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Dan Mall: Replace the Internship with the Apprenticeship

About this talk

In the creative world, you go to school and learn your craft then enter the field to do your work. However, this straight edge process has left out a middle phase for the educated people that need to learn by doing (because the jobs they want are only available for the already qualified candidate). Superfriendly Director, Dan Mall proposes an apprenticeship as that middle phase—a nine-month program dedicated to teaching the young and talented designer to inevitably be that qualified candidate. The trade: Mall gets loyalty from the apprentice while spending less on talent, while the apprentice walks away with a new skill for work and life.

Dan Mall, Director, SuperFriendly

Dan Mall is a creative director and advisor from Philadelphia. He is the director of SuperFriendly, a design collaborative that brings exquisite creative direction and design to the world’s most important and interesting organizations. Mall is the co-founder of Typedia (an encyclopedia for typefaces) and Businessology (a podcast and workshop series teaching designers how to run better businesses).


Full Transcript

This is Greg. Greg’s my brother-in-law, my wife’s brother. When my wife and I moved back to Philly when we had our first kid, our first daughter, we moved into like a fixer upper. We bought an old church but it needed a lot of work. And Greg, having worked a bunch of different jobs over summers, he worked as a contractor one summer, he said I’ll make you a deal. I’ll renovate your house for you so you can move into it, if you teach me how to be a web developer. OK, good deal I’m in. And so we did that trade, and he fixed up our house, and then he spent nine months with me and he was the first apprentice with SuperFriendly Academy.

Let’s watch a little video on SuperFriendly Academy. (ON VIDEO) For me it all started when I wanted to create a site for my band and I reached out to Dan from SuperFriendly. I’ve had jobs in every single field I can think of. From building houses, masonry, carpentry, to fast food restaurants, and everything was just not challenging. And so I finally came to SuperFriendly to join the apprenticeship. Starting out the apprenticeship I was nervous, I didn’t exactly know what I’ll be doing. Whether it was like cliche apprenticeship going out to get coffee or doing small things, but I was actually surprised when Dan really put me in front of the computer and said, OK, we’re going to learn. The projects that SuperFriendly takes on it’s very diverse. Big to small to really intricate to very simple things. One thing you’re going to learn is different techniques and approaches to design. It was a really good process for me because it was how I wanted to learn. It wasn’t how everybody else should learn. I remember Dan saying I’m going to teach you design but you can also apply it to life. And that was one of the big objectives throughout the apprenticeship. From having nothing going for me and then becoming successful within less than a year’s time was unbelievable.

The apprenticeship meant the world to me. It literally changed my life. Greg wasn’t kidding. It literally did change his life. Afterward he proposed to his girlfriend, they got married on the beach shortly after that, they bought a house and an awesome dog named Zaida. This is Greg on the About page of the agency that he works at, Bluecadet, which is an amazing agency in Philly. Maybe most importantly, he got a haircut. It’s kind of cool to tell these stories. We all like hearing them, I love hearing them, I love telling them, you love telling them.

Unfortunately these kind of stories are exceptions. We hear about people and we’re like, wow you learned at your job? That’s amazing! Right? We marvel at those things. And that’s really unfortunate, it’s actually kind of tragic that that’s an exception.

In an article for Wired magazine David Edwards basically laments the typical American school system set up. He says, “we ‘learn’ and after this we ‘do.’ We go to school and then we go to work, and this approach doesn’t map very well to personal and professional success in America today. Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover.” Right? Those two things come together, and yet we’ve managed to separate them really well. Now there’s a great study from the Harvard Business Review about the reasons for failure, and this is the spectrum, and we set up our jobs, we set up our organizations to reduce failure. And in some ways that’s really great, right? Because we want to reduce the stuff that’s on the right side of that, the blame-worthy types of failure. We don’t want people to fail because they’re deviant or because they’re inattentive.

