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Why We Apprentice

08-13-13 Drew Clemens

An apprenticeship is drastically different from learning methods used in most of modern Western culture. Drew explains the practical, important reasons we believe in apprenticeships and how they allow us to grow talent—not just consume it.

The Sparkbox apprenticeship is still in its infancy. We’re excited about what we’ve seen so far, but we also believe this is just the beginning. The idea originated with our Technical Director, Rob Harr. He painted a picture of a long-term, in-house training where upcoming web developers were compensated, allowed to focus on learning, and surrounded with good direction and feedback. He and I discussed how critical professional mentorship had been in our own careers and how difficult it is to find such relationships. We wanted to provide this kind of environment for others.

We want to grow talent—not just consume it.

In short, we apprentice because it’s needed.

But before you nominate us for sainthood, our cause has not been completely altruistic. Pragmatically, we’re also a growing company, have high expectations of our developers, and see that the right web worker is hard to find. In general, the education system is woefully behind in producing developers ready to hit the ground running. And it’s hard to really blame them—ours is an industry that even grizzled pros struggle to keep pace with.

Though we have plenty of room for improvement with our apprenticeships, we’re confident in the direction and committed to the approach. We plan to share more about the “how” of our apprenticeships in future posts. For now, I’d just like to share why Sparkbox invests in apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships Are Unique

An apprenticeship is drastically different from learning methods used in most of modern Western culture. Its focus on diverse activity, close interaction, and interpersonal commitment are unusual. But we didn’t land on this ancient-style method of growing developers for novelty. There are practical, important reasons we believe in apprenticeships.

Because Everyone Is Different

Contrary to opinion outside nerd culture, developers are people too. And every person is one-of-a-kind.

Though the played-out stereotype of the parent-basement-dwelling, Doritos-stained-finger, lone-wolf developer is slowly fading, I’d like to note that a nugget of truth lives in humorous stereotypes. There’s a reason the secluded (loners) were the face of the early web. Who else had the time and drive to dig through the sparsely cryptic resources to learn about the web in the beginning? It was an untamed wilderness full of potential with almost no trails blazed. These caffeine-guzzling insomniacs were the only souls equipped (and probably aware) to build the early web.

Though the web has evolved, its methods for training future web developers have not. Sure, the resources are more attractive now. They’re better written and more easily findable. But they continue to be geared toward a very narrow kind of person. They’re generally online, self-guided, impersonal, and novice-unfriendly. They continue to mirror the audience the web has attracted all along. And though this group of wonderful, motivated people has been the foundation of the web, I believe the industry will show signs of true maturity when it’s more accessible to all kinds of learners. I believe this may help our industry’s general lack of diversity as well.

Because apprenticeships are inherently personal, they provide a much greater environment for mentors and mentees to explore what best suits the learner. Apprenticeships become one-of-a-kind, just like the people involved. The goal is to build a better web thanks to the contribution and collaboration of a diverse set of personalities and thinkers: visual learners; physical learners; social learners; and everyone in-between.

Because Learning Is a Dialogue

I’ve worked with a dozen or more interns in my career. Generally, these have been rewarding experiences for both myself and the interns. However, it wasn’t until the summer of 2012 that I experienced the benefit of having multiple interns working with me (and together) at the same time. That summer, they were two interns, not apprentices, but the difference in their opportunity to learn was apparent, regardless of their title. It solidified for me that learning is a dialogue, a give-and-take exchange of ideas among people.

Collaboration has become a cornerstone for the way we work at Sparkbox. And not the “sounds good in a keynote but never happens in real life” kind of collaboration. Ours is more of a “recklessly depend on one another for success” kind of collaboration. We feel like the web can’t really be built well in any other way. And we now believe you can’t really teach others how to build the web in any other way either.

We’re determined that our apprenticeships must be a collaborative effort. Whether through Sparkboxer-on-apprentice instruction or apprentice-on-apprentice pairing, we intend to keep the conversation going. Apprenticeships, because of their length and involvement, offer a unique opportunity to cultivate collaborative relationships that are critical to good web development. Being trained up in web development completely secluded doesn’t prepare someone for this. Teaching to collaborate is nearly as important as the content being taught.

