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Guest Column: Charles D. Morgan, CEO, First Orion

Updated: May 19, 2019

MAKING AN OLD IDEA NEW AGAIN

How apprenticeships can ease Arkansas’ tech talent problem



Charles D. Morgan, CEO First Orion



SOMETIMES WHEN YOU’VE got a problem moving forward, the best way to solve it is by looking back. It’s true in writing. It’s true in coding. And some of us here in Arkansas think it’s also true in preparing young tech talent for the real world of business.


Right now in this state we do have a problem—how to find enough qualified tech workers. Look at it this way: Our own Walmart, one of the world’s largest companies, has trouble acquiring enough talent. And if Walmart is having trouble filling all its tech jobs, imagine the challenge for all our small startups. How can they even hope to compete? I can tell you from experience, once a startup really gets going, one of its gravest problems is continuing to land the needed tech talent. That is a problem that never ends.


Sure, you can always hire a recent college graduate, but recent grads don’t have the skills you need. That’s because there’s a gap—more of a chasm, actually—between what colleges teach and what businesses need in order for their new people to hit the ground running. And as our technology becomes more and more specialized, it’s just impossible for the schools to keep up. Amazon’s AWS—the Cloud—adds a new feature and functionality literally every day. At my company, First Orion, we take advantage of a whole lot of this new functionality. Nobody in the world is going to go to school and learn about the features and functionality that we require right off the bat. Our needs are incredibly broad now. If what First Orion needed was the only thing you focused on learning, it would still be hard to learn it. And you’ve got to learn all of the other stuff too.


So, given the fact that only in rare cases are we able to hire someone with exactly the skills we need, how are we to keep moving forward? My answer is to apply an old, old solution to a very contemporary problem.


The concept of apprenticeships goes back to ancient times. According to Wikipedia, in Mesopotamia “the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi provided that artisans teach their crafts to youth. The records of Egypt, Greece, and Rome from earliest times reveal that skills were still being passed on in this fashion.” And get this: Once these apprentices were certified as Craftsmen, they also attained a certified status. They became important members of society.  

In today’s world, many crafts and trades still rely on the Registered Apprenticeship program to keep their workers up to date and to provide employers with a well-trained workforce. In that program, the U.S. Department of Labor lists the top occupations as Able seaman, Carpenter, Chef, Childcare development specialist, Construction craft laborer, Dental assistant, Electrician, Elevator constructor, Fire medic, Law enforcement agent, Over-the-road truck driver, and Pipefitter.


I say now is the time to add Data Worker to that list.


The First Orion Apprentices. First row, left to right: Alex Gunter, Paul Zotz, Cody Glenn, Caitlyn Hallett, Dan Ahlquist. Second row, left to right: Brittany Beckett-Harrison, Austin Fletcher, Mustafa Tunc, Jason Yingling, Josh Wertz.

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THIS APPRENTICESHIP IDEA came to me a couple of years ago, and I decided to try it first at my own company. First Orion provides mobile call blocking and other data-centric services to such major telecoms as T-Mobile and Sprint. If it’s hard to find ready-to-contribute tech grads in general, multiply the difficulty a hundredfold when it comes to finding people in Central Arkansas who’re able to step in and program mobile device handsets.

My solution? Let’s develop our own experts.


Our first thought was to contract out the job of creating a course curriculum, but that proved less than satisfactory. We also considered sending our apprentices off to a tech boot camp. “Not only was that not cost effective,” says Libbi Whitehurst, our Head of People, “but we didn’t like the idea of sending people away; we wanted them learning here, so they get ingrained in our culture. We hire as much for culture as for skill.”


Just as every company’s culture is unique, so too is every company’s tech environment unique—to them. There are about 20 different relational database software systems, and every company ends up choosing a standard. What you want is an employee who’s proficient in the software system you use, never mind the other 19. 


Because we had more Android experts in-house when we started the training program, we opted to create an IOS curriculum for our first apprenticeship class. And we developed the course ourselves, with a young man named Rafael de Aroxa taking the lead in picking and choosing from existing video courses—mainly from Stanford University—and then creating our own modules for the areas we couldn’t find elsewhere. This course covered 60 modules of projects and tutorials, with a “Capstone Project” as a final exam.


“For all companies,” says Rafael, “this idea should sell itself, because of the extreme talent shortage. We chose recent college grads who were essentially a blank slate so we could teach them the right way upfront, without having to un-teach them anything. The idea of the program is to teach them the way things are done here at First Orion.”


We estimate that we can accomplish in three or four concentrated months what it would take a year or more to prepare a new employee in an ordinary on-the-job training.


Our apprentices work in a dedicated room overlooking the Arkansas River. As I write this, we’re now on our third class. After the IOS curriculum, our second class focused on Android, and our present class is working on a Data Science curriculum. I’ve already told you how this project benefits First Orion, but I think it’s also worth hearing what our apprentices think about how the program benefits them. Taken together, these young tech workers embody many of the experiences, aspirations, and, yes, the frustrations of their generation in search of the right career path: 


“I was working as a software developer for FIS, a banking and finance company,” says Austin Fletcher, who was in our IOS course. “I was working on backend systems for them in a proprietary language, which wasn’t great for my career. After that, I was doing web development for them. That was fun, but it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do. I heard about this program from the First Orion recruiter. Then I got a tour of the facility and everything, and had a great time.  What I cared about was, in my previous job it was kind of on me to teach myself, including paying for materials. Getting a chance to learn as part of the on-boarding process sounded really good.”