But we do want to encourage the right type of failure, and fortunately we’ve managed to remove that from our jobs. We do want people to fail because they’re testing hypothesis, or they’re doing explorations. That’s the great kind of failure that makes us really good at what we do. And the problem goes even deeper, it’s the way that we even hire. So this is Vimeo’s page for the way that they hire. And if you look they say we’re looking for extraordinary people. That’s great, I mean, that’s a good thing. But the subtext of that is you’ve got to be amazing before you get here. You won’t learn how to be extraordinary here, you got to be amazing before you get here. Or RGA a big agency in their search for a producer they say things like we want people with solid experience, with high quality, strong communication skills. Again, the subtext is you’ve got to be great before you get here. Even Walmart when they’re interviewing for senior director they say things like we want champions, we want people who will shape the culture, we want people who could maximize the achievement of business goals. They ask for really, really– you have to be great before you get there. And it makes sense, right? Because imagine a job description that looks this, we’re looking for a designer that’s a bit of an underachiever, somebody pretty average. No skills required. And don’t worry about being a self-starter, if you can follow orders, you know, what that’s good enough for us. And this wouldn’t really go over well. Or would it? Let’s look at a couple of stats. with a bachelor’s degree in computer science each year. Right? This is from the Economic Policy Institute. A million programming jobs by 2020, a million will go unfilled, this by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And about 8 million people, just under 8 million people are unemployed in the United States every year. If you put all these together, they are interesting stats on their, own if you put them all together, you can sort of map them.

So let’s map these graduates to a spectrum. We have a spectrum here, this is the spectrum skills, at the top mad skills with a z, at the bottom na skills. Yeah that’s right, I’m from Philly. computer science graduates across the spectrum they sort of fall toward the top, right? Not great at what they do yet, they’re just graduating, but toward the top of this. And if you mix that in with people like us, people in the audience, people who have taken time to develop their skills, you get people that are at the top range of that. And this kind of reflects our industry. But if you add that other statistic, right?

The 8 million people that are unemployed in the US right now, you get this bottom end that’s really, really heavy. And now this is not drawn to scale, actually it would be a lot more severe if it was drawn to scale. If you were going to scale for every at the top So imagine how that would look on a slide. Now what happens is when we’re looking for jobs, our organizations, when we look for people to hire we look at that top set. We look for people that are really, really good at what they do. And what we do is we throw money at them because that’s the incentive that we have. And those people move from job to job, right? They just keep moving along, two years here, two years there, two years here. And those people get better, and better, and better, and their skills rise. And unfortunately what happens is it creates more of a chasm between that top layer and that bottom layer. I believe we have a solution to this. And I think it’s called apprenticeship. It’s a way to bridge those two. As they’re getting wider an apprenticeship is a way that we can tie from the bottom to the top and from the top to the bottom. By the end of the talk what I’m hoping to convince you of is at least to think about taking on an apprentice, or starting an apprenticeship program at your company.

So what do I mean by apprenticeship? Well Wikipedia explains it as “a system of training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study. This is not a new concept, we don’t invent this right? This has been going on for a while. So if you think about where partnerships with the most popular, you think of medieval times, you think about blacksmiths. So blacksmiths had apprentices. And the way that an apprentice would work is a set of parents would indenture their child to a master at a certain trade. So when a kid was eight or nine years old, the parents would take them to say a blacksmith, a master blacksmith and say we indenture our kid to you, and the master blacksmith takes that kid on for seven years to live with him. And throughout that seven years, that kid learns how to be a really good blacksmith. But also learned the business of blacksmithing, how to deal with customers, how to understand what people want, how to really be good at their craft as well. And then they learn all sorts of other skills.

