Volunteer Murilo Lessa gives us the low down on what it is like to visit the Code4000 Workshop at HMP Humber
I first heard of Code4000 at one of the “Show the Thing” events we run every week at our Sheffield Digital Studio: the subject was Michael Taylor and the project running in HMP Humber where prisoners were learning to code. It was mentioned that David Barnholdt from Crisp was even going there for 2 full days to teach them about Scrum!
I have never done any sort of charity work before but the whole thing sounded very interesting and exciting - I wanted to volunteer! A few of us got together in the Studio and scheduled a visit to the prison. Those of us who could code planned to sit with the guys to understand their needs and knowledge, while Sean and I, the ones with no coding skills, would run a retrospective to get an idea of what the prisoners were liking and learning during the project, and where to go from there.
During the course of my agile career I have run a good number of retrospectives. From small to big groups, serious business people to more relaxed technical folks. I’ve run retrospectives in rooms, amphitheaters, parks and even in pubs! But never in a prison. Prisons - alongside dentists and hospitals - were in my mental list of places I would rather not go at all, unless strictly necessary.
As the date of the visit approached the reality of what I had committed to started to sink in. I had no idea what to expect besides the “they are a cool bunch” we got from Michael; to say that I was a bit anxious would be an understatement.
We all met at the reception of HMP Humber on a cold Monday morning. A friendly prison officer lead us through a heavy metal door where two guards did a thorough body search on all of us, then we were escorted into the prison. High metal-spiked fences loomed over us as we crossed the courtyard, passing a few more wired gates and lonely guards on watch along the way. The looked almost like ghosts, lost in the silent foggy cold.
The officer escorting us knocked at a small building of exposed bricks where we could read “Code 4000” by the door. The door opened and as soon as we walked in, surprise! Inside we found a proper office setup that felt a lot like a small start up. Several work hubs with desks and computers, a big screen projector, cool decoration with inspiring phrases painted on the walls, they even had a little hang out area with reclining beach chairs over artificial grass! It felt we were suddenly transported to a different dimension, one could not tell there was a prison outside.
When they all arrived we introduced ourselves and explained what we planned for the day. We split the group in 2 teams, one group would start working with our developers and the other would participate on the retrospective. After an hour we swapped the teams so that everybody could do a bit of everything.
The 3 L’s: Liked, Learned, Lacked
I used the same format for both teams retrospectives. I started by explaining what a retrospective is and what it is not - no blaming game, a safe place, we talked about the Retrospective Prime Directive and so on. I then explained the importance of it - a chance for the team to stop and reflect - and the goal for the session, to come up with actions they could collectively work together to improve as a team. Finally I mentioned the only rule for the hour: no gadgets allowed - which in their case was easy since prisoners are not allowed to have them at all, hah! My point for the rule, I explained, is that it does not sit well for someone to be talking about how they feel while someone else is passively listening while doing something else.
For the retrospective we had 3 panels labeled “Liked”, “Learned”, “Lacked” and I asked the team to write as many post its as they want for each category for 5 minutes. After that me and Sean read the cards out loud and encourage the team to elaborate and talk about them. As in other retrospectives I ran in the past, some people were very vocal and open whilst others have to be tactfully encouraged to talk and participate. I thought it was important to get across the message that we wanted to hear from all of them and we wanted them to feel heard.
Cards on the wall…
It is worth elaborating on a few of the cards that appeared on the board. On “Lacked”, which is normally the column I would start and spent most of the time, I was surprised that there were not many “complaints” and they actually looked very similar to the ones I get from my own teams. “Lack of resources”, “server speed” and “noise” apparently also affect developers in Humber, imagine that!
Lack of resources is a bit thing there. You see, prisoners have no Internet access. All information they need - from printing a page to googling a question - has to come through Neil who then shares it with them. Questions that for us would take a minute to be researched online can haunt them for hours or even days! They also are confined to a limited number of hours a day on which they can use the room, which is closed during the weekends. Some of the guys confessed to even code in pen and paper to kill time during the weekend so that when Monday comes, they can type it and see if it works! Saturdays and Sundays can go by very slowly when you are confined on your cell with not much to do, and these guys are one of the few people that I know who are actually happy whenever Monday comes since they will be allowed to code.
In the “Like” column there were many cards praising the environment, the comfy chairs and the support they were receiving from Michael and Neil. “Learning to code” and “being creative” were also mentioned as well as the “free tea and coffee” they had access to. Having the chance to “work in group” and “meeting others from inside and outside of the prison” were also recurrent themes. They also mentioned Spotify although finding the right playlist can be contentious since they all have to listen to the same music as Neil - the only one with an Internet connection - is in charge of selecting the tunes they want to listen to and playing it on the speakers.
One that really amazed me was the “about myself” card in the “Learned” column. When I asked it about the guy who wrote it said that until starting at Code 4000 he saw himself incapable of learning anything new and now there he was, actually learning to code and building web pages and this really surprised him in a positive way.
Down to Actions
A key point of a retrospective is for the team to come up with actions they feel they can collectively work together in order to improve. I explained that they should focus on things they felt they actually had the power to change. For example, although it was worth complaining about lack of Internet access this would be well out of their powers to change so it would not be an smart action to improve on.
Finding “actionable actions” within a prison constraint is not a simple thing because the nature of the prison is that there isn’t many things in there that you are supposed to be in control of! Also, it is not often prisoners are asked what is that they want, so you need to dig deep and leave these awkward silent moments to work their magic.
Michael has recently put the students in touch with outside clients who need simple websites done. After some discussions the first team on the retro realised that there were several challenges in understanding the client's’ needs so as an action they decided to create a standard Questionnaire to be sent to the client right at the start of the project with the goal of trying to decrease the amount of emails back and forth with them and improve the quality of the sites they would build.
For the second team, knowledge sharing seemed like a hot topic. There were people who have been in the program for longer and knew more than others who had just recently joined and were struggling, so they came up with the action of doing more pair programming. Pair programming can be a bit of a hot topic and some were sceptical that pairing would improve the team’s speed and I explained that as a team they are only as quick as the slowest of its parts.
For each action we assigned a “driver” whose job is to gently remind the team about them. We wrote the actions on a banner and sent it to Neil, so that he could print them and have it on their wall. At the next retrospective we aim to review these items and discuss if things have improved (or not), and what do they want to do moving forward.
If there’s one thing that has changed after our visit to HMP Humber that is me. My views - even the ones I was not aware I had - and understanding of prison and prisoners have changed profoundly. It seems obvious to me that in a lot of cases all that separates us from them are a few wrong turns and bad decisions. I was amazed that although we live worlds apart, our challenges and constraints are, on a higher level, very similar to the ones they struggle with.
The (learned) “about myself” card still echoes in my mind, especially after learning that a lof of the guys there have a very low self esteem and self belief. Prisons are not the kind of place you are praised for doing a good job, let alone learning. It felt that by running a retrospective and looking for future collaboration with Code 4000 I am now the one who is “learning about myself”.
How to help?
You don’t need to be a developer to collaborate with Code 4000. Between being able to code and securing a job there’s a whole range of skills prisoners need help with. From learning how to write a CV, to communication skills, to interview preparation. I would say that just showing up for a chat to talk about your professional experience would be a great start!
Get in touch with Michael Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org and I am sure he will be able to point you to the right direction.