“Across the organisation, apprentices are given access to our CIOs, and that has worked really well for us,” says Jamison. “What I really like is that you get senior management saying things like ‘can we have an apprentice in this conversation’.”

To ensure this type of experience occurs across all the teams that are taking on apprentices, line managers are asked to create a formal job description, setting out the responsibilities of their roles before they are recruited, says Jamison.

“It’s a real live job in our organisation, and I think that gives a more powerful placement for apprentices and graduates, quite frankly, because they’re doing a job that, if they weren’t there, a second or third jobber would be doing.

“We need people to do real work for us, and I think it gives the apprentices a better experience.”

Read more about DevOps and culture

The software and website development qualifications that the apprentices study for are provided by IT training firm QA. Participants study for a Level 3 City & Guilds diploma in software and web development before progressing, if they wish, to the Level 4 qualification.

Foster says one of the most appealing things about the scheme is that she can put the skills she learns into practice almost immediately in her day job at BP.

“It is a nice change to college, where you learn things and don’t put them into practice ever,” she says. “Personally, I felt there was too much stress and emphasis on memorising for the moment and the exam [at college], and as soon as you’ve finished the exam, you forget everything you’ve learnt.

“I wanted to do an apprenticeship where I could learn key skills that I could apply in the workplace day-to-day, work on my interpersonal skills and learn through working as part of a team.”

Once the two-year apprenticeship is over, says Jamison, the hope is that participants will continue working for BP.

“It really works well for us, and what they are learning is transferable right back to us at BP, so it’s a win-win,” he says.

“We are preparing them for a job here at BP. We want to take that experience and the journey here and apply for a job and be successful.”

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