Quick, think back—how did you arrive at your job? Are you a designer? A project manager? Content strategist? Whatever your title, is that where you expected to be a few years ago? Maybe you’re self-taught, or have a degree. Or maybe you had a mentor—if you didn’t, would you have wanted one?
The paths that our careers take are often meandering ones, susceptible to fate’s whims, opportunities taken and lost in equal measure. We don’t always wind up where we expected, and don’t often look back on how we arrived. This is a mistake. We should reflect more on our careers, not just our projects. In fact, try it now—think of the last career decision you made. What was its effect on your life? Would you make the same decision again? What about the decisions you made at the start of your career, as you laid its foundations? Who helped you, and are you grateful for their help? Why?
A carpentry apprentice isn’t allowed to start building a chair before asking what the chair is for, and knowing the fundamentals of carpentry.
True learning takes time. It takes trial and error, and it takes a person with experience to teach you that this learning is priceless. This is especially true in an industry where many learn by doing, without always being aware of all the options available. Traditional education, meanwhile, cannot provide this guidance—not entirely. Universities are often too large, dulling the student-educator relationship. Internships are often transitory and involve large volumes of work without context or learning: building web pages or presentations from pre-built components to meet a deadline, for example. It’s work that people need to do, but it doesn’t require learning or understanding the client or the project. Thankfully, there is a middle ground that we seem to have forgotten about in tech: the apprenticeship.
Our industry prides itself on being fast-moving. But offering (or accepting) an apprenticeship would encourage us to slow down and learn fundamentals first; then learn them again. A long-term leap of faith for both educator and learner, it’s the kind of foundational education that’s ideal for our industry: hands-on, but supervised when necessary. It’s meaningful, on-the-job attention from an experienced mentor, not over weeks or months, but years. It is commitment.
We are constant learners, but often forget that we are also teachers. We should offer apprenticeships rather than internships or “junior” positions, to foster a commitment that we risk losing in an industry that moves so quickly. We may think the apprenticeship a thing of the past, but it’s time to dust it off for the sake of our craft.
Indenture: A (brief) history of apprenticeships
Apprenticeships first began in the middle ages, sometime around the 12th century. They were related to the medieval guilds: trade-based associations of master craftsmen. Carpenters, leatherworkers, shoemakers—whatever the craft, members supported each other within a guild. They also shared the developments of their craft and trained apprentices.
Taking on an apprentice was a massive commitment for everyone. Occasionally, parents paid a fee (a “premium”) to the master to take their child, and the apprentice was indentured (legally bound) to their master.
Know all men that I, Thomas Millard, with the Consent of Henry Wolcott of Windsor unto whose custody and care at whose charge I was brought over out of England into New England, doe bynd myself as an apprentise for eight yeeres to serve William Pynchon of Springfield, his heirs and assigns in all manner of lawful employmt unto the full ext of eight yeeres beginninge the 29 day of Sept 1640. And the said William doth condition to find the said Thomas meat drinke & clothing fitting such an apprentise & at the end of this tyme one new sute of apparell and forty shillings in mony: subscribed this 28 October 1640.
There was no pay (at first), but masters were responsible for apprentices’ training, welfare, and accommodation. The apprentice spent two to seven years learning the craft before becoming a “journeyman.” Journeymen could then seek employment or spend a few years traveling with their craft. These “journeyman years” reinforced the importance of experience. When the journeyman was ready, he1 could submit a piece of work to the appropriate guild for assessment: his “master piece.” If the guild approved, he became a master craftsman. He could now own a workshop and train apprentices of his own.
Apprenticeships continue today, but they’ve evolved with the times. In the apprenticeships that do survive, indenture continues, philosophically if not legally. For example, for tattoo artists, apprenticeships are the only option. Learning any other way is considered disrespectful to the craft. The shop expects an extensive portfolio from a hire before offering an apprenticeship (perhaps today’s equivalent of the medieval “premium”). This portfolio is a gesture of dedication. Even then, the tattoo apprentice does not tattoo for months; instead, he or she tends to the shop’s grunt work. This period tests his or her dedication and desire to learn. It also ensures that the master will pass on the craft to someone who will learn well, and pass it on in turn.
