Apprenticeship goes to Washington

I had the privilege to speak at a White House event this week. (How’d that happen!? Here’s the backstory.) The Mitch Kapor asked me to tell a story about apprenticeships in software development to our country’s CTO and about 40 other people from all over the tech and political ecosystem. I whipped up some slides a few days prior, and since I was the last speaker, I did my best to improvize something that tied into the rest of the talks. Here are the unpretty slides:

The tricky part of the day for me was that most everyone at the event was very focused on K-12 education, while just a few of us were focused on workforce development. I probably shouldn’t say much else about the event itself or what (if anything) is coming next, but I’d like to expand on my slides and try to better communicate the thoughts I muddled through during my 10 minutes in the spotlight.

First, though, I need to vent some of the emotions and excitement of this experience. To end my job at Groupon on Friday, and fly to speak at a White House event on the following Monday was surreal. It certainly gives me a strong case of “what on earth comes next?”-itis. My friend Neal Sales-Griffin was also speaking at the event, so we shared a room.

The careful reader will notice that I also brought my squirrel underpants with me. They were a gift from the infamous Mike Hines, and they’re going to be traveling with me for the foreseeable future.

I woke up early on Tuesday and started my walk over to the event. It was a beautiful day, and I was feeling inspired.

On my walk, I glanced to my right and saw a banner. I read it involuntarily and stood still for a minute. It was Jeremiah 29:11, a verse from the Bible. I felt a jolt of energy shoot through my nervous system. Almost exactly 15 years ago, my wife had “Jeremiah 29:11” inscribed on the inside of my wedding ring. I stood there a while, letting the moment sink in, and mostly kept my composure. Then I walked on, seriously questioning whether I had actually woken up yet.

Notice that I keep saying “a White House event”, and not “an event at the White House”. Tricky, right? Well, this event taught me that trick. The event was hosted next to the White House at the beautifully intricate Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

And now to the actual point: the presentation. My goals for the presentation were to share the results I had aggregated from the apprenticeship programs at Obtiva, Groupon, Hashrocket, and 8th Light, and to share what I have learned about creating viable cultures of learning. I hope that the stats will get people excited and asking questions about how we can get more apprenticeship programs started, and how we can increase the number of non-white-males in these programs. I believe software development apprenticeship programs, if scaled to 1000 companies, would have a significant impact on our economy. Here are the stats:

  • 58 apprentices across the 3 programs
  • 54 successfully completed the apprenticeship, 93% success rate
  • 80% are still with the companies after 4 years
  • Average starting salary is $73,000 (Chicago, Jacksonville Beach)
  • Age range: 19-42, typically early/mid-20’s

I should point out that many of these people came from grossly under-employed situations, such as parking lot attendant and restaurant server. Hello America, do you want more un/under-employment? No? Then let’s get moving on this! We need to send a message to US employers that they need to loosen their hiring requirements and invest more in growing skills rather than simply consuming them. Peter Cappelli has some insightful and research-backed arguments on this theme.

I also shared some brief thoughts on “viable cultures of learning” and the “ideal competency continuum”. I’ll take them one at a time.

Imagine if you could put software development skill on a straight line…

Line “a” simply shows the direction of improvement. As a person’s software development skills improve, they move to the right. Line “b” shows 4 inexperienced people clustered together. This is the profile of many startups. A small group of young, talented people, with virtually unlimited time, but limited skills. This is a place where a ton of work gets done, and sometimes a ton of value is created, but it’s not a viable culture of learning at this stage. Line “c” shows 7 experienced people clustered tightly together. This is the profile of a consultancy of high-level experts. A small-ish group of senior, experienced people, who have established themselves in the industry and can now charge a lot of money for their time. This is a place where lot of money gets made, a lot of value is delivered to clients, but it’s not a viable culture of learning at this stage. Line “d” shows 11 people spread across the compentency continuum. This is what Obtiva looked like in its final year (except we had about 40 people). We had apprentices like Carl Thuringer on one end of the continuum, and we had our chief scientist Michael Feathers at the other end.

I’m making a judgment about lines “b” and “c”. I’m saying they’re not viable cultures of learning. Here’s why: the zone of proximal development. Wherever you currently sit on this competency continuum, there is some space just ahead of you that contains the knowledge that you are capable of acquiring next. This is your zone of proximal development. If you have someone near you that is already operating in that zone, you have found the ideal person for help. Few people will be as capable as that person, who just moved through the same zone, of helping you over the mental hurdles necessary for acquiring that next bit of knowledge. The beautiful thing we had going at Obtiva, and one of the assets that made us valuable enough to buy outright, was the fact that we had developed an entire chain of zones.

Imagine if an apprentice tried to join the expert consultancy. Their zone of proximal development would be years behind the lowest-skilled of the experts. The gulf between them is insurmountable. The culture of learning is unviable. The only way to grow it would be to slowly stretch toward incompetency by hiring someone 6 months behind their least skilled member, and slowly working their way backward from there. Easier said than done, since the company’s business model would need to accomodate people who bill less than expert rates. Now imagine if an apprentice tried to join the startup of young and inexperienced developers. Since there is no experienced leadership there to mentor the most senior people on the team, the team will be learning via mistakes. Lots of mistakes. With no time for babysitting someone even less skilled than them. Although the team is within the apprentice’s zone, since the team has no one ahead of them in their zone, the culture of learning is at a standstill. The way forward is to simply wait for the team to improve over time while also looking to hire more experienced teammates. In about a year, they could consider taking on an apprentice.

My point in explaining all of this is to share the ideal, since I think I’ve experienced something close to the ideal. Once you have a viable culture of learning, you can start growing your own software devleopers through apprenticeship. It feels magical. The results are great pay and opportunities for previously underemployed people, and a loyal workforce of affordable and custom-educated people for the employer. Obtiva’s culture was strong enough that we were able to bring it into a large company like Groupon and scale up our apprenticeship program to take on twice as many apprentices as before.

One of the reasons I left Groupon was because I’m happy with what we’ve accomplished with our apprenticeship program there, but I’m not looking to scale any single program to large numbers. I think it’s far more important to scale apprenticeship via a large number (~1000) of apprenticeship programs across the US. This is the message I tried to send in Washington. On that day they were more interested in focusing on middle-schoolers than 20-somethings. I can appreciate the long-term thinking there, but politically, I think it would awesome to give millions of unemployed voters a nudge toward a viable solution to their personal financial crises.

I’ll keep beating this drum. Ultimately, it’s the companies that will need to take action and embrace apprenticeship. I’m just hoping that I can find some megaphones to accelerate the process. If you’re interested in starting an apprenticeship program, have a look at my Create an Apprenticeship Program paper.

Dave Hoover

Obligatory photo of me with the CTO and the über-angel.

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