Software Solutions Integrated

8th Light helped SSI upgrade their technical infrastructure, modernize their team’s skills, and expand their applicant pipeline by installing a unique modern apprenticeship program.

Software Solutions Integrated has been a trusted leader in agribusiness since 1981. They leverage their industry experience and insights to build integrated tools that drive efficiencies—and thus profitability—for their more than 2,500 installations in the U.S. and Canada.

“In one sense we’re an old software company,” explained VP of Development Todd Erickson. Original versions of their software were written in DOS, followed by about 20 years of building out Windows installations. After an experimentation phase delivering web services and small mobile apps, they decided to take the plunge and move their entire offering to the web.

SSI learned about 8th Light through a colleague in southern Illinois who had already enlisted a team of 8th Light consultants to help complete a similar digital transformation. Based on this referral, Erickson enlisted a pair of consultants to help deliver this new platform alongside his team.

This transition would require a tremendous technical effort, but Erickson knew it would only result in meaningful change for their organization if it resonated beyond just the code. SSI’s programmers had developed expertise in the practices and domain that defined their existing system—client-server paradigms and the monolithic architecture. Most of them had no real exposure to modern best practices like test-driven development, much less the more niche asynchronous microservices paradigms that would power their new platform.

Modern web technologies are a constantly moving target; and to become a high-performing team in this ecosystem, it’s imperative that you embrace a culture of learning that evolves along with the trends and innovations. It became clear to Erickson and the rest of SSI’s leadership that TDD was not just a vital practice, but could become a catalyst for a much larger cultural shift. They believed they saw the seeds for this shift within 8th Light’s model.

8th Light’s software crafters are hired through a Modern Apprenticeship program that teaches people from a wide array of backgrounds and experience levels to become proficient in applying a principled approach to software development in all languages and frameworks. Having seen the results of this apprenticeship first-hand in their consultants, SSI realized they could use the same process to help upskill their whole team. Perhaps even more importantly, they realized an apprenticeship could help solve another of their problems—recruiting developers to work in their rural office.

“We’re rural, and it’s hard to find people,” Erickson said. “We really want to attract people and then keep them.” An internal apprenticeship program could be an ideal way to upskill their team, and would also help expand their recruiting pipeline to improve their team as it grows.

Building SSI’s Apprenticeship Curriculum

8th Light’s Modern Apprenticeship curriculum is optimized for the type of work expected of their software crafters. As consultants who rotate on and off of projects throughout a given year, they need to be multi-disciplined software professionals who are prepared to join a new team and deliver high-quality, idiomatic software solutions in any language or framework. As a result, their apprenticeship includes intense training in different language paradigms, from object-oriented to functional.

SSI didn’t need to train consultants. “We want them to be familiar with different paradigms, but we have a somewhat established technology stack,” Erickson said. “Mostly the front end will be written in Angular and the backend will be written in C#.”

8th Light and SSI’s stakeholders put their heads together and charted out a six-month apprenticeship curriculum that follows 8th Light’s own apprenticeship model closely, with some minor adjustments. The core methods of the apprenticeship remained the same, incorporating practices like code katas and regular zagaku presentations into a curriculum more narrowly focused on the things a developer needs to be successful at SSI.

Similar to a software product, apprenticeship programs also grow stronger when they’re tested with new edge cases. In the program’s initial run, SSI selected two apprentices with very different personalities, learning styles, and approaches to problem solving. In addition to testing the program’s viability, this diversity allowed mentors to see different approaches to teaching and mentorship.

One of these developers was Kristopher Denton, who had been a developer at SSI for two and a half years when 8th Light joined, but was just beginning to transition to the new tech stack. “That involved learning a bunch of new technologies and methodologies, such as microservices and cloud infrastructure,” Kristopher explained. “So I was already going through a lot of learning to try to understand all that anyway.”

The apprenticeship allowed him to focus on this ramp-up period more deliberately, without the additional pressure to deliver the new product. “I definitely feel like I learned more in those six months of the apprenticeship than I probably had over the previous 2.5 years working on the legacy application. And since I’ve been done with the apprenticeship, it’s just been a much better system for me.”

I definitely feel like I learned more in those six months of the apprenticeship than I probably had over the previous 2.5 years working on the legacy application.

Kristopher Denton, Software Developer

Mentoring SSI's Mentors

Having already completed an apprenticeship themselves, 8th Light’s mentors have an intuitive sense for what a successful apprenticeship should look like. They understand where knowledge gaps exist in projects, and how to help an apprentice bridge that gap on their own. They’ve also attended 8th Light’s internal Mentor Training Program where 8th Light Crafters gather to discuss best practices in mentoring and make improvements to the Apprenticeship Program.

While the client’s mentors were skilled developers themselves, they couldn’t be familiar with this same process. Everyone’s learning journey is unique, and it takes deliberate effort and practice to pick up on the art of guiding someone along their own path.

Additionally, SSI’s mentors were able to use the opportunity to undergo their own learning curves and master new practices and processes. One of SSI’s first mentors, Clint McElroy had more than a decade of experience shipping software, and being a mentor offered him an opportunity to improve skills in testing and version control. “Things I could mentor in, like frameworks, I did,” Clint explained. “But test-driven development, I felt like I was going through the apprenticeship with him.”