They gotta learn how to make their bed, they gotta learn how to cook, they gotta learn how to clean. So it’s not just the trade, it’s everything around the trade that will make them a professional. What happens after that is after that seven years the master releases that apprentice and that apprentice becomes a journeyman, and they go from blacksmith to blacksmith helping them out with different projects, doing their own blacksmith work. So they literally journey around their town or their country and they learn how to be a better blacksmith. And when they feel they’ve done a good job of learning what they need to know, they complete a master project. And they do a project and they submit it to the guild of blacksmiths, and the guild a blacksmiths says the project is awesome, you are now a master blacksmith, and you can go and take on the next apprentice. And it continues from there. We don’t really have something like that in our trade. We don’t have that as designers and developers, we don’t really have a system like. That we have internships but that’s not the same thing, it’s very different. Other trades have that, right? So if you think about tattoo artists, a lot of the way that tattoo artists come tattoo artists is they apprentice with a professional tattoo artist. In cooking they have this, this is a great book called “the Apprentice, My Life in the Kitchen” by Jacques Pepin. And it’s a memoir about how he apprenticed under different chefs, and how he became a really great chef.

In architecture, this exists. Frank Lloyd Wright had a ton of apprentices. He wrote this book called “Letters to Apprentices” where he took apprentices on for years at a time, who still exist and his apprentices are still living on as his apprentices. Martin Luther, the famed theologian, he had apprentices all the time and he wrote a book about his apprentice experience. It’s called “Table Talks.” At the end of every day he would bring his apprentices to the table, they’d all have dinner together, and they’d talk about their life, they’d talk about work, they’d talk about what they did during the day. Talk about all sorts of stuff. And he collected those conversations in a book called “Table Talk.” One of my favorite stories from “Table Talk” is he says “almost every night when I wake up the devil is there and he wants to dispute with me. I have come to this (conclusion) when the argument that the Christian is without the law and above the law doesn’t help I instantly chase him away with a fart.” Famed theologian Martin Luther. I mean this is kind of what I strive for with my apprenticeship. I mean not to teach people about farts, maybe a little bit, but to teach people about everything that happens. Apprenticeship is a life experience, it’s not just a job experience. You talk about things like your job, you talk about life, you talk about flatulence, you know? That’s part of life.

So I’m going to tell you a little bit about what the SuperFriendly apprenticeship looks like. It’s a longer apprenticeship than most, it’s about nine months, and it’s broken up into three parts, and I’ll tell you a little bit about the three parts. The first part, the first three months, months one through three is basic training. Now I work with people that don’t have any experience being designers or developers. Right? So these people come from convenience stores, radio stations, but they’re people that want to do something with their lives. They want to change their lives, and working a minimum wage job is not a great way for them to do that, so they need to be able to do something different.

So the first day of the apprenticeship is really, really basic. We go over what a URL is, we go over what a browser is, and how the internet works. For designers we go we open Photoshop or Sketch and we go through the toolbar, we say this is called the move tool, this is the marquee tool, this is this tool, this is that tool, we talk about what they do. For a developer we write our first lines of HTML on that first day. This is an angle bracket, this is what a tag is, this is what an attribute, this is what a value is, these are quotation marks. We talk about very, very basic things. And the point of those three months is just to take those people who are in the bottom level, remember that graph? The bottom level, and just raise their level slightly. How do we move them up on that skills chart? That’s the first three months is just doing that. It’s unpaid. Because they are not valuable to me at that point, I can’t put them on projects. I don’t pay them, but they don’t pay any tuition. It’s sort of, you have to come to the table. And what I ask them to do is I ask them to save up, save up two months worth of cash, three months worth of cash, because going to be really hard for you to have a part time job while you do. That weeds out a lot of people, a lot of people aren’t willing– don’t even have that amount of motivation. The people that do, progress. And as they learn more then the next three months, months three through six are about project work. I can start putting them on projects slowly.

