In our report, On-ramps to Good Jobs: Fueling Innovation for the Learning Ecosystem of the Future we examine the ways the current education and workforce training ecosystem is falling further behind and failing many unemployed and underemployed Americans. There are 44 million adults who are either jobless or who are lacking the skills and credentials and networks they need to earn enough income to support themselves and their families.
I spoke with Heather Terenzio, CEO and founder of Techtonic and the Techtonic Academy to learn more about their software development company and apprenticeship model. The aim of the Techtonic Academy apprentice program, recognized by the Department of Labor, is to recruit people from diverse backgrounds, regardless of their work experience or academic training, and pay them to learn soft-skills and software engineering that prepares them for their future career. The benefits of the program are diverse, impacting Techtonic, its clients, and the apprentice participants. For Techtonic, the product outcomes are stronger, and they are able to power their clients needs with great service. Additionally, the program generates an ongoing, diverse talent pipeline for Techtonic’s clients while concurrently preparing apprentice participants for success in the workplace, without them going into debt.
How it all Started…
Holly: Heather, tell me how Techtonic came to be.
Heather: I started Techtonic about 12 years ago. We started with an offshore team and then we moved to the Techtonic Academy model.
We were doing this offshore model for years and years, and it never got easier. After 10 years of me flying back and forth to Eastern Europe. And I always had in the back of my mind that you could learn software development without having a college degree. And that some of the best software developers I had ever known over the course of my career were English majors and thought themselves how to code or didn’t even go to college or didn’t finish college. And they have all these different kinds of backgrounds. Yet every time we were interviewing, we were interviewing people with computer science degrees.
One day I was giving a talk at a vocational school here in Boulder – talking about careers in technology, and after this talk, a young man who was working catering for these events came up to me and he said, “I love your company. It sounds so cool. I’d love to work for someone like you. I’ve been teaching myself to code for 10 years, but I never graduated from high school I only have a GED.” And then he said, “But I promise if you hired me. you would never regret it.” Right there and then I thought, “You know, let’s see what you got and let’s give him a try.”
He came on board with us and was just a pleasure to have around. He had come up through the foster care system, never really had any good parental guidance on his career or what he should be doing to achieve a great career. And we brought him on board, and he absorbed everything we told him. He just loves software development. About three months in, he walked into my office and he said, “Thank you so much for this job. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be here. This is an amazing experience.” And right there and then, I thought to myself, in my 15 years of being a CEO nobody had ever walked into my office and said, “Thank you for hiring me and I’m grateful to be here.” I said, “Do you have any friends? Are there more people out there like you?” Because honestly, a company filled with people like this guy would be an ideal situation. And we started thinking about it and went all in on looking to see if there are people out there who just love software development but don’t have the right kind of resumes to get a foot in the. And we started calling it an Apprenticeship Program. We were really finding people with all different kinds of backgrounds and then training them side by side with our more senior level developers.
We learned one day that apprenticeship had an actual federal designation. And so, we thought it’d be kind of funny if we went out and tried to get approved by the Department of Labor as an apprenticeship program. It took us about 18 months because no software company had ever tried to become an apprenticeship approved by the Department of Labor. We finally got it and it has been no looking back. We have been running full speed ahead ever since.
Holly: How has Techtonic evolved and where do you want it to go?
Heather: At the start of the apprenticeship program, we were just trying to solve for our own talent needs. And it worked really well for us and then our clients started seeing what we were doing internally and asked if they could partake in this as well. That’s how we started expanding our model to serve our clients with talent as well. But we have some pretty big ambitions. We brought on some venture funding recently. We want to go nationwide with the model, and we think that this is the new way to be teaching software developers, a new way for bringing diverse talent into this industry. We feel like we could be affecting not just hundreds of lives but thousands of lives throughout the U.S. And what we’re focused on for 2019 is taking the next couple of big leaps in our growth and scale.
Holly: Why are apprenticeship models good for business – yours and your clients?
