This Technology Firm Trains Its Coders as Apprentices. Should Others Follow?

Software crafters at 8th Light all start out in an apprenticeship at the firm, which its leaders say creates a consistent culture of learning. Will it work for other companies?
tech apprenticeship

After parting from the technology world for about eight years to raise her family and work on independent projects, Kristin Kaeding learned about an apprenticeship program at 8th Light, a software services company based in Chicago.

“It seemed like a good opportunity to ramp back up on my technology skills,” she said. “Everyone who comes into 8th Light, no matter their previous experiences, goes through an apprenticeship.”

To apply for the program, Kaeding sent in an application. Her mentors, CEO Paul Pagel and Brian Pratt, a software crafter, then interviewed her for the apprenticeship, brought her into the team and worked together to build her skills. Kaeding worked for about seven months as a resident apprentice at the company, working on various projects and following a set of expectations and challenges for what she should know. Kaeding was promoted to software crafter in July 2015 and is now also chair of diversity, culture and inclusion at the company.

Companies today are working to bring in top talent, while dealing with the skills gaps they face and global competition. 8th Light’s program highlights an attempt to solve this problem though apprenticeships by taking a hands-on role in educating incoming workers and tailoring their skills to what the company needs. Other countries, such as Germany, excel in using apprenticeships, which are gaining newfound interest in the U.S.

From the Top

8th Light’s apprenticeship program’s roots took hold before the company was even founded. Pagel got his start with coding through an apprenticeship at Object Mentor, a software company in Gurnee, Illinois. After working there at age 16 and growing to then start 8th Light in 2006, he saw the value of apprenticeships in the technology field. When growing 8th Light’s team of six in 2007, the firm couldn’t find the necessary skilled talent that also shared its passion for high-quality code. Thus, his small team began their apprenticeship program. As they continued to grow, Pagel thought, “How could it possibly hurt if we sent everybody through it?” Ten years later, the program is still going strong.

Pagel said that “everyone is an employee, even during their apprenticeship,” and more than 90 percent of people who complete the program receive a promotion to become a software crafter. Rather than being a competitive process, “the expectation is to make it through the program,” Pagel said.

As with most companies, 8th Light has some administrative and sales positions, which Kaeding said have their own sort of apprenticeship models, though not as extensive as the software crafters.

8th Light’s software crafters start out as apprentices, which can be in the following arrangements:

  • Student apprentices, who work for three to four months at 20 hours per week, receiving no pay. These apprentices lack professional experience and have less than a year of experience in software development. After their program is up, they can be considered for resident apprenticeships.
  • Resident apprentices are in the program for five to eight months, working 40 hours per week and receiving a stipend and benefits. Most residents have some experience building software in a professional setting.
  • Journeymen apprentices work for two to four months for 40 hours per week. They receive a salary and benefits. These workers have strong professional experience in software development and know multiple programming languages.

During the program, there is an in-depth apprenticeship checklist, which has evolved over the years. The checklist spells out skills and capabilities that act as a baseline for all crafters at 8th Light, said Colin Jones, the company’s chief technology officer.

This checklist will continue to change as skills and technology transform, but it includes knowledge of software design patterns, working in at least three programming languages and other capabilities necessary for working at 8th Light. “Beyond that, depending on the apprentice’s experience, we delve into other areas where the mentors and apprentice see opportunities for growth,” he added.

Even though Jones is an executive at 8th Light, he also went through an apprenticeship. He noted that when learning new things, it’s hard to manage time without guidance. “When I joined 8th Light eight years ago, it felt like finding a mentor was the only way to get the knowledge and skills I needed, and in many areas that’s still true, but our mentors’ roles have also grown to help people navigate the information overload that’s out there for our field these days,” he said.

Is This a True Apprenticeship?

“I wouldn’t call this a regular apprenticeship program,” said Robert I. Lerman, institute fellow at Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on economic and social policy, who is also an expert on apprenticeships and established American Institute for Innovative Apprenticeship.

Lerman said traditional apprenticeships are at least a year long, and they should be a structured program of mostly work-based learning and production at the workplace by the apprentice, usually embedded in a contract with the employer, who specifies skills to learn. This, combined with outside courses, all lead to an occupational certification that verifies the apprentice has become competent in the occupation. While 8th Light’s program carries some of these qualifications, such as specified capabilities and working within the company, Lerman said it’s not a traditional apprenticeship.

