Winning the War for Talent: Find smart people, train them yourself

basvk | Flickr via Creative Commons

“You’re too close to the screen.” It’s a favorite saying at Quick Left to urge cube-mates to think differently about solving a problem.

It also holds a lot of truth for spotting top technical, design and marketing talent.

The Boulder-based web and mobile app development firm employs traditional developers as well as paid apprentices with backgrounds as diverse as molecular biology, economics and architecture.

Ultimately, Quick Left is looking for the big apprenticeship score: A smart non-technical recruit who levels up to a full stack developer.

“We’ve had good luck with fresh, green developers and training them up to our level,” explains QuickLeft founder and COO Collin Schaafsma with a laugh. “They’re very eager to learn and they don’t have bad habits yet.”

Schaafsma is quick to point out that the company is not the first in the tech industry to offer an apprenticeship program in its shop. What is unique is how integrated their approach is with their overall business objectives and company culture.

The custom Ruby and Javascript curriculum is nestled into real, internal development projects with novices working alongside more experienced colleagues. No bullshit busy work Karel the Robot exercises here. Apprentices are expected to ship product on deadline.

Now with a couple of years of apprentice training under their belts, Quick Left is formalizing its program with a new focus on mastering classroom material by leveling up over the six-month training period. The class structure includes solid design principles, service-side development, front-end engineering and consulting.

The process hasn’t been without insights and surprises to the Quick Left team too.

“It’s not a low-risk financial investment,” advises Schaafsma on the administrative side of running of an effective apprenticeship program.

“Be aware that you have the time to give, sitting down with them everyday and working with them. It’s very hands-on. Have some structure and a curriculum too. Otherwise, it’s a disservice to the apprentice.”

Quick Left’s work culture also play a huge role in its ability to run a successful apprenticeship.

Schaafsma finds “being too close to the screen” can limit the ability to tap into talent without the requisite technical background and highfaluting computer science degrees that many single-minded startups seek.

“Realize that people have other strengths beyond writing software,” he says.

“We all hang out and have similar interests. We’re motivated by similar things like having a work/life balance. None of us want to work 80 hours a week. It’s not sustainable and gives you nothing for the long term. It’s important to have outside interests.

“You’re much more efficient when you exercise and have head space for clarity and to focus. You can’t just go to the grindstone. Especially in this industry. It surprises me that a lot of traditional agencies will work people right to the breaking point and then they’re dealing with turn over issues and the quality of work is not at the same level.”

With any luck that mindful, balanced approach to running the company and showcasing unconventional talent will now rub off on local development shops.

Quick Left is launching a new external training division with a programming workshop on Backbone.js—organized by apprentice graduate and newly minted Training Director Bing Chou.