Hiring software engineers at a reasonable price has never been more difficult. Fully 86 percent of tech hiring managers and recruiters surveyed by Indeed say finding qualified talent to be a challenge, and more than half admit to hiring people who don’t meet job requirements out of desperation to fill these roles.
Techtonic Group was nearly one of these companies.
The 12-year-old full-service software development firm in Boulder, Colorado, used to offshore most of its development to Armenia, but in 2013 they decided it was time to bring the work back in-house. However, they quickly realized that even entry-level developers were very expensive and in short supply. “We thought that there has got to be a better way,” said Chris Magyar, director of Techtonic Group Academy.
So instead of scouring the country for developers, the company decided to build them in-house through an intensive software development apprenticeship program. “Most software development is learned on the job anyway,” Magyar said. By teaching the content and pairing apprentices with more senior staff, they could create the exact talent they needed.
Unlike boot camps, which require steep tuition and are open to everyone, Techtonic’s program would be highly selective, and the content would be designed specifically to meet the needs of its own development projects. “The idea is to train people who will add value for our clients,” Magyar said.
Colorado’s Tech Apprentice Program
In late 2016, Techtonic Academy was born. The company registered the program with the United States Department of Labor as part of the national apprenticeship system, making it the first government-recognized technology apprenticeship program in Colorado. Then they hired Kyle Brothis as the new CTO and head of curriculum to develop and teach the program.
Brothis and Magyar worked closely together in those early days to define the goals, content needs, and training strategy for new apprentices. “It has evolved a lot over the past two years,” Magyar said.
For the first cohort of 13 apprentices, Brothis created a five-week full-time training program for all participants. At the end, students were assessed on what they learned, and the best six were selected to participate in the full-time software development apprenticeship, where they worked on progressively more complicated tasks and client projects under the guidance of a mentor. After about six months of training, apprentices were hired as junior developers by Techtonic or a client.
The training came with a $5,000 tuition, but Magyar’s team secured grants to cover most of the cost through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which provides funding for workforce development programs. “In the first cohort everyone received funds to cover some or all of their tuition,” Magyar said. Once they became apprentices, they were paid $15 an hour, and when they were hired received competitive salaries.
Magyar vetted the initial apprentices with skills assessments, personality profiles and a few pre-class assignments. “We don’t require previous technical experience, but we do want to see that they have strong problem-solving skills and can absorb new content quickly,” he said.
Paid to Learn
Over time, Magyar and Brothis evolved the training content and the hiring process to improve the quality of the program for apprentices and the company.
The training now lasts 10 weeks and costs $10,000 (most of which is still covered by grants), and participants receive an hourly wage as soon as they start. The training is competency-based, covering HTML/CSS, Java, SOA Architecture, SQL and other languages. The classes include lectures, exercises, group projects, code reviews and unit tests, almost all of which is taught by Brothis. “Our goal is to train these folks to become engineers, not coders,” Brothis said. “So we cover all of the foundational skills they need.”
By the end of the 10 weeks, all successful apprentices are doing pair programming at a single workstation with senior staff and working under the guidance of mentors on actual client projects. “The clients love them,” Brothis said. Having extra junior staff working on their projects means they can clear out backlogs of tasks while the apprentices become familiar with project-specific requirements. “Our clients all want to hire them once they graduate,” Brothis said. “It is what separates up from boot camps.”
While Brothis trains the current cohort, Magyar vets the next group. He now finds most candidates through ads on LinkedIn, Facebook and Craigslist, and receives applications from all types of backgrounds. “We’ve had baristas, construction workers and mid-career professionals. Some have college degrees, and some have their GEDs,” Magyar said. A primary goal of the academy is to attract underserved populations, including women, minorities, vets, and young people who don’t have the resources to go to college. Magyar noted that roughly 75 percent of every cohort are women and people of color.
Though applying to get in is just the beginning. “The vetting process has gotten a lot more competitive,” he said. The program still doesn’t require applicants to have tech experience, however, those who make it through the initial screenings are expected to complete 15 – 25 hours of prework, which includes writing an essay, standing-up a basic application, and completing coding exercises using self-paced tutorials. The finalists are then invited to an interview and one day on-site class to see how well they can absorb new material.
The prework ensures all selected candidates are fully committed to the process, and it creates a level playing field when they begin training, Brothis said. “We want them to come in feeling comfortable with the content and ready to dive deeper.”
From Struggling Veteran to Programmer
Krystin Villeneuve was one of the first apprentices to go through Techtonic Academy. Formerly an aircraft armament avionics subsystem repairer for the Army, she had picked up coding as a hobby. She signed up for a for-profit boot camp, but had to pull out halfway through because the Department of Veterans Affairs wasn’t going to cover the cost. Then she saw an ad for Techtonic Academy on Craigslist and submitted an application. She made the cut and received a grant to cover half of her tuition. “There was no guarantee of a job, but it was worth the opportunity,” she said.
Villeneuve’s coding background made her one of the stronger students in her cohort, which benefited her and her team. She helped her group hone their coding skills, while they helped her in areas where she struggled. “It was amazing to see how fast everyone picked up new skills,” she said.
Once on the floor, she was immediately assigned to a billable project where she worked on applications under the guidance of a mentor. Within 90 days, she had proved she had the competencies to work on her own and was hired as a junior developer. Four months later she was leading her own projects and mentoring a new group of apprentices. “Everyone on our team is expected to mentor,” she said. “It’s part of our culture.”
An Embarrassment of Talent
In addition to hiring many of the academy’s graduates, Techtonic partners with clients and other tech companies in the region to develop new talent on their behalf. Clients can hire the apprentices at no additional cost after 1,000 hours of work together, and some do their apprenticeship at the client site. Recently, two apprentices did their work at a robotics company that partners with Techtonic, who hired them when they completed the program. They have been extremely successful in those roles, Magyar said. “We find a lot of diamonds in the rough.”
Though getting here hasn’t been easy. Creating the academy took a lot of time and resources, and not every cohort was a perfect fit, Brothis said. “We hit some bumps, and it took us a while to work out all the kinks.”
Getting support from the Department of Labor and local workforce development organizations helped them shape the program, and to find early applicants and grants to support them, he said. But the company still had to invest a lot of time and money in developing the curriculum, vetting candidates and mentoring apprentices. “It took a lot to get over that initial hump.”
Now however, the program is so successful it is attracting new clients, which is generating new revenue. Techtonic was also able to secure $2 million in funding from University Ventures and Zoma Capital to expand the program to serve more clients. “It’s been a re-ally good business decision for us,” Brothis said.
Creating a quality apprenticeship program is challenging, Villeneuve noted. However, companies that think such programs are too resource intensive should consider the cost of not being able to fill entry technology jobs — and the work that goes undone because of it. “Before I joined Techtonic, every ad I saw required three to five years experience and everyone was struggling to fill those jobs,” she said. “Now we have more trained developers than we can hire.” In an economy where tech talent feels impossible to find, that’s a problem most companies would be lucky to have.