Agile working promotes IT skills in UK

There are people who will tell you that practising core IT in the UK is simply no longer affordable, that tasks such as coding or systems support should all be sent offshore, and that we should wave a fond farewell to another UK industry that is "just not economically viable".

There are people who will tell you that practising core IT in the UK is simply no longer affordable, that tasks such as coding or systems support should all be sent offshore, and that we should wave a fond farewell to another UK industry that is "just not economically viable".

I believe there is another way, one that combines long-standing outsourcing arrangements with the need to own your own business processes. As an airline, our business moves so fast and our IT is so fundamental to it, that we need to retain flexibility and strategic control.

But this time last year, I was very worried about the longer-term viability of my "smart-sourcing" model. To manage suppliers, whether they are in Bracknell or Bangalore, you need experienced managers who can tell when specifications are not being met and bug-rates are out of control. This requires much more than just supplier management skills. Unless you have been part of a software development team, written code, designed functions, tested and put a system live, you are going to struggle to understand the work your suppliers are doing for you.

My concern, shared by many of my CIO colleagues in the UK, was that if all the "commodity" work had disappeared on a plane to Bangalore, where would the IT managers of the future be able to learn these skills? Had we just outsourced the bottom rungs on the ladder for the whole IT profession in the UK?

BA has recruited graduates into IT professional roles for the last three years. We give our new recruits a good grounding: six months building new systems, six months designing them and six months in IT operations running them. Sadly many other companies have not been able to afford this investment in the future, with so much of the work increasingly being done in India.

Something remarkable is happening in IT, which offers real hope for home-grown IT professionals. It is called "agile" working. Agile working is one of those new things, which at its heart is not so very new. It brings together approaches to task allocation and project delivery that have been around for some time, but in a way that is new and exciting and involving for everyone concerned; and which helps to build and enhance valuable IT professional skills in the UK.

So how do you do "agile"? You begin by bringing the business and technical people together in one team. You agree on the measurable changes you want to achieve, compile a list of incremental changes, which will generate benefits and rank them. The team collectively allocate their skills to the task that need to be done, and keep revisiting this.

The ways of working in an agile team are very different to traditional methods. Members of the team need to be able to turn their hand to technical design, to business analysis, to development, to integration and to testing. This is much more interesting and much more challenging for the IT professionals involved. If you want to find out more take a look at the Agile Manifesto.

We are now planning on having six agile teams running across different parts of the business. The IT professionals we are currently recruiting can look forward to being trained as multi-skilled IT experts who are competent in many disciplines and can work effectively as part of a joint business/IT team. We are also planning to re-train many of our existing staff to be multi-skilled. So instead of supervising teams remotely in Delhi or Chennai they work at the heart of projects delivering business benefits to the company and its customers every few weeks.

We should not get too carried away. I readily concede that not everything is suitable for an agile approach and there will still be large, traditional programmes that require detailed design and segmented skills. There will still be systems - not least here at BA - that are built and supported off-shore. But this is no longer the only way. The really great news is that the agile approach enables fantastically inspiring jobs for new graduates entering the UK's IT industry.

So we are working to let the ladder down again, providing a career path that will produce top IT professionals in the future who know how to design, code, test and launch real-life systems.

Paul Coby is CIO and head of financial shared services for British Airways

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