Jedi Software Training–Part 2

So far we’ve established a few things from the last post on Jedi Software Training:

  • We already implicitly and perhaps accidentally practice the Apprentice/Master model in software development today.
  • The route to Software Master is paved with ambiguity.  Most who achieve it can’t tell you how they got there.
  • A Software Apprentice often flails around in a sea of information without much guidance unless they are insanely lucky in their first job.
  • We need a systematic way to train apprentices and grow the craft in a reproducible manner.

Someone at this point might be saying, “Don’t we already have internships?  Isn’t that enough?”  Let’s distinguish an internship from an apprenticeship.



Exploring career option?



Short time frame?



Project-based opportunity for career exposure?



Employer is looking for permanent hire?



Provides training in all aspects of field?



The important difference here is about goals and time frame. The internship is about checking things out and deciding interest, the apprenticeship is about getting serious and learning the craft from start to finish with the intent of employment.  So no, the internship doesn’t address the need in the same manner.

To create successful apprentices, we need several things:

  • A road map to understand the most important aspects of the craft
  • A master who already understands the map
  • A place where the master practices and can freely train the apprentice

Who, what and where.  The how is being addressed here, and the why was already established in the last post.  Let’s focus on who now.

The Ideal Master

Taking a page from the book of Star Wars:  To train a Jedi Apprentice, we first must find a Master.  The master clearly must know software engineering inside and out.  They should be versed in every aspect of project development from soup to nuts:  analysis, requirements, design, development, testing, release and maintenance.  Ideally, they should have practiced for 15+ years and on a wide variety of projects–from small to large, from internal to highly public, and from successful to dismal failure.

A master should be fluent in many tools, languages and frameworks.  A good master is productive no matter what tool they use once they practice for a short time, given their vast prior experience on other tools.

A master must be able to communicate difficult concepts with simple and easy-to-understand analogies or other descriptions that even the newest apprentice can grasp.  True mastery of material means the ability to describe it in multiple ways.  The master should have infinite patience to describe things in various ways to give the apprentice many different ways to understand new concepts.

Most importantly, a master must be fluent in the business of software, since many software decisions are driven through the business, not the craft of software itself.  A master that cannot understand the balance of these two forces is no master at all.

The Path to Mastery

To turn an apprentice into a journeyman, we need a training program.  Electrical apprentices currently mix actual practice on the construction site with nighttime course work in electrical theory, such as the study of Ohm’s Law.  A similar program for software could be useful:

  • How to use the tools of the trade (e.g. IDEs, makefiles, testing scripts, automated build & testing tools, source control, etc)
  • Understanding the theoretical side of software engineering:  requirements analysis, functional decomposition, design practice, project scheduling, developer estimation, and so on.
  • Putting these theories into practice using a small scale, but real, project

Some of you may be thinking that this sounds precisely like a university program for computer science (at least in part).  Most computer science curricula are geared toward creating academics who are skilled in the field of computer science.  The fact that software engineers might pop out on the other end of the coursework is an afterthought.  It’s the same distinction between physics majors and mechanical engineers:  science vs. applied knowledge to practical situations.  Clearly we want the practical here.

The Master’s Workshop

There seems to be no perfect environment in which to train the apprentice in a modern setting.  This, to me, is the crux of the problem.  There are several potential possibilities, but each fraught with peril.  Let’s examine each of them individually:

  • Universities
  • Open source projects
  • Companies of various sizes

The University Setting

The first and most obvious is university setting.  But universities already have problems as a training ground for three major reasons:

  • Most professors are professional academics without the benefit of real-world software engineering experience in a business setting.  This makes them less than ideal Masters, even though they may be quite accomplished in their own right.
  • Their goal as academics is to create more academics, not to create masters in the field.  Generally, they prefer the theory to the practical aspects.
  • The end result of a professor’s research is a published paper, not a finished software product.  Often time, prototypes are more than enough for them.  Prototypes are not good examples of production grade software.

Dude, what about Summer of Code?