Caitlyn Hallett was an apprentice in our Android program last fall. “I remember being frustrated,” says Caitlyn, “because I hadn’t expected to graduate from college so soon. I graduated from UCA in three years, in Computer Science, and was so busy that I didn’t really think about graduating until I was walking up to get my degree. So I hadn’t really planned things out, like trying to get an internship. The job I quit to come here was at McDonald’s.


“So with no previous work experience in this field, it’s beyond mind-blowing to have something that really did fill that in-between period between education and fulltime employment, and I’m producing something for the company.”


Brittany Beckett-Harrison, who goes by the nickname “Beck,” is apprenticing in our Data Science program right now. “For me to be given this opportunity is definitely life changing,” says Beck. “I’m from southwest Missouri, and in my family, my parents wanted me to get a good education and have a shot at a good life, but that wasn’t really modeled for me. I’m actually a high school dropout. Now fast forward, and I’m discovering how to find my own success. I have an affinity with the arts, a creative element that I think is necessary in data science. In December I graduated from UALR in Information Science and am now working on a masters. For me, with my background, I recognize the value of this apprenticeship. It gives me a chance to make up lost time quickly.


“And I want to give a shout-out to my co-apprentices, because they’ve been awesome to me. Everybody in my program is finishing their master’s degrees, and they’re whip smart, really smart guys. As the only woman in the room, it’s been an exciting experience to go through this with a cohort. They’re my cohorts.”


Our apprentices tell us that they regularly hear horror stories from friends who start work at a company and are just thrown off into the deep end, without help, and without even getting to know much about the company itself. That doesn’t happen with our apprentices. While they may do their learning in a room away from the everyday business fray, they’re woven—by design—into the fabric of First Orion. During the course of their program, various members of our staff volunteer to advise and mentor them in areas that match the mentors’ expertise. For the mentors, this may take only a day or so away from their regular work; when the apprentices get to a different section in their studies, another mentor takes over. We’ve found that having these mentors available is a great way to give our apprentices additional real-world understanding beyond what they would glean just from their online studies.


But besides interacting with their volunteer mentors, First Orion’s apprentices are regularly included in meetings and presentations. I have lunch with them when they start and again at midterm. So while probably 85 percent of their time is spent becoming experts on the subject of their particular curriculum, the rest of their time they’re learning about our company, rubbing elbows with our employees, experiencing our corporate culture.


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THE WORD SUSTAINABLE has become trendy, but I think it’s a useful word to consider here. To my mind, the stories our apprentices tell about some of their friends’ initial experience in the working world—that is, of being a new employee left totally alone to find his or her way—is ultimately unsustainable, for employee and company alike. Skilled people are the key to our success as employers, so it behooves us to do everything we can to help them succeed. Because when they succeed, we succeed.


This is why the brand new Arkansas Center for Data Sciences (ACDS) was created—to help foster and facilitate initiatives like our apprenticeship program statewide. Eventually we foresee each participating company having a university partner willing to provide program advice and a certificate of certification to successful grads. And, ideally, ACDS will reimburse each participating company for the cost of the apprentices’ pay during the learning period. The effect of this program will be a highly skilled software and data analytics workforce in Arkansas, with certified expertise.


Data and data analytics are the name of the game—any game—today.  This program that works so well for First Orion will also work for a retail sales company, a long-distance trucking company, a poultry processing and distribution company, a financial services company, a commercial real estate development company, an insurance company, an oil and gas exploration company—you name it, every kind of business now depends on employees skilled in technology.


And for those other employers concerned about the cost of such a program, consider this message from my old friend Wally Anderson, former CTO of Acxiom Corporation, who came in to be the everyday mentor of our apprentices. “For companies,” says Wally, “this is a smart way to get people trained without having to pay for a lot of instructors. And we can replicate it easily. As we get ready to do another course, we pull out one module and plug in a different one.” So once you’ve done it, you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. It gets easier and easier as these courses go on.


The stakeholders in this apprenticeship program include:

  • Employers, who develop a stable of skilled employees who can instantly contribute to the business;

  • Young tech workers, whose skills are upgraded and who’re rewarded with good jobs;

  • Universities and colleges, whose real-world importance increases as they learn what skills businesses need;

  • The Arkansas economy, which benefits from more high-paying jobs and more young tech workers remaining instate.

I really believe this is the future, a “new old paradigm” in the relationship between employer and employee. This tech apprenticeship initiative is a chance for businesses throughout Arkansas to take charge not just of their individual futures, but also to contribute to our collective future—as a viable, cutting-edge state in which to do business.


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Our own Charles D. Morgan has a new book out—Now What? The Biography of a (Finally) Successful Startup, published last month by Entrepreneur Publishing. It’s Morgan’s unvarnished account of tech startup First Orion and his small team’s chaotic, exhilarating, nine-year quest to successfully navigate the uncharted world of mobile phone technology.

 

HERE’S A SAMPLING:

 “And here I have to drop back and tell yet another embarrassing story about something else I screwed up in regard to First Orion. By now, you readers are probably wondering why the hell you’re reading a book about entrepreneurship by a guy who gets everything wrong. You probably think I could play both Dumb and Dumber all by myself. All I can say in my defense is that I’m human. We humans do dumb things sometimes, even when we know better, and I’m willing to embarrass myself to show you just how easy it is to screw things up. But I promise you: Before this story is over, I’ll have gotten a few things right.”


Books are available at WordsWorth Books in Little Rock, and on Amazon.


Charles Morgan will be speaking and signing books at The Conductor in Conway on March 28.