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How This Company Created the First Software Development Apprenticeship Program Approved by the Department of Labor

I talked with Heather Terenzio of Techtonic about the company’s unique recruiting and training program, and its impact on talent and diversity.

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BY Jeff Haden - 29 Jan 2019

software development apprenticeship

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Imagine you run a software development firm -- or, by extension, a company that uses software to power its products and services. That means you need software developers on your staff.

And that means you have a problem. Job growth is expected to hit 24 percent over the next 7 years. Combine that growth with the rapidly rising cost of tech education and it's no surprise that some studies show as soon as next year there could be as many as 1 million open software development positions.

So what do you do if you need to recruit skilled developers? If you're Heather Terenzio, the founder and CEO of Techtonic, you set up the Techtonic Academy, the first formal software development apprenticeship program to be approved by the Department of Labor.


Heather Terenzio CREDIT: Courtesy Company

If using the word "apprenticeship" to refer to coding training sound unusual, that's because it is. Coding boot camps tend to be extremely expensive, and mean taking weeks or months off from work.

Techtonic apprentices earn a salary from Day 1, receiving classroom training and on-the-job experience as a member of a team that works on actual client software projects. And within about six months, graduates of the program get hired by Techtonic -- or by one of Techtonic's clients. (Oftentimes the relationship apprentices develop with the client leads to the client hiring the apprentice, another thing that sounds unusual... but Techtonic is more than okay with it.)

Since 2014, over 100 people -- many without any formal coding education -- have launched careers using Techtonic's apprenticeship program as the springboard.

So how did Heather decide to create an apprenticeship program to help fill the talent gap? Let's find out.

Boot camps are fairly common in the industry. Apprenticeship programs are not. Where did the idea come from?

I'm a civil engineer by training. I learned how to code on the job. So I've always thought that if I can learn to code on the job, anyone can. (Laughs.) People my age who graduated from college with one degree but learned on the job... that was where you found software developers.

Now, of course, you have to have a Computer Science degree.

So one day I was giving a talk at a vocational school and afterwards a young man working catering said, "Your company sounds so cool. I've been teaching myself to code. If you hire me, you'll never regret it." And I hired him.

We brought him on board and he was just a sponge: He absorbed everything, was great to have around, loved building things. And we thought, "I wonder if he has any friends like him?" (Laughs.)

Deciding to hire people based on attitude rather than skill is a lot different from creating a formal program -- and getting it approved by the government.

The approval process was difficult, but that's because we were the first to try. Prior to us, programs approved by the Department of Labor tended to focus on jobs like electricians, plumbers, etc.

So while it took about 18 months in total, the process is a lot easier today. It's a much more accepted form of apprenticeship.

Walk me through how the program works.

For starters, unlike a typical boot camp, we actually pay our apprentices from the very first day. That removes a huge barrier of entry to the field.

That means we can can take people who were working as baristas -- which we've done -- put them in our program, pay them a livable wage, and start training them right away.

That also means we get around 500 applications for every 20-person class. And that makes our program highly selective.

We're looking for are people who have a passion for software development. Maybe they've built a few apps themselves. Or taken some online classes. They may not have the skills -- yet -- but they definitely have the desire and the attitude.

After the initial screening process we conduct in-person interviews with approximately 30 of the original 500. We're looking to see if you're heart is in the right place, if you're really into it... because we've found that if you have the desire, you can do it.

Even if you have no experience.

Wanting to learn is often more important than having shown a previous ability to learn.

Absolutely.

From there we have a twelve-week class (again, paid from Day 1), teaching the fundamentals of software development and engineering. That's another way our program differs from a boot camp.

Boot camps usually teach a specific skill, like Ruby or Java. We teach the fundamentals of software engineering. Once you learn the fundamentals, from there you can learn any language.

Then we put them on the floor with a team, working on a client project lead by a senior-level developer. And after 1,000 client billable hours, we bring them on as a full-time employee. Or they may get hired by a client.

Because you've removed many of the barriers to entry, your apprenticeship classes are extremely diverse. Contrasted with the fact that men earn over 80 percent of all CS degrees, and only one-fourth of CS grad students are female.

We've had a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering who wanted to get into software development; she's on our floor now. We've also someone with a GED who had been building their own apps for years. There is a full gamut of people who want to build a software development career.

To your point, we've found that once we take away the barriers to entry, that you don't need a CS degree, that we'll pay you a livable wage while you learn... our classes are extremely diverse: 75 percent are women, minorities, and veterans. Just from nature of taking away those barriers.

And here's what's interesting about software development: Once you have your first job, no one cares about your degree. You're viewed through the lens of your reputation and your experience as a software developer.

Which means getting that first foot in the door is so important in launching your career.

And you -- and some of your clients -- end up with a more diverse workforce.

We don't value diversity just for diversity's sake. Diversity helps you build a better product.

A great example is a company that was developing a robot for the home. They know women tend to make most of the buying decision at home, so they wanted female engineers on the project from Day 1 because they didn't want to go through a years-long development cycle only to find out they built the wrong thing.

For example, when the Apple watch first came out it didn't work well on darker-skinned people because no one on the team had darker skin. That cost Apple millions of dollars.

Maybe that's not a huge deal for a company like Apple...but for a small company or a startup, a mistake like that could sink you.

Paying people from Day 1 could be an prohibitively expensive.

Since our apprenticeship program is approved by the Department of Labor, funding comes from federal and state sources, from non-profit foundations... it creates a really interesting intersection between government, non-profit, and for-profit.

That makes our classes cost neutral, and once apprentices hit the floor and start contributing to projects, they stay neutral or even shift to the plus-side.

Which is a true win-win.

But "once they hit the floor" raises an interesting point: Your employees had to embrace almost constantly mentoring and training other people.

They already did. Our senior-developers mentor mid-level developers, and mid-level developers mentor new hires or apprentices. And within six months or so, our apprentices who became employees get apprentices to mentor.

That works extremely well, because putting yourself in another person's shoes helps reinforce what you've learned.

What's been interesting for us is the impact on our culture. The apprenticeship program helps give people an even greater sense of purpose and meaning. We have these amazing stories of people who were living in cars... and now they're living in their own apartments or homes, making really good money... people feel great about what they do, beyond "just" helping our customers.

There aren't a lot of places where you can make a great living and help change someone else's life.

We see ourselves as a new model for services and talent generation. The apprenticeship model is the next phase of boot camps: It's a better way to train, a better way to get talented people in the door, a a better way to build and guide a diverse workforce.

I've been in software development for the last 20 years, and this is the most fun I've ever had. We get to serve our clients, our employees, and our community.

What could be better than that?

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