An excellent question:  What about Open Source projects such as  Google’s Summer of Code or the Apache Project?  There’s an unlimited number of them, creating limitless opportunity for apprentices.  They sure seem like a great place to start, but:

  • Most of these projects are working remotely, using distributed development techniques.  A master/apprentice relationship functions best when the master and apprentice are close in proximity to keep the apprentice from getting too far into the weeds.  SoC and other such setups do not offer that proximity and many apprentices are generally unprepared for that level of freedom, at least initially.
  • An apprentice is trying to develop confidence in their skills.  These projects often assume some self-taught skill with the tools involved.  Newcomers are often ridiculed and derided for lack of understanding of even basic tools.  That doesn’t foster confidence in apprentices.
  • Some are treated more like internships (e.g. Google Summer of Code).

Be A Company (Wo)man!

That leaves only one place left as fertile ground for training:  technology companies.  But which ones–large, medium, small, or startup?  Let’s make a case for each. futileLarge companies (more than a few thousand employees) seem to be a good choice:  well funded, plenty of good facilities, and larger numbers of job openings per year.  Yet I don’t think this setting would enable the craft of software to flourish and expand for several key reasons:

  • Large companies tend to hire large development groups.  Inside these large groups, mediocre and completely untalented engineers can reside undisturbed for years because of the inertia of large organizations to get rid of them.  This unseemly presence of incompetence could give the apprentice the wrong impressions of development techniques if left unchecked.
  • Large companies tend to foster painful bureaucracies that would stifle the creation or gestation of such apprenticeship programs.
  • CEOs and technical managers of such companies are highly focused on budgets and value-add for every person in the company.  Apprentices are the very definition of unproductive learners, taking up substantial resources up front in order to become productive.  Managers would have to place personal reputations on the line in order to start and maintain such programs in the face of budgetary pressure.
  • Large companies have very siloed groups, sometimes with company-specific processes, tools or standards, that would expose an apprentice to a very narrow view of development practices, making them less marketable to the broader economy as software engineers.

Medium size companies (say between a few hundred and a few thousand employees) would face some of the same pressures as large ones, but the right company with the foresight to create such a program might be successful.  It comes down to the courage of the management and the strength of will of the development team to make it happen in the face of current company policy.  However, in this current economic climate of 2009-2010, few companies would take such a chance, in my opinion.

I think the biggest bang for the buck will come from small companies (less than 200 employees, but more than a dozen) for several reasons:

  • Small companies because of their size must attract the best talent in their development teams.  Small companies don’t have time or money to waste with unproductive people. But they are usually willing to develop good potential talent because of the value proposition.
  • Small companies tend to be nimble in their thinking and can change their internal culture to support such a movement the easiest of the 3 described so far.
  • A smaller company can use an apprentice more easily across groups and teams, making more efficient use of the apprentice’s time and energy, and exposing the apprentice to more of the business of software.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses either:

  • Small companies fight tooth and nail for whatever money they get.  Budgets for developers are tough.  Add an apprentice to this and it gets even tougher.
  • Many small company developers are often over tasked in their current roles, making it harder for them to act in the role of a master developer.  A part-time master is a difficult and potentially inconsistent kind of teacher.

Finally, we’re left with startups (less than 20 employees).  While they have some of the small company advantages such as agility and talent attraction, I believe that the chaotic environment of startups is best left to more experienced engineers:  journeymen or at the very least, previously trained apprentices.  Startups rarely have the time to spend training new people in techniques beyond those that implement the vision of the founders.  And what meager monetary resources exist in small companies, even fewer are available with startups.

In short, the apprenticeship idea requires tremendous courage on the part of the company that fosters it.  Small companies are used to taking big risks with substantial payouts in the future.  I believe small companies are the ideal place to grow this notion and allow it to root.

The Bottom Line

Creating an apprentice program would require jumping a number of substantial obstacles, not the least of which have been enumerated here.  But the company that creates such an environment would become a magnet for the latest talent in the industry because so few places offer the right opportunities to train new graduates into real software engineers through a systematic approach.