RELATED: Which Model is Better For Corporate Training: Germany’s Apprenticeships or the U.S.’s Partnership Model?

However, Lerman sees positives in 8th Light’s efforts to educate their workers. “I think it’s excellent that they are investing in people,” he said, and he anticipates that apprentices gain skills and knowledge that are applicable for work beyond this specific company.

If companies are considering an apprenticeship, Lerman said they can expect the following results from apprentices and the organization:

  • Apprentices are likely to remain loyal to the company.
  • They have a higher level of mastery of a field than they would with short-term training.
  • Workers improve their problem-solving skills and gain rapport with team members.
  • Apprentices gain an understanding of the business side of the company before coming on full time.
  • Finally, apprenticeships help in fostering a learning culture. Employees at a firm will see the apprentices learning, and they’re likely to desire being part of it.

Crafting the Culture

A learning culture is one of the biggest results of 8th Light’s apprenticeship program. Coding languages come and go, but learning remains the same, 8th Light’s Pagel said. The apprenticeships expose employees to the underlying concepts of coding and teach them to learn new languages quickly. “It’s about learning how to learn, more than it’s about learning a specific technology,” he said.

This learning culture also extends beyond apprenticeships. 8th Light uses Friday afternoons for learning, where employees come together to teach each other in workshops and self study. Internally, they call this time Waza, a Japanese word for technique; at 8th Light, it’s about continuing investment in self education. The apprenticeship is simply a kick-start for education in software development. “There is a continuous, throughout the entire career, smaller, incremental investments that are driven by the individual crafter,” Pagel said.

Because all software crafters go through the same experience, there’s a shared culture that strengthens the company, Pagel said. This is true no matter the location; a crafter in the Los Angeles office can visit counterparts in London and write code together. “It creates a consistent culture, and that’s really what we’re trying to optimize,” Pagel said. Consistency in a shared philosophy and understanding of software coding means clients also receive an exceptional experience.

The Pros and Cons

There are a few challenges with 8th Light’s program. Naturally, some apprentices find the company isn’t a good fit for them, and they can opt out. But for those that persevere, their mentors have great insight into the person they’ve trained, resulting in a strong hire and high retention rates. “I do think we can’t possibly identify people who are just naturally going to evolve and adjust what they want for themselves,” Kaeding said. “But I think that’s true for taking on any job.”

The learning that apprentices go through also reaches existing employees, Kaeding said. Apprentices bring in experiences different from others at the company, which allows for new perspectives. “Having that different perspective, at least for me, really just makes my knowledge base better,” she said. By encouraging her apprentices to provide constructive feedback and find new ways of performing tasks, the apprentices share a lot of valuable insights for the company, while contributing to its culture of learning, Kaeding said.

This program also opens the door to people from different backgrounds who are going through a career change or have gap in their resumes. “[It’s a] way to take advantage of a wider group of people who have a lot of value to give to a company,” Kaeding said.

Unfortunately, though, apprenticeships carry a bit of a misnomer, Pagel said, as some people assume the program is only for people just graduating from college. In the heydays of apprenticeships, the training style was indeed for younger people, but it doesn’t have to be anymore. Today, “you can learn a trade and start a brand new career almost at any age,” Pagel said.

Should Other Companies Copy?

Although this model works for 8th Light, it’s not necessarily a good choice for all, Pagel said. If the business model is long term and can get a return on investment and have the capital to invest, “I think it is absolutely the best way to have productive, loyal, engaged, innovative employees over the long term.” But if the apprenticeship model is in a startup, where there’s a high degree of failure, it’s unlikely to work as well, he said.

Nevertheless, Pagel is taking on apprentices meant for other companies. Piloting in Chicago and expanding to London and Los Angeles offices next year, 8th Light is mentoring people internally and sending them back to clients. This acts as a service for those who lack the ability to get their own apprenticeships off the ground, Pagel said.

“It’s been our secret sauce from the beginning, and I think it can work for a rapidly changing economy that needs to be constantly learning [and] training people in new trades.”

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.