Tuesday, July 25, 2006

meditation: software internship <> apprenticeship

Signs have begun to crop up at major intersections here in suburban Chicago. Scrawled in different hands, with different phone numbers, they all lead with the same hook: Real Estate Investor Seeks Apprentice.

It's one of the worst things I've seen in a while. Well, not as bad as that guy who ran the red light and nearly killed me last Friday, but pretty damned bad.

The explicit master/apprentice relationship is nearly dead, to the detriment of both teacher and student, in all but a few sectors of our economy. It survives in kitchens, Star Wars fan groups, trade unions and certain martial arts communities. The UK government introduced "Modern Apprenticeships" back in 1994 to try to restore the role of work-based learning. But that's about it AFAIK.

Let's look at high-tech, where there is no master/apprentice tradition and no movement to create one. After all, what could possibly motivate a highly-skilled professional to teach when there are "more important" things to do? What could motivate a beginner to put up with an endless stream of obfuscatory crap and seemingly pointless toil for little pay? Other than the promise of a) perpetuating the craft and b) learning a trade from someone with a proven track record. So we hire interns. . .which Isn't The Same Thing.

Modern "internships" have little in common with true "apprenticeships", in which a student is bound (actually indentured) to a teacher for a period of time in exchange for training. Companies who hire interns either bring them on as cheap contract labor or see them as a way of pre-qualifying a future pool of job applicants. If they're lucky, they get some experience. If they're really lucky, they meet someone who will put what they learn into some form of usable context.

Traditional apprenticeships used to lead to becoming a journeyman, someone who knew enough to be dangerous but not enough to set up shop alone.

Modern internships lead. . .where? To a job? At which point the period of structured learning. . .stops? What happened to being a journeyman? Is that the same thing as a Research Analyst?

So if you have an intern, or if you are in close proximity to interns, give them something they didn't expect. Give them more than the list of dirty, repetitive and mind-numbing tasks that you've been avoiding for the last year.

Teach them that it's OK to ask "why". That they should document what they've done, and figure out what good things happen because it got done. Teach them to write a status report. Introduce them to processes that are invisible to outsiders. Let them watch you do your thing in meetings, on conference calls. Show them your work product. Ask them what they thought of what just happened. Talk about possible outcomes, and possible paths to achieve them.

Above all, teach. Forward your phone into voicemail, clean off the whiteboard, and draw some circles and arrows. Make everything they see and do an opportunity to learn something.

You may not think you're a master, but you know something they want to learn. So teach. They won't be sleeping under your cube on a bed of straw for the next two years, so you have to teach them fast. And be prepared to listen.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Amen, brother. Too many people/organizations/companies see interns as cheap labor to whom they can slough off tedious work. But I've seen too many good interns become great employees because (a) they were given the chance to contribute in real ways and shine and (b) they were treated as members of the team and developed loyalty to the team as a result. Everyone wins. And if they don't stay, at least you know you did your part to improve the way products are developed.