In our youth-obsessed culture, it’s easy to forget that younger people lack one very important attribute: experience. And while software development is a fast-changing industry that traditionally favors young people eager to learn, experience still is a critical ingredient in quality outcomes. Instead of putting young hotshots on a pedestal – and then suffering predictable disappointment when they stumble – I recommend a more moderate approach that goes back centuries in many traditional trades.
I’m talking about pairing younger professionals with more experienced people in a classic apprenticeship approach. This approach makes a lot of sense and still is common in European countries where young people often apprentice for several years before they are considered fully developed professionals. I think of this as the “Development Center” approach.
Besides ensuring valuable transfer of skills and judgment, a Development Center model provides financial benefits too. For companies relying entirely on in-house IT staff, employing a mix of young (and less expensive) and older (and more expensive) professionals helps keep overall employee costs more moderate. IT consulting firms, such as Intertech, that use this Development Center model can charge clients a lower overall project rate without sacrificing quality or accountability.
For this model to truly work, however, senior people must do more than peek over the shoulder of younger talent. Acting as true mentors, more experienced professionals should outline what younger team members are expected to do, review their code, and help integrate the work that they’re doing into the overall project.
And then there’s the harder to measure but infinitely invaluable transfer of “soft skills” that make all the difference between success and failure. At our firm, this means having one of our top consultants allocate 100 percent of his time to provide guidance on project management, communication, understanding Agile and Scrum, and how to work effectively with team members and clients. Watching senior people in action also allows younger people to develop critical skills. And clients obviously appreciate not picking up the tab for junior employee making mistakes or missing deadlines during the process!
I’m reminded of the picture of an older cobbler painstakingly making top-quality leather shoes while a young apprentice stands by observing and occasionally engaging in the less critical aspects of the job. While shoes are now manufactured in mass production factories, the old master/apprentice model still makes perfect sense for those engaged in the work of making software. (I will share more about how this works at Intertech in next post.)
The older have a lot to teach the young and it’s time the IT industry starts acknowledging this truth. When we do, we all win.