Quite often, digital workers describe themselves as “self-taught.” But this isn’t really the case, is it? Our knowledge is cobbled together from books, practice, trial, error, and discussion. We don’t exist in a vacuum; our techniques build on the approaches of others. We don’t know the quality of these approaches until we try them ourselves and feel the consequences. Specifically, we don’t know how well a certain design pattern will solve our problem until we apply it to the project and test it. Meanwhile, university or college degrees sometimes reinforce this type of vacuum. An education in design or development is useful, but it’s no substitute for client work in which requirements fluctuate, stakeholders cannot articulate why they “just don’t like it,” and teams have to find creative freedom within constraints. These interpersonal nuances are irreplaceable.
So, then, why don’t more agencies offer apprenticeships? We list ‘desire to learn’ as a requirement on job postings, but implicitly emphasize that the learning must be speedy—that the new designer or developer must be able to hit the ground running. This shouldn’t be the case. True learning takes investment, time, and sacrifice, but often rewards everyone in spades. Initiatives like Apple University are taking the first steps in this regard. They’re not looking for people with the skillsets they need; rather, they find the right people, and build the skill sets around them.
There were women in the guilds, too, and a good deal of them flourished in the trades, through associations with their husbands. There are few formal records of them, but they were especially common in the victualling, leather, and the metal industries, often carrying on the craft and business after the deaths of their husbands. ↩
Internships are not apprenticeships
The internship, in theory, is the modern equivalent of an apprenticeship. Design internships are often unpaid (though this is changing), too short, and offer little chance for interns to meaningfully contribute. Onboarding is expensive; why spend two weeks of a three-month internship introducing someone to the company, the projects, and its people? But without this investment, internship work is often tedious and offers very little in the way of learning or creative fulfilment.
Of course, an apprentice’s work didn’t offer much creative fulfilment in its early days, either. To extend the tattoo example, there’s little creative satisfaction in cleaning bathrooms). However, apprenticeships follow through on the promise. Once his or her dues are paid and commitment proven, the apprentice receives the dangling carrot. The finished intern, on the other hand, exits without a job and not much for his or her portfolio.
Apprenticeships may offer us a slower start, but that slower start comes with a promise of true understanding, an expectation of lifelong learning and teaching. An internship is an apprenticeship without that which makes it great: the learning and the promise of a journey. Instead, it comes with a timeline, a looming end, at which point the intern is no longer useful, and writes ‘Intern’ on his or her CV in the hopes of snagging a job somewhere else.
Spend valuable time making nothing
I first took on an intern a few years ago, but I didn’t realize how much responsibility that entailed. If I had, impostor syndrome might have prevented me from saying yes.
I’m self-taught; I began by wading through Stack Overflow and Geocities and Neopets, tables and iframes and Dreamweaver, searching for help without knowing where to look. Sure, the act of seeking is a learning experience in and of itself, but when nobody is available to challenge you and force you to ask why you’re doing what you’re doing, whatever works first will usually do. The search loses its value when you have no idea what you’re looking at. So, it was important to me that my intern/apprentice/learner know how to appraise a problem before diving in, considering which of the myriad answers available was the best and why.
Most importantly, I didn’t want her to arrive and dive straight into making things. It was critical she understand that she had time to consider the problem holistically first, then find its constituent pieces. I wanted her to know, building on others’ work was fine if it was purposeful. Reasoning, fundamentals, thought: this is what an apprenticeship will teach that an internship will not, but this requires your devotion and patience. It also requires an intern to spend a lot of time not making things.
As lifelong learners, we may be reluctant to call ourselves “masters.” But that’s missing the point, and it discounts the fact that teaching is learning. We’re not there to guarantee mastery—we’re there to give our apprentices fundamentals, to foster their respect, and make journeymen (or women) out of them. Mastery will come; we just offer the tools.