Jedi Software Training–Part 1

Software engineering is perhaps the youngest of all the engineering disciplines (and some would even argue, we don’t practice an engineering discipline at all).  But like all disciplines, an engineer must be trained in order to achieve a level of competence to practice their craft with any proficiency.

The Fresh Out Of College Problem

Software engineers run the gamut–amazing, mediocre, and step-away-from-that-IDE-before-you-hurt-someone levels.  Some are naturals and some probably will never be able to program their way out of a wet paper bag.  In terms of how we get trained, it’s all very informal in most cases.  Universities rarely focus on any software engineering courses as a serious part of a Computer Science program.  Indeed in my own Alma mater, Computer Science was part of the Engineering School but did not constitute an official engineering discipline.  The focus is entirely on data structures, programming, algorithms, and nuts-and-bolts sorts of topics.

Don’t get me wrong–those topics are incredibly important, but almost every college graduate I’ve ever worked with directly out of school (within the first 3 years of their graduation) generally has poor knowledge of how to run multi-engineer, moderate-size software projects.  I’m talking about simple things that are bread and butter for a successful complex project: source code control, project module management, requirements definition, functional design, and documentation.  This seems like a huge gap in training, considering that everyone knows these things are absolutely essential when they get out of school.  Employers are frustrated because graduates are unable to take the reins of a software project in a meaningful way without starting out in (very) junior positions that are rarely available and only modestly tolerated by most companies.  Graduates are frustrated at their lack of opportunities because they don’t have enough ‘real world’ experience to qualify them for real software development positions.

The question is, why are we training our engineers so sloppily today?

The Apprentice Model

Use the Force, DudeEngineering training and Star Wars Jedi Knights have something in common:  they both start out as apprentices.  Let’s look at the history of this practice and see how it can apply today.

Back in the Middle Ages, if you wanted to practice a craft, such as blacksmithing, baking, masonry, or butchery, you needed to become an apprentice to a master craftsman.  That master had been practicing for years, had a demonstrated level of mastery, and often belonged to a guild of other masters who judged this master to be fit enough to earn that title of master in the first place.

Apprentices lived a hard life back then.  They were exploited as cheap labor for the master for a long period of time (5-7 years was typical).  The master provided tutelage in the craft, food, and lodging in exchange for their work.  After this period of time, the apprentice was shown the door and expected to fend for themselves as a newly minted journeyman.  Journeymen could either practice in solitude or work under a willing master (if available).  After some long period of time, the journeyman could try to produce a masterpiece of his or her craft in an attempt to demonstrate mastery, join a guild and attain the rank of master.

Some guilds were comically harsh in the training methods.  For example, up until 1791 in France an apprentice worked under a master for a long period of time through their journeyman rank.  If they failed to produce a masterpiece during their journeyman period, they were subsequently executed.  I, for one, am glad we don’t train people in this manner anymore.  The labor shortages this could create aside, the pressure to produce would be excruciating.  And in truth, not everyone is cut out to be a master.

Modern Apprentices

Apprenticeships are still used as a model for vocational training in many professions in a number of countries (in America, we still use this for plumbers, electricians, and carpenters among many other trades.  Across Europe, this is true as well), this training serves to bring new workers into the trade, give them baseline skills in a controlled environment under a specific instructor, and a route to advancement in the field.  But this formalization happened over years when best practices were easily formulated into codified documents and classroom formats, allowing the apprentice to reproduce a master’s work in a repetitive and formulaic manner.