Heather: So, specific problems we’re solving for are: the talent gap; it’s solving for diversity and technology; and then it’s helping our clients find a reliable talent pipeline. It’s a truly win-win-win situation. Our apprentices are paid to learn and are on their way and Techtonic gets amazing employees who are loyal and dedicated. We’re not the highest paying company in town, we’re probably pretty average but the loyalty rates of our employees are off the charts. They want to be here. And it’s not all about the money. It’s about the opportunities that they have been given here.
Holly: What is the biggest challenge in staffing for your software development business?
Heather: There’s a huge talent gap out there right now. In Colorado alone, the unemployment rate for software developers is less than 2%. So, the only way to find software developers is to go poach them from another company. That’s not a sustainable solution.
Diverse Talent Pool
Holly: What is unique about your apprentices?
Heather: What has been really interesting is that our classes tend to be incredibly diverse. We have about 75% women, minorities and veterans in our classes. And what we attribute that to is that we take all the barriers to entry away. You could be a barista on Friday and then show up for work on Monday and pretty much maintain your lifestyle. But you’re now on this rocket ship ride through an amazing career in software development.
It’s a great win for our clients because they have access to a whole new employee pool. And companies are now starting to realize that they need more diversity on their teams, not just so that they can look good on statistics and figures, but because it truly builds better products. We have a client called Misty Robotics. We build a home-based robot to do tasks for you like “Misty, check to make sure that the gas is shut off” or “Make sure the dog is off the couch,” or “Make sure my kids are doing their homework”.
They know that women make most of the buying decisions for the home. And they came to us and said, “Instead of going through this two-year development cycle with this robot and then finding out that women don’t want this thing. We want female engineers involved from day one building this so that we have their input the entire way through the development of this robot.” And so, we worked with them to not only build software for them but to build up a team of female engineers who could be members of their team.
Holly: You are actively recruiting and hiring for socio-economic, gender, and racial diversity because it helps to bridge the talent gap and leads to better products. How is this diversity in hiring better for business, and the economy overall in the United States?
Heather: Companies hire offshore talent, one, for the costs. But two, just because they can’t find software developers here locally and that’s a problem because something like 5 million American software development jobs offshore right now. And there are probably 5 million Americans who would love that kind of a job. We have a theory that there’s places within the United States with a low cost of living where we could create software development centers. Maybe in small towns where somebody making $50,000, $60,000 a year can afford a house and support a family on that. Then clients from Silicon Valley can fly in weekly if they needed to even for the day sometimes and have their software done there.
Everybody has a story about offshore software development and how hard it is. It’s not easy to tell someone half the world away what you need and have them understand it intuitively. And it typically takes two, three, four sometimes more iterations just to get one simple thing done. And so, the costs, even if we’re spending $20 an hour in India, it’s taking you three to four times longer to get work done. So, the actual costs are a lot higher.
But a lot of companies really don’t have a choice but to go offshore because there’s just not the volume of people here who can get it done outside of the major cities. Having a team in Silicon Valley is going to be extremely expensive and having someone on either of the coasts is going to be extremely expensive. But if we could use this apprenticeship model to create software centers in Middle America, we could significantly lower the cost for our industry and help to employ more Americans and put them on the pathway to better jobs.
Talent Pipeline for Client Companies
Holly: Can you describe your apprenticeship model and why it’s beneficial to participants?
Heather: The way our program specifically works is that we have a 12-week class that will give you the foundations of software development. And then you work side by side with a more senior level employee who’s teaching you the ropes. The whole apprenticeship idea is that people learn by doing. That’s exactly what we’re doing and it’s the model that’s worked for thousands of years throughout the trades. Not everybody learns by sitting in a classroom for four years.
The Apprentice Experience
Holly: Describe the process of becoming a Techtonic apprentice.