Personally, teaching sparked in me a new respect for my work and its nuances. It took up a good deal of my design time, sure, but that’s necessary for design’s progression. We have to ignite a new generation, even if we don’t really see ourselves as part of the old guard. A finite, task-based internship “for work experience,” spent copying and coffee-running does not instil that passion.
Slow down and savour it
There is a reason that internships move so quickly. In the web industry, there is very little permanence—on completion, a website is already outdated. We talk about speed and delivery, while professing that we create thoughtfully and with purpose—that we make deliberate and considerate choices. These claims can’t always coexist. Consideration takes time, and we need to lay this groundwork when we first begin our digital careers. If novice designers prioritize speed, their work will suffer. Thoughtfulness is a skill, arising from a knowledge of fundamentals that only patience and an apprenticeship can provide.
Given the number of initiatives that teach us code, design, and everything under the technological sun by throwing us into the deep end, it’s easy to forget the fundamentals. After a certain amount of time, we forget the details of our journey into our profession. But knowledge of these journeys is imperative; we need to know how we got to where we are before we can consider where we’re going. This slowdown is an integral part of the apprenticeship. A carpentry apprentice isn’t allowed to start building a chair before asking what the chair is for, and knowing the fundamentals of carpentry—wood choice, finishing, cuts, tools, joins. Similarly, we should not be building a website before understanding its holistic purpose and its individual pieces.
As web best practices continue to evolve, it is imperative we internalize that which never changes: the fundamentals of design, of typography, and good writing. An internship bypasses fundamentals and encourages the learner to jump into repetitive tasks that simply need to be done; this doesn’t foster mastery or respect. An apprenticeship requires an investment from both the learner and the teacher, but provides a far greater long-term reward.
‘Craft’ is not a buzzword
In spite of this galloping pace, we’re increasingly referring to coding, design, and the web profession in general as a “craft.” We don’t just write code or illustrate logos, we “craft” them. Not2 everyone3 agrees with this movement, but if we’re going to do it, then we should be prepared to put our money where our mouths are. If what we do is truly a craft, then someone shouldn’t be able to learn it in a course in one weekend.
There are romantic connotations to the word “craft” which allow people to excuse imperfections in their work. But taking on an apprentice, or any soul we plan to teach, is not a romantic pursuit— it’s an exhausting one, and it should be. We should be challenged by it, as teachers and as learners, and it should take time. After all, a novice leatherworker isn’t expected to fashion a beautiful pair of brogues after one intensive weekend class. At best, he or she might be able to create one set, in one size, one style, one leather, with one purpose—and what use is that? Similarly, we shouldn’t expect new designers to understand the subtle nuances of digital products. Instead, we should introduce and reintroduce them to basics—not just design or code, but business and content and creating outside the vacuum of education, not just the act of making but why we make at all.
An apprenticeship requires an investment from both the learner and the teacher, but provides a far greater long-term reward.
If we are to respect our profession as a craft, then we have to be prepared to invest. We should not expect those just starting out to hit the ground running, but to take their time (and then take more, and more still). This waiting can be difficult, but it should be. It means that our profession matters. That we don’t allow apprentices to dive in might put some people off, but we don’t have to attract everyone. Just as tattoo apprentices must prove their desire to learn rather than simply professing it, our industry should expect the same. It’s important we keep in check the desire to do too much too fast—We need not just profess the value of slowing down; instead we need to practice it.
This argument for apprenticeship runs much deeper—the terminology isn’t important. What is important is the underlying ethos, the expectation that two people (or more) should invest time learning from each other and laying proper foundations in an on-the-job setting. Of course, we need to make 21st century adaptations, but there’s no reason that original apprenticeship principles shouldn’t remain the same:
It’s not unreasonable to expect that someone starting out in design and code should be passionate about it, and should show that passion wholeheartedly. He or she cannot be afraid of commitment—it’s a risk to commit so much time without even knowing what the payoff might be. It’s a decision that has long-term implications, as it should. In return, those who teach them will protect and nurture that passion while they learn, and allow them the time to do so. It means a responsibility and a leap of faith to those who teach and those who learn, but that leap of faith is precisely what makes it most worthwhile. It means we value learning, our craft, and each other.