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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

NCFE’s Lindsey Gibson turns to DevOps and Agile to make qualifications digital

NCFE, formerly the Northern Advisory Council for Further Education, is an educational charity that has been running for over 170 years. The organisation develops qualifications with approval from the government, which include a wide range of general and vocational qualifications as well as competence-based and functional skills qualifications. While this has been the main focus of the organisation, a few years ago, the charity board wanted to explore what it could do with further investment that it has accrued over the years.

So, the organisation decided to set up new business units. The first is a diagnostics platform, which helps learners who have failed GCSE maths and English to find other skills, as it is hard for them to secure employment. The other business is a peer platform which allows students to get support in terms of homework or revision, and the third new unit is around the change of apprenticeships funding, as a result of the government levy introduced in 2017.

As part of NCFE’s diversification, Lindsey Gibson’s role has changed from IT manager to head of IT services across all of the business units.

“So now my role is to ensure me and my team can support the MDs in each of those divisions to achieve their business goals, but ultimately making sure that those different business units are all joined up, so they contribute to the overall success of the group,” Gibson tells NS Tech.

In addition, there has been a big focus on digital transformation.

“The qualifications part of the business, because it is the oldest, has been subject to a number of changes which have been influenced by government agendas and so that area of the business has become quite complex in terms of its business processes and systems, and therefore the technology that underpins it has become complex,” she says.

“The future of education looks different and government is bringing in new reforms and new ways that we need to work towards, and what we established years ago is to reimagine the awarding business. So we’re asking ourselves: ‘If we unravel everything and develop a new awarding body from scratch, what would that look like and what would the technologies underpinning it look like?’”

It is an optimisation project which is set to take a number of years, and Gibson hopes that it will make engaging with colleagues, customers and contractors more seamless. NCFE is looking at developing a new platform to underpin this change, and it has already shifted its software development team from working in more traditional ways to using .NET, Azure and microservices, as well as working in a more agile way.

“So when we’re looking at end-to-end business units, we’re breaking that down into different microservices and working that through – so we’re looking at how we optimise that area and how the technology underpins that,” she says.

The software developers are part of a wider IT team of 33 people, which also include testers, scrum masters, a data services team and a DevOps team that focuses on infrastructure-type roles based on VMware.

Gibson says that once these changes are made, the organisation will then consider how it can digitally transform other areas of its business. For example, it produces half a million paper certificates as well as e-certificates which are in a PDF format. The idea is to find a more digital version of this – perhaps an integration to LinkedIn – which is most useful for its learners.

Gibson emphasises that the key in all of these transformation efforts is to remember that the charity’s main aim is “for every learner to have an opportunity for success”.