Heather: First, it’s just a simple online application but we also have some personality tests. We have some logic tests and we have some pre-work. It’s almost 40 hours’ worth of work that somebody has to do just to get the in-person interview. We’re screening for somebody who really wants to be here. It’s not just like, “Oh, I heard you can make a ton of money and so I’m going to try and get a job there.” We are more interested that you’re interested in doing the work. And once you complete that initial work, we have in-person interviews. We found that there’s no substitute for that in-person experience. We want to understand your motivations and your background and how you got here. And from there, we’ll decide whether we want you in the class or not.
The class itself is 12 weeks long but there are also a couple of gates that you must make it through along the way to proceed. We have strict policies around being on time, absenteeism and doing good work. We want people who are going to make good employees. And what we found is that if you’re not a good student during the 12-week class, you’re probably not going to be a good employee once you get out of it.
Holly: That doesn’t sound easy.
Heather: No, it’s not easy at all. We’re really looking for the best of the best. We’re really looking for people who are hungry to do this. These are going to be our employees, and these are going to be our clients’ employees, so we want people who really want to be a part of this.
Holly: On your website you say that you create engineers not coders, what do you mean by that?
Heather: In a lot of the boot camps, they teach a specific skill so they’ll teach something like Ruby on Rails or Java Scripts and it’s a specific language and you can get a specific job. But what we are really teaching is the foundation of software development and the engineering underlying these languages. Because we’re a services company and we have lots of different technology stacks that we’re working on for our clients, we really must understand the fundamentals in order to understand how to do lots of different kinds of languages and lots of different kinds of products. So, we’re really building engineers here. We want you to understand the bigger picture of how it all fits together. And that will make you a better engineer and employee and make further progress in your career.
Characteristics of Apprentices
Holly: Describe your apprentice participants. Are there common key characteristics among them?
Heather: We have everything from a 19-year-old software protégé who didn’t want to go to college, all the way up to someone who was laid off from IBM after 20-year career and now wants re-tool themselves, and really everything in between. Part of what we’re doing right is to find people with all different kinds of backgrounds who just love software development. And what’s interesting is that if you were to walk in our office today, you couldn’t tell who the 19-year-old foster kid was from someone who has an Ivy League Master’s degree in computer science. Everybody kind of looks the same. And everybody is working on the same kinds of things. It’s interesting that once you have that skill set how quickly you assimilate. With software development, once you have a job and you’ve proven yourself and you have these skills, nobody really cares what your college degree was in. They just care that you can actually do the work.
Holly: How are you recruiting your apprentice participants? How do they find you?
Heather: It hasn’t been that hard to find folks. At least locally, word just has gotten out about us and we’ve actually had people from Idaho, Minnesota, and Texas who have moved to Colorado just for our program. There have been articles written about us. We do quite a bit with social media. We do a lot of information sessions but that’s about it. Probably for each 20-person class we will have received about 500 applications. It’s pretty desirable to work for some place where you’re getting paid to learn.
Holly: Do you partner with other organizations?
Heather: We partner with a lot of our workforce centers and we also partner with several nonprofits and family foundations who care about people with different kinds of backgrounds getting careers in technology. And that’s been really important for us to talk with other organizations that care about the same things we do and they tend to have a finger on the pulse of who’s looking for careers like the ones we can provide.
Helping Apprentice Participants Succeed
Holly: What does it take to foster success for an apprentice? How do you address the variability in educational background and/or work experience in making sure that everybody gets what they need to complete the program?
Heather: We do quite a bit of work on soft skills – how to work in a team, how to conduct yourself in a team meeting, and how to be collaborative. We have found that people who have retail backgrounds or something in customer service make really great employees. They know how to talk effectively with customers and each other, they’ve had that kind of training. And we’ve had people from the Apple and Verizon stores work for us who have great customer service skills and are really good at explaining complex things. Whereas somebody coming right out of college might not have that same kind of experience.
We also do a lot of work on the importance of being on time and things that seem really simple and elementary later on in your career but maybe nobody has explained these important details to before. That’s why the classroom is so strict around being on time and showing up and getting your work done and being timely. We have a dress code; you have to look professional when you’re here. We coach them in a structured classroom and then in day to day work alongside more senior level people.
