The challenge of the software engineering apprenticeship

The world is run by computers and software nowadays. Whether we like it or not. The shortage of talent is extreme. It should not come as a surprise a lot of organizations begin to invest in apprenticeships.

Times we live in might be compared to the times when reading and writing went public. Just about 500 years ago. Back then nobody would think that these should be basic human rights and the education in writing and reading will be at the base of all education. The software equivalent to Gutenberg bible was printed just about 70 years ago. We are entering the age, where people are born to technology. Again whether we like it or not, soon anyone will be eligible to code.

Engineering is a profession that can do the job of almost all other professions.

Amit Kalantri, Wealth of Words

The scale of the lack of programming skill set problem is huge. According to this analysis, by 2030, the demand for software engineering jobs globally will reach 45mln people. It would mean the number of software engineers in the world will double. That’s just in ten years.

Just in UK, the expected number of engineering graduates falls short by 20000 annually. As in other STEM areas, women rarely choose an early career in engineering (at a staggering 1 in 8 compared to men).

Taking on apprentices, including people who never thought about engineering before, becomes a necessity. As much as the education in primary and secondary schools, to promote STEM education (which will hopefully start solving this issue maybe 10-15 years into the future).

Separately it is time to de-elitize software engineering, as much as access to reading and writing was taken away from the elites of the past.

It is all just a convention, I get it, we all would like to feel special.

There are a few things most managers need to remember though, when working with non-engineering background apprentices. I’ll list a few of them.

Engineering can be taught and it can be learned by a lot more people than just born engineers. The key factor is motivation and a supportive environment. Our brain communication paths are built around synapses. The synapses are created in reaction to the environment. The more a person gets exposed to problems, environment and jargon, the higher their chance of learning and excelling.

This means involving apprentices into your team and encouraging them to listen. Making them a part of the team and ensuring they participate. Motivation is a key factor, as entry point before the engineering synapses are built is key. So is making sure everyone on the team is open and accepting. Also that there will be a productivity hit. A negative experience at this early stage might discourage a person from engineering. It would be the same way we learn as children about the fact fire hurts … and we stop touching fire.

Just watching videos, or attending trainings won’t be as useful. The variety of experiences, including early failures in a safe environment is very important.

A good set of brain-synapse-forming studies are here, if you’d like to explore more.

It is widely accepted that the synapse plays a role in the formation of memory. As neurotransmitters activate receptors across the synaptic cleft, the connection between the two neurons is strengthened when both neurons are active at the same time, as a result of the receptor’s signaling mechanisms. The strength of two connected neural pathways is thought to result in the storage of information, resulting in memory. This process of synaptic strengthening is known as long-term potentiation.

They haven’t studied it before, they will have to learn on the job. For a lot of engineers some concepts are just natural. In some cases, early contact with engineering starts in the early teenage. As an apprentice you will need to focus more on learning these concepts fast. Thus why asking even the stupidest questions is absolutely vital. And this activity should be reinforced by managers or mentors.

DRY, YAGNI and SOLID to name a few will be something of a shock discovery. It will be like learning integrals and differentials. Again in more things you will get yourself involved in, the higher chance your brain will catch up. The role of your team and especially your leaders is to continuously, patiently explain again. You just keep on asking each question.

Find a mentor, or be a mentor. As a final note. Very few people will be capable to succeed without continuous positive reinforcement. My favorite Stephen Gilligan calls this approach by it’s better name sponsorship. By taking on an engineering apprentice your role is to make sure they will succeed. They are not just yet another distraction. More will be expected from you, because technically you are not working with a young engineering graduate. You are working with a person, who never had to do much with STEM and wants to (high motivation) to get into this area in their adult life. It is not easy for them already. Just try to make it as easy as possible for them.

I understand the requirements are not easy. But the world where we would be able to get a fantastic engineer straight off the market will disappear in the next 10-15 years. There will simply not be enough of them. The ability to mentor and grow will become the managerial skills of the future. Not simply knowing how to code best.

Your critical skills as a manager, as you grow will start to oscillate around the below:

  • centering/opening attention
  • deep listening/proper naming
  • being touched by/touching
  • challenging/accepting
  • connecting with resources and traditions
  • developing multiple frames/practicing behavioral skills
  • cultivating fierceness, tenderness, and playfulness

While the world of engineering as you know today will continue to fade away and transform.

The presence of “proper conditions and effective sponsorship” is the key here. Without them, more “ineffective suffering” (Merton, 1964) and disturbing events will be the case.

The world of engineering is transforming. It went from being a toy for geeks, then to being understood by a few acolytes, now it’s undergoing a transformation to become egalitarian to the users and soon will start on it’s way to be an egalitarian science, and most likely after, be the same as reading and writing today (as long as we won’t finish off this planet first).

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