So I could say for the first project, you are now in charge of the footer, that’s your job on the site, that’s it, just the footer, the team will do the rest. And some of them, some of my apprentices go on to be freelancers. So I help them price. How much will you charge me for the footer? I treat them like contractors. How much would you charge me to design the footer? And they’ll come back and say $20. Too low, here’s why. And we work on that together. And they come back and they say, got it, five k. No, no, too high. Let’s talk about why. And we work on that stuff together, right? I try to a create an environment where they can fail, where they can do exploratory failure, they can do hypothesis testing. After that, the next three months, months seven through nine are about job searches and interview preps. SuperFriendly is a one employee agency, I’m the only employee. They know they’re not going to get a job at SuperFriendly afterwards, so instead where are they going to work? You want to move to Denver? Great. Research a bunch of agencies in Denver. You want to move to San Francisco? Awesome. Make a list of the startups that you want to work at. And we interview, we create portfolios that are targeted at that so they can go get jobs where they are. It’s bringing back the idea of a journeyman. Now go and journey, make your journey, go see how another agency works. See how some startups work, go work at a product, go get diverse experiences so that one day you can do your master project and be considered a master, and then you take on apprentices after that. So that’s kind of what the format of that apprenticeship looks like. And out of that I’ve had some great people. Sharell here, Sharell started as a substitute teacher. After her apprenticeship she’s now freelancing as a designer, doing a bunch of identity work for startups in Philly. Coral was a translator at the airport, she worked in customs. Now she’s a freelance photographer. She took her design skills and now is doing photography work. Josh worked at a radio station.

After his apprenticeship he became an interactive designer at an agency in Philly called Net Plus. So everybody’s doing different things with their skills. Some of them are directly related to what they apprenticed for, some of them are a bit of a tangent, but that’s OK, because they now have new skills that they can take and they can grow. All right so you might be thinking well that’s well and good, you know, that sounds cool, you’re doing something for the world, whatever. But why should I apprentice? What’s in it for me? What’s in it for my company? I think that’s OK, that’s a great thing to think. Right? Because you could be doing something for the world but it could be taking a toll on you, so it’s got to be mutually beneficial. So what are the benefits it would have to you? Why would you take on an apprentice? Well I have a couple of factors here. One, is that if you’re trying to hire at your company, you’re probably trying to hire from that top pool, that top set. Why choose from that pool which is highly competitive and very expensive, when you can choose from this one? It’s a wider talent pool, likely to find a candidate. Just play the numbers game. That’s one.

So instead of throwing money at a person, if you can throw a little bit of investment of time and teaching, maybe you can get better candidates. The other thing, as I just mentioned, is it’s a lot cheaper. So imagine you’re trying to hire a senior designer, right? You look for that top pool. You go that person, that’s who we want to hire. Well that person likely has other job offers, right? They’re probably good, which is why you’re trying to hire them. And so maybe you convince that senior designer to work at your company. And you say we can give it’s a fairly competitive salary. The next year you give them maybe the 5% typical annual raise, and now So over two years, just looking at the math, that senior designer. The third year, well obviously statistics a point to the fact that people hop around every two to three years, so maybe that senior designer leaves for a better job halfway through the year. year, half of their salary, and now you have a job search to do. Now you have a lot of work on your plate. and you still don’t have a designer anymore. Now you have to go and do this all over again. Let’s compare that with looking for somebody from this pool. Right? You find somebody there and you say, you know what? This person has a lot of promise. I think the motivation is right, there’s a sweet spot of not being too motivated, but definitely motivated enough.

So I’m going to invest in this person. If you give that job that’s awesome to them, that’s amazing. Right? Now they’re loyal to you because you’re doing them a solid, and they’re doing you one too. It’s mutually beneficial. The second year you give them a 5% annual raise. Now you’re paying the most they might have been paid ever in their lives. Over two years The third year maybe you give them another 5% annual raise The likelihood that that person is going to stay with you is a lot greater, because you’re the one that has given them a chance. They’re loyal to you. And you’ve only spent That’s almost an 80 k savings. And every year that this happens those savings increase exponentially. I don’t have the stats off the top of my head but people who grow up in an agency, or in a product, or in a startup, tend to stay, versus people that come in at higher levels.

