It’s no surprise that over the past year, many have started switching careers into tech. I was one of thousands of people that hopped on the “Learn to Code” train last year after losing my retail job. Being without a college degree, I looked into programming because it was one of the few industries where you could teach yourself the necessary skills without a long and expensive college education. As with many things though, the process of learning to code, and finding a job, proved more difficult than expected.
About two months into a fruitless job search, a mentor of mine told me about This Dot and their Apprentice Program that had helped her get started as a self-taught software engineer. I was so excited to find an approachable entry point into tech for self-taught folks like myself!
What is an apprenticeship?
So what is an apprenticeship, and how does it differ from an internship? As I understand it, an apprenticeship is a program that provides hands-on work experience with the explicit goal of placing you in a job. An internship is more focused on general exposure to a work environment, or industry, without the explicit goal of hiring or placing you at the end. Another major difference is that most internships will require you to be an active college student pursuing a degree, while apprenticeships are generally more accommodating of unconventional backgrounds.
Why do an apprenticeship?
These are some of the key reasons I decided to pursue an apprenticeship at This Dot Labs. Keep in mind that every apprenticeship and every company is different, and the reasons I’ve listed here are specific to my experience in This Dot’s Apprentice Program.
1. Mentorship Opportunities
Before I started my apprenticeship at This Dot, I was told I would be assigned a mentor that would meet with me once or twice a week. I didn’t realize that nearly all of my teammates and managers would also become my mentors. If I have a question, someone on the team is bound to have the answer, and everyone is more than willing to help. I’m only a few weeks into the apprentice program, but the meetings I’ve had with my mentor, teammates, and managers have already helped grow my skills immensely.
2. Room to Learn and Grow
The whole purpose of an apprenticeship is to give someone the room to ask questions, fail, learn, and grow. In my first week as an apprentice, I was absolutely terrified of asking too many “stupid” questions. I struggled trying to do things on my own. Over and over, my managers reassured and encouraged me to keep asking more. They understand what it’s like starting out as a dev in your first job, and they are there to help you through every struggle. I quickly learned that if I ask questions early on instead of struggling for hours, I actually end up getting more work done, and being a bigger help to my team.
They strongly encourage you to follow your interests and curiosities outside of software development at This Dot as well. I’ve already been given opportunities to try out other areas of interest in tech, such as Developer Relations (DevRel). In my first few weeks, I’ve been able to do things I’ve never tried before, like speaking on a podcast, writing blog posts (like this one!) and tweets, and moderating a panel at MagnoliaJS Conference. This room to experiment is a rare and valuable opportunity for an early-career developer.
3. Hands-on Experience
Working on high-impact projects for major companies, and actually being responsible for the outcomes of these projects, is incredibly rewarding and validating. Being given a high level of autonomy, and the opportunity to “rise to the occasion” will grow your skills faster than any internship where you might be given tasks unrelated to your area of interest. The opportunity to build confidence, and validate your skills so early in your career, is invaluable.
4. The Team
This point is obviously specific to my experience at This Dot, but it is so important to find a company that meshes well with your personality and values. This Dot greatly values good people, good work, personal growth, and a diverse team. I’m exposed to a lot of different people with different backgrounds and unique perspectives at work, which has been immensely valuable. This Dot even has a Hire the Fempire program that works with companies to hire more women in tech through their apprentice program.
5. An Accessible Option
This is perhaps the most important point to me and the reason that apprenticeships are so invaluable: They offer an easier way to break into the tech industry for people that otherwise might not have the resources to be able to pursue a degree. They allow people with unconventional backgrounds to get real job experience, and change the trajectory of their lives.
How can I make the most of my apprenticeship?
You've done it! You've made it past the barrier and gotten your first tech job! Here are some ways I plan to make the absolute most of my time as an apprentice.
1. Ask Questions
Now is the time to ask a lot of questions, and when I say "a lot", I mean a lot. If you are like the majority of people who experience impostor syndrome, this is something you will need to push past very early on. It will only hold you back. If, like me, you are terrified of sounding "stupid" or being found out as a fraud, try to reframe how you view asking questions. You are not asking a stupid question. You are simply trying to get unblocked, to allow yourself to do more awesome work. Don't stifle your own progress because you're afraid of appearing less knowledgeable than you are.
If you're still worried about overloading your teammates or mentors with lots of questions, try batching your questions. Keep a list of questions you'd like to ask, and ask several at a time rather than spreading them out throughout the day or week.
Lastly, be sure you know how to ask a good question, and always show gratitude to the person who's helping you.
2. Go Out of Your Way to Meet People
In the first few weeks, I made sure to set up a short video meeting with all my managers, teammates- anyone I would be working with directly. These are the people that will celebrate wins with you, and help you when you're struggling. Once you get to know people long enough, you'll probably start to see that everyone has a "thing" they're particularly passionate about. You'll find out who to go to for React or Angular help, who to go to for GraphQL or Elixir knowledge. Fostering good, genuine relationships is incredibly important if you want to have a meaningful career (and life).
3. Don't Hide Your Struggles
If you're struggling, don't be afraid to ask for help. If you followed my last tip for building relationships, hopefully you'll have found who you can go to for emotional support. Talking out your struggles can be one of the quickest ways to move past them, and your confidant may have their own personal experiences that can help you with yours.
4. Stay Open to Criticism
Feedback is the fastest way to level up as a developer and human being. To use feedback most effectively, it's important to separate yourself from your work. If someone offers you feedback that is delivered in a not-so-nice way, you can still take something constructive from it, and use it to improve your work. In a lot of development work, it can actually be hard to know how or what to improve, so I try to view criticism as a blessing in disguise, and be grateful for being given some direction.
5. Set Goals and Track Your Progress
Speaking of direction, it's important to have goals to work towards in many aspects of life. Set some short and long term goals for your apprenticeship, and share them with your mentors. If your mentors are good mentors, they'll support you in achieving these goals.
Along with this, it's also important to have some way to track your progress. Some people like to journal, some people keep a Google doc or a Notion page. Personally, I've been sending myself a weekly email to track my progress. Point is: find a way to track your progress, and keep up with it regularly.
I hope this post was helpful and inspiring to anyone trying to break into the tech industry! My hope for the future is that more companies will adopt apprentice programs, and structure them in a way that empowers early-career devs to ask questions, fail fast and fail forward, and be fearless learners. Tech still has a major diversity problem, and a lot of marginalized groups fall into the category of those with unconventional career backgrounds. If more companies offered apprenticeships, it would be a great step in the right direction for bringing more diversity into tech.