Barriers to Apprentice Completion
Holly: What are the biggest barriers for successful completion of apprentice participants?
Heather: You know, time and time again, we’ve seen people not be successful and it’s really the very simple things. It usually doesn’t come down to “I can’t grasp this concept.” It comes down to somebody just can’t show up on time. Somebody just can’t be here five days a week. And we’ve actually struggled a little bit with young adults who are just coming out of high school. It’s really hard to go from a high school environment to 40 hours a week and having to be somewhere eight hours a day. I think it’s because they haven’t had the experience of having a barista kind of job or a retail job for a couple of years to know what a great opportunity they have with us.
It’s really people who are choosing not to do the really simple things. It’s unfortunate but it’s almost something we can’t force. We can sit you down and give you all the tutoring and extra help you need, but we can’t make somebody show up on time. We can’t make someone not miss a day in a week or flake out on their teams. But it has been interesting to us that it doesn’t come down to the actual skills. It comes down to more of the soft skills stuff.
Holly: The apprenticeship model helps to address your own talent needs. What makes your model unique?
Heather: The only thing that makes us unique as an apprenticeship program is that we pay people on day one. People walk in the door with no skills and they start getting paid to learn how to be software developers. That separates us from the boot camps, where people have to be able to take six months off from a job and pay $20,000, $30,000 usually and then hopefully you have a job at the end of all that. With our apprenticeship program, because we pay people on day one, we can be extremely selective. We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of resumes, people with all different kinds of backgrounds. We have everything from GED students to baristas to Uber drivers to “I was an Ancient Greek history major and I want a career in software development.” It’s just people who demonstrate that they love software. They’re not in it just because it’s a high paying career. And we bring them onboard.
Holly: In addition to great product, what other benefits does the apprenticeship model afford your clients?
Heather: Once you get into Techtonic Academy and you do a great job, we put you on our client projects and our clients have the option to hire you. As a company, Techtonic will write software for clients but will also create a team of people who are especially trained on your exact project that clients can then hire. We become a software development firm as well as talent pipeline generation tool for them.
Benefits for Apprentice Participants
It used to be that you could go to college, get your degree and just follow your passion. And we have people here who are Ancient Greek History majors and that’s what they love studying. But at the end of that, you have crushing debt now. It used to be you could get out, just follow your passion and not have that kind of debt for the rest of your life. With a program like ours, you could have a great career and be in zero debt. And that’s something that’s really raised a lot of eyebrows. It’s attracted a lot of attention for us.
Contextual Learning-Working Environment
When you go to a boot camp, you can have class projects all you want but really nothing can replicate production rate environments and working for a client with deadlines and changing requirements and the ups and downs of every software development. You can’t replicate that in the class. We have the best of all the worlds. We have a class that’s teaching the fundamentals, but then we have that real-life training. When a client hires an apprentice from us, they know they’re going to work out. They have 90% confidence that that employee is going to be a great employee. When you hire somebody out of a boot camp or even through a recruiting firm, you get a couple of hours’ worth of interviews. And the rate of that person’s success at your company is going to be a lot lower than somebody you have been working with for six months. With us, you have this try before you buy over the course of six months.
Apprentice Program Recognition: Department of Labor
Holly: When apprentices participants complete the program, they earn an official certificate from the Department of Labor. Tell about this partnership with the Department of Labor and why this endorsement is important for Techtonic and for the apprentice participants?
Heather: This is very important for us. It takes on more and more importance for us all the time. We really wanted to set ourselves apart, and to be a recognized apprenticeship program. It’s a long and rigorous application process and there are audits. We have to commit to paying people, and to teaching a certain level of competencies around all the different skills that we teach. It is a true partnership, and we work very closely with the Department of Labor here locally and out of DC.
We want this program to mean something for participants. We want them to have a certificate that means something wherever they go in the United States, it’s a federal designation. And we wanted to be something more special than just a boot camp. We truly believe in the apprenticeship model and that people learn better working side by side than just being lectured to. Getting hands-on experience is really important. We’ve learned a lot from the Department of Labor and I think they have learned a lot from us around software development careers.
