Madelyn Tavarez doesn’t have a computer science degree. She studied economics in college and interned in finance-related roles before taking a 10-month coding course called Access Code, with C4Q. Now Tavarez works for Pinterest–as an Android engineer.
But first, she started as an apprentice Android engineer.
Despite high demand for tech talent, big-name employers tend to pick their new hires from predictable talent pools in their own backyards. A recent analysis by Paysa found that companies like Snap and Apple recruit heavily from Stanford, while Microsoft and Amazon stick to Seattle’s own University of Washington. Not exactly a recipe for a workforce to mirror these firms’ global user bases.
So the odds were high that Tavarez would’ve wound up just another millennial barista with a bachelor’s degree, instead of one of three candidates chosen out of hundreds for Pinterest’s new apprenticeship program–an approach to training nontraditional tech talent that other businesses, including Airbnb, LinkedIn, and Visa are now testing out.
A Sea Of Potential
Pinterest launched its apprenticeship program in early 2016 to widen the 1,200-person company’s access to self-taught coders, coding bootcamp grads, and others who may not have had the advantage of attending top schools or working at brand-name businesses. According to Pinterest diversity chief Candice Morgan, Tavarez and two others made the cut due to “promise, passion, and a stated interest.”
To get there, Tavarez went through several rounds of interviews, first remotely and then in person. The latter included a tech screening with a Pinterest staffer present in a mentorship role, allowing Tavarez to show she knew the basics in a lower-pressure environment. But she also had to go through a full day’s worth of showcasing her knowledge of software architecture, coding, and algorithms, just like any other tech hire.
LinkedIn’s “REACH” apprenticeship program is similar. According to the initiative’s executive sponsor, Mohak Shroff, who also serves as SVP of engineering, applicants had to submit a portfolio software project, then do a take-home technical assignment, followed by in-person interviews. With more than 700 applicants, Shroff admits narrowing down to 31 apprentices was “agonizing.” This first-ever cohort of 29 started a six-month tenure at LinkedIn in April. The company hasn’t yet announced how many were offered full-time jobs.
Last June, Airbnb started “Airbnb Connect” for its engineering and data science teams. Apprentices were all people from underrepresented backgrounds who had two to five years’ experience in non-technical fields. Three apprentices in engineering were sourced, like Tavarez, from C4Q, while Galvanize, another tech education company, helped Airbnb recruit for eight additional data-science apprenticeships.
A company called Andela, which launched in 2014, is tackling the apprenticeship idea from a supply side. It helps connect talented engineers from across Africa with some 100 partner companies like Viacom and Gusto, so those firms can build distributed teams. Much as an in-house apprentice program might, Andela trains its developers extensively over a six-month period before placing them at employers.
Once apprentices are installed in their new positions, the real work begins. At LinkedIn, Shroff says, apprentices generally meet one-on-one with team members at least once a week. They also have mentors who spend several hours each week either sitting right next to them or nearby. In addition to dedicated coaching time, Shroff says each apprentice learns casually in team meetings and discussions.
According to Morgan, Pinterest also spends a lot of time in coaching. Each apprentice gets a manager as well as a mentor over the year-long apprenticeship period, which can take up to 50% of engineers’ time–a “big investment” for those mentors, Morgan notes. Mentors are trained separately to help their charges get a sense of belonging inside the company.
Still, Tavarez recalls having impostor syndrome at first. “The typical new graduate has four years of computer science and related internships,” she explains, “I felt so behind in the beginning–everybody’s brilliant.” Eventually, though, thanks to a very reassuring mentor with 12 years’ experience, Tavarez learned to get over it. “I just had to give myself time,” she says. “I wasn’t used to being one of the people who didn’t know everything.”
An apprenticeship program at Visa operates a bit differently, according to global employer brand communications director Stephanie Matthews, but is no less labor intensive. It starts earlier, drawing candidates from high school and early college who wouldn’t otherwise have exposure to tech jobs. In a pilot program with the Springboard Initiative, a tech training organization, 14 student apprentices spend time in the Visa University Learning Labs and shadowing programs. Each one gets managers, teams, and a “buddy” to help them. Additionally, Visa’s HR team meets monthly with each apprentice, their manager, and a Springboard staffer to discuss performance.
A Worthy Investment On Multiple Fronts
If there’s any resistance on staff to such apprenticeship programs or grumblings about preferential treatment, none of these program directors are aware of it. In fact, says Shroff, the reaction at LinkedIn has been positive.
“This is not an undue investment,” he explains, especially since early-career hires always take extensive on-boarding no matter what; usually it takes six months to get them up to peak productivity, he estimates. In fact, Shroff says he’s surprised at how quickly LinkedIn’s REACH apprentices have gotten up to speed and begun succeeding, through the sheer force of “massive potential, grit, and determination.” This energy has allowed some of them to surpass peers from traditional backgrounds and prompted several team leaders to request “more of that,” he says.
Meetesh Karia, CTO at the Zebra, an Andela partner, says that over their year-long partnership the Africa-based engineers have helped the Zebra gain a competitive edge, thanks to their high-quality work, energy, and enthusiasm. “The Andela team has raised the bar for passion for our Austin-based team,” says Karia.
Shroff also points out that the apprenticeship program has helped LinkedIn rethink what the “typical” candidate should look like and what it takes to succeed. For her part, Morgan believes Pinterest apprentices’ nontraditional backgrounds have helped them approach design and user experience a different way. Morgan credits Tavarez’s economics degree, for instance, for helping her optimize decisions with limited resources.
All three of Pinterest’s first apprenticeship cohorts are now employed full-time, and six more are apprenticing with the company right now. Shroff says that of the 31 apprentices LinkedIn offered jobs to, 29 accepted. Visa has also made full-time hires from its apprentice cohort.
But while programs like these seem promising tools for companies looking to diversify their workforces, it takes care and an eye toward inclusion. Tavarez says that she and the two others in her group at Pinterest all relocated from the East Coast, and didn’t have built-in support networks in the Bay Area. Shroff says LinkedIn worked hard to encourage its apprentices to network, not just to learn but also to advance their careers.
Christina Sass, Andela’s cofounder and president, believes the apprenticeship model is key to economic growth. “America’s lack of technical talent will be the greatest challenge facing the tech industry over the next decade,” she says. Indeed, Code.org estimates that one million computing jobs will go unfilled by 2020, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and college graduation rates from the National Science Foundation. “Without enough engineers,” Sass argues, “American companies are unable to grow and unable to create more jobs.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of the story said that LinkedIn hired all 31 apprentices. They have not disclosed how many were hired full-time yet.