NorDevCon Keynote Review by Lucy Morris

Jason Gorman

At 10am on the 28th of February 2014, over 200 technical people from Norfolk, London and even the US were gathered at NorDevCon, the Norfolk Developers Agile and tech conference in the heart of Norwich. Conference attendees gathered and silence fell, as keynote speaker Jason Gorman strode confidently onto the stage.

Giving a speech on Software Apprenticeships and his idea for a new, collaborative style of individual software development mentoring, the senior software developer and mentor recounted the personal history which had led him up to this point in his career – and the factors which increasingly fuelled his ambition for a ‘new style’ of software development apprenticeships.

Having completed a degree in physics in the early 1990s (“I was a really, really bad physicist”), Jason’s career path into software development was somewhat eclectic. He wrangled his first job after graduation at an accounting firm via his girlfriend at the time, programming bespoke databases for local businesses. He worked in programming for a succession of other businesses after that, but he wasn’t happy with his mundane work on databases. Fortuitously, a recruitment consultant invited him to work for an American tech company doing things “he’d never heard of before” – which turned out to be developing software.

Jason, however, credited this experience as a formative one in his life – marking his growth from merely a programmer into an “okay” software developer.  He started to read books by such formative luminaries as Winston Royce, which gave him ideas about how to better structure a software development career.

Throughout this stage of his life, Jason recounted, he sought out a ‘master programmer’ – someone who would have the time and skills to teach him how to become, in his own words, a “Jedi”. But though he looked in vain, he just couldn’t find the sort of software development apprenticeship which he had in mind.

As he progressed and became a more senior software developer, Jason was determined to introduce the kind of software apprenticeships he’d dreamed of, to an industry still in desperate need.

There is an obvious need for more software development training in the industry – but little provision. On the projector behind him, Jason laid out the scale of the problem, in a quick but compelling slideshow.

The knowledge gap between being able to do a computer science degree, and being able to work and interact as a software developer is huge. Most students gain only around 500 hours of programming experience over the course of a computing undergraduate degree. The majority of industry employers provide no additional training to their recent technology hires at all. And yet, 4/5ths of software development firms still also routinely refuse to hire people without a ‘piece of paper’, either an appropriate certificate or a computer science degree.

Industry training and apprenticeship schemes, then, are woefully inadequate.

Fuelled by his early experiences, Jason explored several channels to try improve the situation. But here, too, he was largely unsuccessful. He started to seek out universities, offering to help set up an apprenticeship scheme. But he found that the universities, while they were interested, simply weren’t able to put a sustained mentoring relationship into practice. There were murmurs of agreement from the crowd, as Jason wistfully detailed how he and other software devs had previously offered their time for free, only to find their plans thwarted or offers declined. Jason’s experience with the tech community, too, proved largely futile. Though a majority of software developers wanted to help, most simply didn’t have the time. They could not be organized or co-ordinated in big enough numbers. They were all busy people whose jobs and lives made organizing mass, structured apprentice schemes pretty much impossible.

So if not academia, industry or the community – then who? And where?

Jason believes he’s finally hit on the solution to the industry’s educational ambitions– but not in the way that he, or many other people, originally thought.

Realising that few other programs like it existed elsewhere in the UK, Jason has instituted a personal one-on-one style of mentoring relationship with a single, software-developing ‘apprentice’. Happily referring to his method of software development as “the apprenticeship equivalent of remote viewing”, Jason’s solution to the software development skills gap is a guided, DIY apprenticeship program. Inspired by such ‘new models’ of software dev apprenticeship as Sheffield university’s epiGenysses program (which employ undergrad and postgraduate students to work as developers for 6 months in a carefully controlled and monitored business environment), Jason’s idea is to establish something of a halfway house between academia and industry.

The guinea pig for Jason’s big idea is his first apprentice, aspiring young software-developer Will Price.

Jason first met Will two years ago, when the bright-eyed high-school student approached Jason after a software conference. Two years on, Will is now studying for a computer science degree at the university of Bristol, and receiving extra programming tutoring from Jason in his spare time. It’s not employment, it’s not an intensive university software programming course, and it’s not a paid apprenticeship but Jason is using his experience to guide Will through some basic software dev skills, give career advice, and help him on the road. As could be seen when Will and Jason bravely attempted to display a ‘typical’ collaboration session over Skype, replete with banter about their coding practices, it seems to be working well.

Jason’s concluded the talk by saying that he was not a “master software craftsman” – but then, 20 years on from his original search for a technology mentor, he’s come to the realisation that nobody one really is. And if he, as a ‘non-master’, can do it, surely many people can!

Jason ended his speech with a plea for current senior software developers to take some lessons from his experience and his model, and to take on more young software developers as apprentices.

Then, he said, we might finally have a sustainable tech-apprenticeship model for the ages.

Words: Lucy Morris

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