Holly: Would you encourage other organizations across different industries to go through this process and create new apprenticeship models? And what are the barriers to that happening?
Heather: I do think it’s really important that other kinds of companies think about using the apprenticeship model. I think that college track is flawed. I think we forced too many people into college. I think college debt is way out of control. And I think people need to think about how make other pathways into professional careers. College isn’t the only way to find an on-ramp into a professional or middle-class career. And so, I’d love to see more companies doing that. There are a lot of careers out there where a college degree is really just nice to have. College has become basically a gate and it’s excluding a lot of people from a lot of really great careers. There are a lot of skills that can be taught on the job if the company is willing to invest in that.
The apprenticeship model is a tried and true – it has been used for hundreds of years in the United States, in Europe since the Middle Ages. There’s a lot that has been learned throughout that time that companies can benefit from to create great employees for themselves
Barriers to Expanding Apprenticeship Programs
Holly: Why do you think more companies and industries aren’t developing apprenticeships? What kinds of barriers are out there preventing wide-spread adoption?
Heather: I think it’s just that companies are set in their ways, along with Human Resources departments and recruiters. It’s something different and you really need to find people within your company who are willing to try something new. But I also think companies right now are so desperate for software talent that they don’t have time to create some whole new program. They’re just poaching from other companies and continuing to do whatever they are doing. They just need people who can do this kind of work quickly and putting together a whole apprenticeship program is maybe outside the realm of their capabilities right now. You have to have the desire to want to innovate and do things a lot differently.
Apprenticeships and College Pathways
Holly: In addition to all of the skills gained and possible employment, participants also receive college credit. How does that work and why is it important for the apprentice participants?
Heather: We offer it because it’s something provided as part of the Department of Labor Apprenticeship program. If you go through our program, you will earn 39 credits of college credit through one of our local community colleges. That’s half of college degree. So, it’s a perk that we can offer to folks and they can use it if they decide they want to go back to school. Not a lot of our folks have done that yet, mostly because I don’t think they wanted to take the time out to get a college degree. We haven’t been doing this long enough to have a good statistical sample size. It’s really just about giving people options. They have the option to stay here and continue their career. They have the option to go to college. And it’s nice for us as a company to be able to offer our employees all different kinds of pathways.
Holly: What is it like for your senior developers who serve as mentors to apprentice participants? Does it enhance the work of your staff? Do you provide coaching for them?
Heather: The way our structure works is that our very senior developers mentor mid-level developers, who mentor juniors, who mentor apprentices. So, there’s a ladder system. You don’t want a senior developer teaching the very fundamentals of software development to an apprentice over and over again. You want everybody leveling up the person right under them in the org chart. It has to be someone who is interested in mentoring and interested in helping people out. And the nice thing with software development is you don’t have to be super personable or social or anything. You really just have someone sitting side by side with you and you’re showing them what you’re doing. And it’s called paired programming. It’s a fairly common concept in software development.
It’s also changed our culture a bit because our culture is all about mentorship and growing people and paying it forward. And if you think about it, when we’re interviewing a senior level developer, our message is that you can go anywhere and you can write a software, you can go and write code at a thousand different companies in Boulder today. But where else can you go write code and change the course of somebody’s life? And what you’re doing here is not just helping our client but you’re impacting the life of somebody who maybe didn’t get on the right path to begin with. And that’s a really powerful message. I think it has attracted a lot of people to come work here when they could have gone to go work anywhere.
Holly: What types of clients do you support and what attracts them to work with you?
Heather: I think they come to us first and foremost because we do really great work and we do have a great senior team who develops really great software. But clients are now having to think a lot more creatively about how to acquire talent, and the fact that we can provide both the service and talent to them is really attractive. Usually, they come to us because they have three problems. They need code written today, they have a problem attracting talent, and they want some diversity on their teams. And if they need those three things, we’re the only place they need to come, we can solve all those problems for them. Nobody is providing talent like us and nobody is providing diversity like we are.
