This apprenticeship program is opening the door for candidates with nontraditional backgrounds - Technical.ly Philly

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Jun. 13, 2019 7:37 am

This apprenticeship program is opening the door for candidates with nontraditional backgrounds

Learn about Azavea’s hands-on strategy for expanding its applicant pool — no degree required.
Aaron Su became a full-time software engineer with Azavea after completing his apprenticeship.

Aaron Su became a full-time software engineer with Azavea after completing his apprenticeship.

(Photo by Sam Markowitz)

It’s no secret that the tech industry as a whole has yet to crack the code on building better hiring practices for applicants without traditional tech backgrounds.

That doesn’t mean that progress isn’t taking place at the local level.

Philly’s own Azavea — a Callowhill-based, advanced geospatial technology company for civic and social impact — has been strategically building its own talent pipeline piece by piece, targeting untapped communities and applicant pools.

“More and more, people are not going to college because of the cost. It’s a big barrier,” said Karissa Justice, manager of people operations at Azavea. “We don’t look at things like whether or not a candidate has a degree in computer science or a certain number of years as a tech professional. We just want people who are ambitious, interested in what we are doing and who have a proven ability to learn on the job.”

As part of its overall strategy for diversification, Azavea has reimagined how and where it recruits candidates. To expand its reach, the company advertises open positions across a wider range of platforms, including non-tech outlets like Craigslist.com. In terms of language in job postings, Azavea does not require degrees or professional background criteria in order to apply, nor does it put up a barrier to entry for candidates who have yet to acquire experience in specific coding languages and frameworks.

“Some of our best devs didn’t get a computer science degree … or any degree,” said Justice. “We want to make it clear that we are looking for a diverse set of employees, with different backgrounds and levels of professional experience. Or no experience!”

In an even more hands-on approach to making tech roles more accessible, Azavea recently put the finishing touches on its official apprenticeship program. Through mentorship, client work and on-the-job learning, the program helps develop individuals who don’t have related experience or a formal degree get into the software development industry.

"The goal of the program is to transition someone from apprentice to full-time employee, and because everyone learns differently and needs to hone different skills, the program is tailored to each person going through it."
Tech lead Chris Brown

The idea for the program was sparked when the team at Azavea recognized how many people in its project-based fellowship program, as well as outside job applicants with non-technical backgrounds, would make for valuable full-time employees if only they had more time to learn and develop their skills.

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With that in mind, Chris Brown, tech lead for the Raster Foundry team, and VP of Engineering Hector Castro sat down to build out a formal program that would help bridge the gap between a candidate’s desire to work in tech and ability to get hired for a tech position.

“The goal of the program is to transition someone from apprentice to full-time employee,” said Brown. “And because everyone learns differently and needs to hone different skills, the program is tailored to each person going through it.”

From the beginning, the program is a collaborative effort between the apprentice and the program’s mentorship team. Together, they develop an individualized plan that includes a clear view of what success looks like, an agreed-upon timeframe, skills the apprentice needs to master in order to join the company full-time and ongoing opportunities for constructive feedback.

And as anybody who has ever been mysteriously rejected from a job knows, feedback is key.

“When developing the program, it was important to us that we eliminated any grey areas or opportunities for miscommunication,” said Brown. “We didn’t want someone to be in the program for three months and then be surprised if he or she didn’t get a job at the end of it.” (Fun fact: Anyone who applies for a job at Azavea and does not get it can request and receive feedback from the hiring team.)

One of the original program participants, Aaron Su, successfully transitioned to full-time software engineer on the Raster Foundry team after a three-month-long apprenticeship.

“For those three months, I was a sponge. I was absorbing everything,” said Su. “The program is immersive, and can be intense, but it’s fun and challenging. During the program, you learn from a different mentor each month, all of whom taught, advised and helped me reach my goal to become a proficient software dev on the team.”

For software engineer and apprenticeship mentor Lucien Knechtli, the program is special because it gives participants access to real world projects and client work.

“Often, interns can get put on irrelevant things,” said Knechtli. “Here they’re working on real stuff. Sure, there is work that is solely based on learning — projects that exist in a metaphorical sandbox where they can play with ideas and break things — but the goal is always for the apprentice to contribute to our primary client work.”

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So what does it take to qualify for Azavea’s apprenticeship program? Simply put: A foundation of relevant skills — say, a history major who completed a coding bootcamp online — and a passion for the work.

Azavea’s work is designed around its commitment to making positive civic impact. Many employees agree that its mission was the driving force behind their desire to work at the civtech company. Azavea is continuously looking for people with the same drive to do good and work on projects that better communities.

“If people want to be here because of the work we do, in some ways that’s more important than any skills they walk in the door with,” said Justice. “Tech changes all of the time, anyways.”

Although there is no direct application for Azavea’s apprenticeship program, interested parties can apply to the fellowship program or any open position. Azavea will then offer apprenticeship options to promising fellows and applicants who need a little more experience before going full-time. Insider tip: Don’t be afraid to bring up your interest in the apprenticeship program in your cover letter.

And don’t worry about needing to find a second job to pay the bills while you’re there. As Justice reassures participants, “at Azavea, we don’t believe in unpaid work.”

Learn more about Azavea’s fellowship program here.

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