So if you can start somebody low and grow with you, there’s a higher likelihood that they become your champion. In addition to money, taking on apprentice might not be as much work as you think. Take a guess, over a nine month apprenticeship how much time– so I track my time pretty religiously, how much time do you think I spent with an apprentice? How much time has I have I tracked over the year? Take a guess, somebody, shot it out. 20%? How about in terms of hours, how many hours do you think? One month? What else? Other guesses? A hundred hours. Other guesses? Five hundred hours. Those are great guesses. Want to know what I found when I looked at the last 10 apprentices, how much time I spent with them? Thirty five hours over nine months. Not a lot. What that breaks down to, if you want something more manageable, four hours a month, one hour a week, 12 minutes a day. To get somebody from zero to entry level designer, entry level developer, that’s all it takes. It doesn’t take a lot. A little asterisk here, what I’m not counting in this number is the time that I spent with them during projects. But I bill that to the project.

So that’s not coming out of my pocket, that’s not coming out of me that I have to fund that, that’s coming out of the client, because I use client work to help fund that. What about money? How much money will I have spent over a nine month apprenticeship? Well on average, I’ve given Right? And that seems like a lot of money, but let’s break it down. about $292 a week, $58 a day, $7 an hour. If you think about that, you’re basically offering them a great choice, $7 an hour at McDonald’s, or $7 an hour working on a skill that you can grow to take you higher, higher. You can probably afford that. They can probably do, that because if they’re willing to work food service, they’d be willing to work on a thing that helps build their career. So it’s again, mutually beneficial there.

So the point that I’m trying to make out of this, is that it’s both affordable, and it’s probably not as much work as you might think to take on an apprentice. The last reason here, and maybe one of the best reasons, is that if you try and work with somebody out of that bottom pool, the chances that they look like you, and the chances that they think like you, and the chances that they are like you are very low. And that’s a great, great thing. You get more diverse people. If you try to work from that top pool you will most likely get people that act and think and work like you. So all the things you do are going to be very myopic. By broadening that skill set you actually broaden your perspective, you broaden the diversity. Choosing to work with people that are likely not like you are a great skill for everyone to have. If you’re not convinced about that, McKinsey and Company did a study, and they found that gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry means. So it directly can translate into dollars.

And even more so, racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. It’s pretty impressive. The good news is it’s already happening, right? So you wouldn’t be the first, it’s not the first apprenticeship to exist, nor will it be the last. This is already happening, a lot of agencies a lot of startups are putting things like this into place. One my favorite ones is from the Nerdery, which is a great agency. That guy, Fred Beecher, he has a lot of experience in user experience, but his job at the Nerdery is just to foster their apprenticeship. He has a dedicated job that’s just about doing that, and doing that really well for their agency. Fresh Tilled Soil has an apprenticeship in user experience, they call it the AUX program. It’s a 15 week program. Sparkbox in Dayton, Ohio, they have a great apprenticeship program, it’s about a six month program. Thoughtbot has a great apprenticeship program, and they put a lot of the information at their site You can read about it there, it’s a three month apprenticeship. Huge here in New York has the Huge School, where they do 12 intense weeks where they teach people how to be a great user experience designers. Right? You wouldn’t be alone in doing this. There are a lot of companies are adopting this approach and moving more towards mentorship than just kind of a skimming the surface internship. So far, these SuperFriendly Academy has just been a word of mouth. You know, it’s been something where one apprentice has gotten value out of it, and they told a friend, and that friend kind of applied for it. But I’m happy to announce that today I actually am opening applications for this.

So if you know people that are interested in apprenticeship, likely everybody in this crowd is overqualified, and probably one degree removed from you is overqualified for this, but if you know somebody that works at a radio station, that’s a barista, that wants to take their career in a place please spread this around, please give them this site, this URL. I just put it up, it’s Please feel free to check it out and spread the word. If you want to start an apprenticeship at your company, at your organization, I’m happy to share my curriculum with you. Please take it and franchise it and do whatever you want with it.

Let me know how you’re working on it, I’d love to hear about everything that you’re doing with it, and I hope that this is going to be a really great thing for you, and for the people apprenticing and for this industry.

Thank you very much.

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