Holly: If your clients are hiring your apprentices, why do they keep coming back for more business from Techtonic? How does the business model work for you and for them?
Heather: There are probably 100 companies in Colorado that have development teams of 300 people or more. And in a team that size, you’re probably losing 20 to 30 a year from attrition and you have ongoing software project needs. So, we’re continuing to build their software products and we’re also continuing to back build their talent pipeline. So, that really keeps our clients around for a lot longer than a typical development shop because we’re providing value on so many different levels.
Holly: Are your clients forward-thinking with regards to this new and diverse way of acquiring talent?
Heather: I think a lot of companies these days are being forced to be innovative. The traditional models of hiring a recruiter or just going to college fairs isn’t satisfying their needs for the talent that they need to get their work done. And so, they are being creative. They are starting to think outside the box. And those are typically the folks who will come to us. The ones who are stuck in their ways, we probably won’t hear from them. But our clients tend to think differently. They’re the innovators around the cutting edge of their industries and they’re doing things differently internally anyway. And so, when we come along with this model, we’re really not trying to replace your entire talent strategy, we just want to be a piece of your talent strategy. So, most companies, they’re probably going to keep doing recruiting in college campus, outreach but we just want to be a piece of that puzzle for them and help them solve for talent in the way we know works.
Holly: How do you and/or the apprentice participant demonstrate or verify that they are a good fit, a good hire, for your client?
Heather: Over the course of a six-month project, you’ll interact with that person quite a bit. You’ll see their work captured in code repositories. And you’ll see them at meetings, and you’ll start to get to know them. And you’ll know at the end of six months whether they’re going to be a good fit on your team. Usually comes down to is this a nice person who can get the work done. Over the course of six months, you can really assess whether somebody is a nice person and they have the right kind of work ethic to do a good job at your company.
Future Apprenticeship Models
Holly: Do you think this apprenticeship model will change? Do you see it evolving in new or different ways?
Heather: For us, it’s changing all the time, we iterate on the process all the time. We are always looking at what we’re doing and thinking about how we can be doing it better. So, I expect it to keep getting better, our curriculum and how we’re screening, and how we’re training people on the floor and with projects. We keep getting better all the time.
I think that this is something that is going to keep evolving, and I think that’s part of what’s happening with colleges is that they haven’t evolved. And they haven’t been self-critical enough to grow with the times and the needs of the current workforce. If we can keep iterating and growing and changing and meeting the needs of our clients, I think we’ll continue to be really successful.
Holly: Has there been any pushback?
Heather: From a political standpoint, it’s a great bipartisan issue. Nobody would argue that getting Americans into high paying careers is a bad thing. We really haven’t had that many barriers thrown up in front of us.
Advice for Others Wishing to Start an Apprenticeship Program
Holly: If an organization or an industry was looking at developing an apprenticeship model and interested in hiring more diverse talent, what advice would you give them?
Heather: Just be open to people’s different backgrounds and stories. Sometimes a barista or someone in retail makes a better software developer because they have a different perspective. Diversity has not just been a nice thing to do, it’s really enhanced all the products that we build. It’s really great having somebody build something from six different perspectives rather than people with the exact same kinds of backgrounds. But, diversity is not just going to come knocking on your door, you have to really start looking in unexpected places in order to start bringing that into your company.
Holly: What are you most excited about for the future of Techtonic? What is keeping you up at night because you’re so excited?
Heather: I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I have been in software or running a software company and this is the most fun I have ever had. These past couple of years have been so much fun for me and it’s really about working with people who are grateful to be here, who are seizing an opportunity, who are changing the course of their lives. And, you know, that gets me up in the morning. I love software and I love building code but it’s hard to get super excited about writing code every day, but to get excited about changing the course of people’s lives is really, really cool.
We’re really walking the walk with what we’re doing, and it has made my job and my life so much more satisfying than it has ever been. And so, I would encourage other companies to figure out a way to be this impactful and to just go all in and you find that if you just do the right thing all the other stuff falls into place.