What Is Apprenticeship?

The clichéd image of apprenticeship popularized by many books, including the 1945 edition of Fifteen Craftsmen On Their Crafts (p. 69) is that of a teenage boy with soot all over his face, working in a blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith, a gruff, experienced craftsman, forges his projects with the boy’s assistance. Sometimes the boy is actively participating in the process; sometimes he is cleaning up the shop, yet still keeping a watchful eye on the master at work. Stereotypically, the boy’s apprenticeship would last a few years, and other than knowledge, experience, food, and lodging, the boy would receive little else in the way of payment. Eventually, the boy would acquire enough skill to take on projects of his own, perhaps even leaving his first master to take on a role with more responsibility in a different shop. When the boy’s apprenticeship was over, he could earn a living as a blacksmith, relying on his skills to provide shelter and food and tools for himself. In the modern world, an apprenticeship involving an accomplished software developer and a newcomer likely bears little resemblance to this stereotypical apprenticeship. So what’s our current understanding of apprenticeship, and how does it transcend the cliché?

To be clear, in this book we are not attempting to describe our proposed ideal apprenticeship for a newcomer to software development. If we were writing for team leaders and project managers, then providing instructions to build the ideal apprenticeship would make sense, because these people actually have the power to facilitate that sort of experience. But this book is for newcomers to software development, the people in the trenches trying to figure out how to learn what they need to know in order to accomplish objectives such as getting a (better) job, completing their project, or becoming a great developer. Since most newcomers’ experiences do not resemble the “ideal” apprenticeship, the modern concept of apprenticeship is mainly a frame of mind: you recognize that you are still at the beginning, even if you’ve been programming for several years, and you are prepared to take steps to create your apprenticeship out of the circumstances you are in.

Most people won’t have an opportunity to work in a formal apprenticeship where they are being mentored by software craftsmen. In reality, most people have to claw and scratch their apprenticeships out of less-than-ideal situations. They might be facing overbearing and/or incompetent managers, de-motivated coworkers, impossible deadlines, and work environments that treat novice developers like workhorses, storing them in small, rectangular stalls with a PC and a crippled Internet connection. All of the lessons of this book are taken from the experiences of people (like us) who had to overcome these sorts of circumstances in order to reach the next level. Until our industry can heed the following advice of Pete McBreen, newcomers will continue to need books like this to help them create their own opportunities for learning.

Apprenticeship is a way to learn about being a professional software developer. Specifically, it is a way to learn to be like the most skilled software developers you can find. It involves seeking out good teachers, and taking opportunities to learn by working alongside them. It is the first step on the road toward becoming a different kind of software professional—one who wants to be more than just competent.

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