To develop a resilient workforce and rebuild the economy, we’ll have to accomplish two things at once: get people back to work now, and at the same time help them learn new skills to pivot into a new career. It’s a challenge that emerged out of a situation constantly described as “unprecedented.” Yet the solution might be found in a training model that’s worked for centuries.

With roots in vocational training, apprenticeships have traditionally been associated with the skilled trades. But a new twist on the classic earn-and-learn model is expanding access to a high-tech career pathway that’s typically reserved for college grads. 

When Heather Terenzio launched an apprenticeship program for software development, she was looking to build a more diverse talent pipeline for her own software company. “I always had in the back of my mind that you could learn software development without having a college degree,” she said. “Yet every time we were interviewing, we were interviewing people with computer science degrees.” After taking a chance on hiring someone who taught himself to code — and being wowed by his talent and dedication —Terenzio, CEO and founder of Techtonic and Techtonic Academy, developed a training program for people, as she describes, “who just love software development but don’t have the right kind of resumes to get a foot in the door.” 

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 extensive, impacting Techtonic, its clients, and the apprentices. 

We spoke with Terenzio to learn more about Techtonic’s apprenticeship model and approach to building a more diverse talent pipeline. 

Q: How has Techtonic evolved and where do you want it to go?

Heather Terenzio: 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. 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. 

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. Our apprentices are paid to learn and are on their way and Techtonic gets amazing employees who are loyal and dedicated.

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 a 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.

Q: How does someone become a Techtonic apprentice?

Terenzio: 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 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.

Our classes tend to be incredibly diverse. We have about 75 percent 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.

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 a 20-year career and now wants to 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.

Q: What kind of skills and experiences prepare a software apprentice for success?

Terenzio: 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.

Q: What are the biggest barriers for successful completion of the apprenticeship?

Terenzio: 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.

Q: 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?

Terenzio: I do think it’s really important that other kinds of companies think about using the apprenticeship model. College isn’t the only way to find an on-ramp into a professional or middle-class career. 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.

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.

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.