8th Light’s mentors helped SSI’s mentors understand the process by being deliberate in sharing their thought processes behind every piece of feedback or assignment. Going into demos and iteration planning meetings, they explained the outcomes they expected, and afterward would recap to explain why they asked the questions they did, why they phrased questions the way they did, and helped provide a more tangible framework around their role as mentors.

8th Light’s team documented these insights in a mentorship packet. Together with the apprenticeship syllabus, these documents described in great detail the processes required to build and sustain a quality apprenticeship program.

In the program’s second iteration, the mentors’ roles flipped. While 8th Light was in every meeting and available to support the first-time mentors, SSI’s mentors were the primary drivers of the curriculum.

By the start of the third iteration, SSI’s apprenticeship was fully self-sustaining. Kristopher Denton served as a mentor, and 8th Light’s team withdrew completely. Kristopher also took ownership of the curriculum, and continues to maintain and adjust it to incorporate feedback in each new iteration.

Widening SSI's Recruitment Pool

By the second iteration, SSI’s apprenticeship program was already demonstrating how it could transform the company’s recruitment efforts. All three apprentices were new hires, with diverse experience including a computer science graduate, a self-taught community college dropout, and a career changer with no real development experience. “Really the only one I would’ve considered hiring before was the computer science graduate,” Erickson said. Throughout the program, all three were able to demonstrate their strengths and learn from each other in equal turns.

“The apprenticeship really showed us that we could take people we maybe wouldn’t have taken a chance on before, and we could ramp them up to be successful developers,” Erickson said.

“It’s increased the quality of developers we have on the teams,” Kristopher said. “It’s allowed us to take chances on developers who we thought seemed bright but didn’t have a lot of technical skills, because we knew we had the apprenticeship in our back pocket.”

These successes have had a ripple effect across other departments.” Because the apprenticeship has been successful for our developers, our UX team has developed an abbreviated UX apprenticeship,” Erickson said. “It’s much shorter, but they have used that to onboard new members of the UX team. Their fourth UX apprentice is just completing their apprenticeship.”

The apprenticeship really showed us that we could take people we maybe wouldn’t have taken a chance on before, and we could ramp them up to be successful developers.

Todd Erickson, VP of Development

Outcomes

As SSI has moved their architecture to a solution that’s more modern, more robust, and more scalable, they’ve installed an onboarding program that offers their team these same benefits.

“You don’t buy an apprenticeship really; it’s not a tool that you subscribe to and it helps your technology stack,” Kristopher said. “But in my mind it has helped our company more than any tool we’ve bought.”

Test-driven development was an early focus, and SSI soon realized how that practice relies on layers and layers of other fundamentals all working together. “Test-driven development teaches you to split things up a lot more,” Clint said.

“In order to be able to do testing, we’ve got to have separation of concerns, we’ve got to be able to have dependency injection, we’ve got to be able to switch out pieces on the backside and test each thing separately—and that way of thinking requires a mind shift,” Erickson added. “I think the apprenticeship has really helped anybody new now joining a team. Because they’ve gone through the apprenticeship, they’ve got all that. And that is something that is a little bit hard to teach in the trade.”

The apprenticeship also offered more abstract skills and confidence when joining the team. “The apprenticeship was pretty transformative both for my understanding of programming and development, for my career,” Kristopher said. “I definitely came out of the apprenticeship not necessarily knowing everything I needed to know, but having a better understanding of the generalizations I needed to know, and learning how to learn those other details individually.”

“People are more willing to both interact with on pull requests and also learn from each other,” Kristopher said. “We have developers who write blog posts that we just share internally—that’s new.”

SSI has also discovered new ways to mold the curriculum to serve their unique needs. “At the beginning, we were kind of treating it like 8th Light does, but of course they’re consultants so they don’t know what they’re going to using,” Clint said. “We do know, so we’ve focused it more since then.”

Whereas SSI once relied heavily on recruiting remote developers, the apprenticeship has allowed them to find more balance on their teams. “We don’t have enough developers in this area to have them all in the office,” Erickson said. “But it has helped us increase our staff on site here, and reduced our need for remote.”

“Our use case is maybe a little bit different than other people 8th Light works with,” Kristopher explained. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, Illinois, so we need all the help we can get trying to find qualified and good people, who we need desperately.”

The program has been a positive experience for this new pool of recruits as well. “We talk to all the apprentices we hired, and they also enjoyed joining a company and not just getting thrown onto a team and kind of sink-or-swim,” Kristopher said.

Finally, the new apprentices are not the only ones benefiting from going through the program. “Not only have apprentices benefitted, but mentors have really benefited. They’ve really developed the heart of a teacher,” Erickson said. “A lot of the apprenticeship patterns and practices that we learned from 8th Light we’ve continued to try to implement. Even outside of the apprenticeship itself. That’s one of the big changes—not just the environment of continual learning, but also an environment of continual teaching.”

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