Apprenticeships are very human, interpersonal experiences. In our cases, they last long enough and the demands are great enough that apprentices eventually break through the social barriers that we put up among strangers. Sparkboxers become invested in our apprentices, and the apprentices become invested in us and in one another.

Real accountability begins to develop not only among mentors and mentees but also among the apprentices themselves. They are working together, relying on one another at times. A bit of friendly competition even surfaces. These are all very good (and realistic) dynamics for one to experience before joining a full-time professional team.

Because “Available Resources” Doesn’t Mean “Good Resources”

As I mentioned previously, web development resources aren’t hard to come by. There are hundreds of books. Thousands of blogs. Millions of pithy 140-character opinions self-important enough to actually sound important.

The issue is quality and context. What are the right resources? Which ones were foundationally wonderful but are now out of date? Which ones are as true today as they were when they were written ten years ago? Which, among the flood of new self-published works, are actually worth reading? How much information is too much? Or not enough?

An apprenticeship is about much more than reading the right works and following the right people, but these things are one important part. And being among a group of engaged professionals for an extended period of time lends itself to providing a reliable path of resources to follow.

What’s more, our apprenticeships are designed to provide not only a depth but also a breadth of knowledge. It’s our goal to grow T-shaped developers. This is something extremely unique to apprenticeships.

The majority of training programs, blogs, and classes are focused on a single discipline. Apprenticeships, however, can intentionally invest time in a variety of disciplines (Ruby, CSS, requirements gathering, teamwork) due to their length and goal of producing a whole worker—not just teaching a certain skill. In fact, it’s in the mentor’s best interest to do so. Gathering the best resources available from a variety of disciplines to nurture your apprentices produces a desirable and hirable web developer.

Because We Can

Please don’t take that heading as arrogant. Hear me out.

Not everyone can (or should) take on apprentices. I’d like to encourage those that are able to to consider it—for the industry and for your own good.

However, there are certain conditions that, I believe, we’ve been blessed with to afford us this unique opportunity. I’m sure that apprenticeships can occur in other scenarios, but the following are factors that I know have aided our efforts. And I’d suggest an honest self-assessment of these things if you’re considering to offer apprenticeships.

Available Resources

We think it’s wise to compensate apprentices. It doesn’t have to be huge money—you don’t want them attracted solely for financial gain. You do, however, want them to be able to focus. A frequent paycheck certainly helps.

You also flat out need the space. Putting apprentices in the basement or a secluded corner somewhat defeats the point. It’s really hard to observe the work of the full-time pros from two flights down. And unless the apprentices are truly outgoing, they’ll have a hard time inserting themselves into the development fray unless you do it for them. Put them in the room where the action is.

Right People

You’ve got to have the right people—and enough of them. I don’t think your team has to be huge, but you do need enough skilled web developers around the apprentices to offer them frequent guidance without weighing down paying projects too much. At Sparkbox, we don’t rely on a single person to train our apprentices. It takes a village.

That said, you do need a person (or persons) with whom the buck stops. Someone has to be ultimately responsible that they receive key technical training. Someone has to be ultimately responsible for the apprentices’ daily activities. If they have the time, this can be the same person. So far, for us, we’ve split these responsibilities among Rob as Technical Director and me as—well—the team Mom.


I saved this for last because it’s by far the most important. It takes a lot of effort to take on apprentices. Even if we were able to provide a perfect template for you to follow (which we can’t), and you were able to execute it flawlessly (which you won’t), the responsibility on the mentor(s) is great.

These new developers are in vulnerable positions, putting the very foundation of their careers in your care. Don’t screw it up. Don’t lose interest and let them down. Like us, you won’t do it perfectly; but please, do your best to hold to your commitment. If you aren’t confident that you can, wait until you are.

In Closing

I believe investing in apprenticeships offers enormous benefits for both the new developers and their hosting companies. It takes a great deal of work on both parts, but the results can be fantastic. We’ve already seen the benefit of hiring an apprentice who was able to hit the ground running on day one, and that has been huge.

We know we have a lot to learn about this process just like our apprentices do about developing. We look forward to building our chops at building new developers, and we’d love to have others join us.

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