Alternatives to Apprenticeships

Today I crossed my review comments for the Apprenticeship Patterns which I wrote back in 2009. I wrote a blog entry back at that time about My long road. Reflecting back over the past – maybe – 3 years, I noticed something I wanted to write about: alternatives to apprenticeships – most of them I came across at my current employer it-agile. I remember that we discussed the topic of apprenticeships a few weeks ago at the local software craftsmanship user group meeting in Münster. We found that the apprenticeship model does not fit well into Germany’s working model in the IT industry. So, we tried to come up with alternatives. Here are the ones I have seen implemented at different companies: Mentoring and Peer-Groups.

Mentoring

Mentoring consists of a mentee and a mentor, and a topic on which the mentee gets mentored. While this sounds like a bogus statement, I have found this mentor – mentee model in different places – sometimes with some kind of drawbacks.

In the Miagi-Do school we work with mentors. Well, after you found us, you usually need to pursue a challenge. An instructor will pass you a challenge, and then work you through it, eventually debriefing afterwards as well, and reflecting on your course of action. If you decide to stay with the school, you become a member of our group, and are encouraged to find a mentor if you want to follow up on higher levels. A few years back I was the instructor of Michael Larsen which really knew where his next challenges were, and I myself found a mentor in Matt Heusser through whom I eventually became an author.

But there are also other places you can look out for mentors. Some are offering free coaching on Skype, other might want to be contacted first. The most amazing place I was able to find mentors is my current workplace.

We have a mentor and apprentice model. You can basically pick any mentor for any topic that interests you, and you want to pursuit. Of course the mentor has to take on the additional time for mentoring you. That said, we have developers picking a more senior programmer to extend their skills, or they pick up a consultant in order to master their skills in this direction. Some of my colleagues are more interested in technical topics, others want to dig deeper on soft skills. There is virtually no boundary, as a senior consultant may also decide to be mentored by a programmer. Some of my colleagues even have three to four mentors at the same time.

One thing I found out over the course of the past years. When it comes to mentoring, it’s crucial that you pick your own mentor by yourself. First of all your intrinsic motivation will be higher to work with the one mentor that you picked. Another advantage is, that you can talk to your mentor about his contract with you, what the areas are, besides risking that there is another stakeholder in this game – the one who imposed the mentor on you. When it comes to mentoring the level of trust can not be undervalued. That’s why I picked some of the people I learned from the most outside my workplace. If my memories of the apprenticeship patterns recall correctly, finding a mentor is one pattern in the book. I whole-heartedly took it on multiple levels.

Peer-Groups

In the past year we played around with deciding about salaries. So far we had a system in place that didn’t scale: a group of four senior consultants decided about salary increases. Back in March we decided that every employer has the chance to self-select a group of peers which then work with the employer, and give recommendations for salary increases to the senior consultant group. Sounds crazy? Well it is.

Peer-Groups meet together from time to time, reflect on what the particular colleague did, and try to come up with recommendations for the future. In my particular case, I got some feedback from three colleagues, some of them I implemented, some of them I decided to keep stale for the moment. In our second meeting, I laid out my reasons to not pursuit this particular goal, and got some more feedback with some more goals, that I might pursue or not. So far, I found this group fully worth the time based on the feedback and recommendations I got.

In January we even decided to have a full day of peer groups. We met in the morning, working in a World Cafe on the idea of peer groups. Then we set up a market place with peer groups that wanted to meet and give and provide feedback. Some plans previously laid out were changed then, but we spent a full day with colleagues, talking about peers, how we see each other, and recommendations for further improvements. So far I found this feedback very valuable, nonetheless we are experimenting with 360°-feedback now. So, there might be more to come.

Conclusion

Picking the right mentor, and the right peers to listen for feedback and recommendation can help you personally grow. For both approaches it is crucial to keep an eye on the self-selected aspect of it. If this sounds like selection bias to you, maybe consider some of the constraints we initially put on the selection of peer-groups: at least one peer that is more senior than you are, at least one peer that is less senior than you are. We eventually re-formulated that into: at least one consultant, and at least one programmer in our final discussions, yet the constraints help you to decide about it.

One final thought. I myself consider me to know about the goals and directions that I want to pursuit. There are tendencies which I take up. So, meeting with mentors and peer groups far less is fine with me – so far. I hope to notice the right point in the future to change that. You might have a different cadence for similar get-togethers.

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One thought on “Alternatives to Apprenticeships”

  1. One of the best ways to learn, is becoming a mentor for someone else…
    That is why I tend to ask newcomers to become mentors for even newer newcomers.
    (Of course after they got some hang of it)

    I find that having to explain something to someone else, makes you figure out the details better for yourself – or at least identifying your remaining weaknesses

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