If we characterize the differences between the three levels, you might see the following:

  • An apprentice can take a specific set of instructions, created by journeymen or masters, and faithfully reproduce the steps to create a result of lesser quality than a master or journeyman.  An apprentice is unable to work without a concrete framework of rules to abide by while practicing the craft.  Apprentices generally need constant guidance and intervention from others in order to complete a project successfully.
  • A journeyman is an apprentice who has completed their training period and achieved a baseline level of skill in the trade.  They are competent enough to work alone, but most often seek the continued education under a master to improve their skills.  Journeymen are comfortable in a wide variety of techniques as taught by the master, and many of these techniques are now second nature to the journeyman.  However, journeymen lack the ability to create new skills or perform the baseline skills in the effortless manner of a master.  Journeymen generally can do a skill, but have trouble expressing the exact reasons why one skill is preferable over another in a certain context outside of the rules given by his or her master.
  • The master is the culmination of years of practice into “effortless skill”.  The master’s abilities require no conscious thought to manifest.  Masters have the ability to see patterns in projects and skills, arbitrarily combining things into new and unique ways of using them, often pioneering new techniques as a result of this artful mixing.  Masters understand the rules to the point where they can break them at will, knowing which limits are completely arbitrary.  A truly excellent master has the ability to teach their skills to apprentices in a way that creates excellent apprentices.  These masters are exceedingly rare.

The apprenticeship method is a time-tested, battle-worn method for bringing people of low-to-no skill into a field and training them to a level of success. Dozens of fields practice this, and almost all formal engineering disciplines have a similar model (engineer-in-training and P.E. (professional engineer) certification).  Academics have similar models to produce scholars, with undergrads promoted to graduate students, then post-doctorates and finally becoming associate professors, full professors, and professor emeritus.

My question is:  Why don’t we do this with software engineers?

Apprentice, Journeyman, Master – The Path Less Traveled

The path from apprentice to master must be reproducible and documented through time in a formal manner by previous masters.  Developers today are largely left to hack out their own destinies at random with high variability in the results.  If they inadvertently become masters, they attribute it to their own skills rather than the lucky circumstances they managed to find themselves in early on in their careers.

Transferring that mastery becomes incredibly difficult when a master’s path lacks any formal system to follow along the way.  Software masters are revered for their superhuman abilities to swoop in to save the day on a doomed project through superhuman coding effort via nights, weekends, major refactoring on a level that ultimately undermines the morale of the rest of the team.  This “cult of the software hero” approach ultimately shrouds the master’s path rather than illuminates it for others to follow.

We know this model is still at work in software today, albeit informally.  We see the various levels at work in our own teams and workplaces.  Here’s a simple OO experience hierarchy that you probably can relate to:

  • An apprentice OO programmer will struggle with encapsulation and polymorphism, but can put together systems that have been well-specified.  They need highly detailed object designs to see the various interactions of a system come together with elegance.  Left without such guidance, they will inevitably create God Objects, Yo-yo Object Hierarchies, and other monstrosities.  Design patterns are something of a mystery to them.  Simple algorithms will require large amounts of effort to understand and encode into a language.  Their skills with the tools of the trade will be low to moderate (e.g. IDEs, source code control, automated build systems, bug tracking) and significant effort will be expended in using/learning them.  Design and architecture are generally beyond them.
  • A journeyman OO developer will understand the value of data hiding and be able to participate in interface designs for obvious parts of the system.  They are comfortable with the tools of their trade and know many time-saving shortcuts, along with several flavors of tools.  Journeymen are typified by rigid adherence to systems, tools, frameworks or architectures because of their comfort level with them (“The Golden Hammer” effect).  They will recognize some design patterns and have regularly applied them, but may not know all cases when they are applicable, or apply new ones with ease.  Journeymen dabble in architecture with increasing skill and ease, but complex problems are often met with complex, obscure solutions when designed by journeymen.
  • Master OO engineers can hear domain problems and suddenly see object models dancing in their heads before the description is finished.  Architecture is second nature and design patterns require little to no effort to apply or recall.  A master OO developer generally tends towards tool, language, and framework agnosticism because they understand their relative weaknesses and strengths, choosing only those tools that stay out of their way, make the most sense for the domain and allow for ease of creation.  A master’s trademark is the ability to create a simple and elegant solution to a complex problem.

So the $64,000 question becomes:  How do we create an apprenticeship model in software development that can succeed in cultivating better engineers? We’ll start to answer that in Part 2.