Software Development
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Office of Innovation and Technology’s apprentices have joined tech teams within Philly gov

When considering candidates for the upskilling program, love for public service was a must, Director of Digital Services Sara Hall said.

Sara Hall. (Courtesy photo)

There are many, many paths to a career in technology.

Some study IT, computer science or a related field in a college program, while others teach themselves, attend a bootcamp or find their way into the industry after a career change. But a lesser-known pathway is an apprenticeship. The type of professional development experience has long been known in hands-on fields like construction, but it’s making inroads in the tech industry.

Last year, the City of Philadelphia announced it would be creating technical apprenticeships for its Office of Innovation and Technology. It aimed to find three people working in city government who were interested in transitioning to tech careers, and would train apprentices through LaunchCode or General Assembly, depending on if they pursued engineering or UX design work.

After a few info sessions (which 600 City employees attended), OIT saw more than 300 applicants, said Sara Hall, OIT’s director of digital services. For those selected, OIT will pay a $60,000 salary during both years of the apprenticeship program. Preference was given to applicants who were making under $50,000 in their previous City roles. The program is funded through the City’s new Operations Transformation Fund.

The three apprenticeships began their bootcamp experience early this year and graduated this spring, two with a focus on engineering and one with a UX focus. The apprentices came from the City’s Water Department, IT support and the Department of Public Property.

An apprenticeship is a unique form of training in this instance, Hall told, because they’re skipping over the basics and getting straight to the technical skills.

We're turning things they might have done before — problem solving, going through multiple solutions — in a more practical way with a lens of UX or software engineering.

“We’re not teaching people how to write emails,” she said, alluding to the teaching of so-called soft skills. “We’re turning things they might have done before — problem solving, going through multiple solutions — in a more practical way with a lens of UX or software engineering. They’re really being embedded on the team.”

Since their bootcamp graduation, the apprentices have been assigned work on tech projects relating to the Operations Transformation Fund, or work on the City’s website, Those chosen showed the potential to excel in a tech career, Hall said, but also showed a love of working for the City. It’s a noted difference the now-director herself considered in switching to the public sector in 2017.

“Working in tech in the private sector is obviously much more performance driven — you’re working to make money,” Hall said. “Here, we’re working to make services available and to have people get what they need from city government and have transparency.” (Online reports of tech salary averages range wildly, but it’s true that an engineer working for a private company likely has more upward wiggle room. And as we’ve reported before, past iterations of OIT struggled with talent retention, and said then it was a salary issue.)

Hall and Dan Lopez, the City’s director of software engineering, have spent some time considering what future iterations of the program could look like, often applying the phrase “What does responsible scaling look like?” to their work. Their main goals are to work on projects that are helpful and for the City and for its residents, and that can be done efficiently. They’re considering what they can do with the tools they have. As they grow and work through the apprenticeship program, those thoughts will be top of mind, Hall said.

“No question is a silly question, we’re starting from a place of education. It’s more of an open conversation around the process, because I think we are thinking about the age of digital services, and we can see what maturity looks like,” Hall said. “And that is growth and fostering open conversations.”

And if you’re wondering (or if you think tech work for the City seems pretty cool) yes, the city’s still looking for a CTO, Deputy Chief Information Officer Andrew Buss told as an aside.

“I think like many public sector institutions at the moment, we are challenged to find qualified candidates for higher-level technology positions,” he said in an email.

Companies: City of Philadelphia / Office of Innovation and Technology
Series: Tech Education Month 2022
People: Sara Hall / Andrew Buss

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