Finding the Best Fit: One CM Graduate’s Next Step

Homeschool teen with computer

Last week we talked a little about how a Charlotte Mason education works well with boys, sharing points from Doug and Karen Smith, who have graduated three boys from their CM home school. We thought some of you might also be interested in hearing about “the next step” for one of their boys.

CM parents focus on teaching each child as a unique individual, so it makes sense that we would also look for opportunities that will be the best fit for each one after graduation. We look for resources and situations that will reinforce the philosophy of education that we have made a priority for so many years in our homes: Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.

For Kyle, the Smiths’ youngest, the best fit after his graduation was the Software Craftsmanship Academy. This small mentoring environment has offered a place to hone his skills as a computer programmer and to continue to grow as a person.

Below is an interview with Ken Auer, the founder and director of Software Craftsmanship Academy, telling his story and revealing the ideas that rule his life and permeate the atmosphere of his company and mentoring school.

An Interview with Ken Auer

SCM: Tell us a little about yourself, your company, and the academy.

Ken: Well, by God’s grace I have been at the right place at the right time. In 1981 I met my then-future-wife, Carol, at high school graduation practice, who figured I was safe to date because my pastor was giving the invocation. I graduated in 1984 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a B.S. in Computer Science and a minor in Management. I found that I learned much more about software through my two internships doing practical work than I did from my theoretical CS classes taught mostly by academics, but received a great background in business due to the folks in the Management School who had real world experience. When I landed in Florida working on a next generation software system, one of the marketing guys had read one of the three magazine articles on “object-oriented programming” and we started looking into it. Little did I know that I was in on the ground floor of the technology that revolutionized the way software was written.

I moved to North Carolina to be part of a small company that was taking this technology into the industry, and we found that traditional classroom education wasn’t the best way to learn this stuff. We stumbled upon “immersion training” as a form of accelerated learning about the same time Carol and I had our first child. Over the next few years, I heard about homeschooling and “church-based leadership training.” To make a long story short, I little by little decided that mentorship was not only an alternative way to learn but a superior way to learn just about anything. Even though we fumbled through figuring out the best ways to do it, we found that the personal attention and reflective practice accelerated learning and allowed for lifestyle evangelism and discipleship.  

I eventually started my own company, RoleModel Software, in 1997, the same year we started “officially” homeschooling my then 5-year-old daughter, and became appointed as an elder in our church in 1998. I hired my first official apprentice that year, a homeschooled young man who had been looking for a mentor. In a quest for integrating life in many ways, we started a lot of things where I worked with multiple generations; e.g., a family-integrated church, a FIRST Lego League team, and a side video production business with my family—learning just about everything we had to by immersion, finding people who knew more than I did about it and figuring out some stuff on our own. The economy didn’t treat us well, and it all became too much to keep going while still trying to keep the main vocation of building Custom Software going. But we learned a lot about a lot.  

My son, Caleb, found a lot of things he did not want to do for a career (building, web and graphics design, programming, video making) and continues to be involved in acting, apprentices with the local police department and at a local fitness center, while knowing how to interact with the public and determining what aspects of fitness, protection, and sales he’ll continue to pursue.

My daughter, Hope, began showing signs of being a pretty good creative writer. A homeschool writing project turned into A Cry from Egypt, which won the 2014 Small Christian Book Publishers book of the year in her category. She has also spoken at conferences and turned her first book into an audio drama.

We’ve learned so much, but a few years ago, it became clear it was time to bring my vocational focus back to software, and I eventually started the Software Craftsmanship Academy.

SCM: How did the academy come about and what are its goals?

Ken: Often when I talked about apprenticeship, people would tell me “you should open a school.”  I always felt this kind of missed the point. Apprenticeship is completely different from a classroom and can’t be done en masse. On the other hand, my experience with the first part of the apprenticeship was laying a foundation beyond the basics of programming that you can learn in any intro to programming class, and I felt I could lay that foundation for more than one person at a time if it was all I did. The most expensive part, from the mentor’s side, of an apprenticeship was the foundation laying.

Then, I had a client who was a farrier. I found out that farriers were really blacksmiths who made their living taking care of horses, and the traditional way to get there was an intense “foundation laying” school, followed by an apprenticeship. And, along the way, I went to some farrier conventions with my client to help sell the software we had built for him. I met farrier after farrier who had been trained in 6–24 weeks at various farrier schools across the country. Then I met Chris Gregory who ran Heartland Horseshoeing School, which was generally recognized as the best in the country. His son, Cody, was one of the best farriers in the world through the apprenticeship of his father. I had several conversations with Chris about his experience with apprenticeship in the farrier industry and mine in the software industry, and he said, “you should open a school.”

But something different happened when I said, “but I don’t want to become an academic. I need to continue to practice my trade; that’s what makes the difference.”  He said, “I don’t either. That’s why my school is only open a few months of the year, and I continue to work the rest of the time.”  As he explained further, I thought about it further. Based on all of the apprentices I had ever taught, it seemed like the foundation part always took 3–9 months, and I was pretty sure it could take three months if I was completely focused on it.

The goals of the Academy are simply to build the next generation of great software craftsmen in a Christ-honoring environment. We have used it to both bring young people into the industry and to re-start careers of those who have been on a different path than modern software development.

SCM: How is that different or similar to a traditional college path?

Ken: Most colleges aren’t doing either (building craftsmen or honoring Christ). Although I appreciate the desire of Christian colleges to provide a more Christ-honoring environment than a secular university, the model of the school prevents real mentoring, is very inefficient, and doesn’t really focus on making a software craftsman but rather someone with some knowledge of computers.

When I took on RoleModel’s first apprentice in 1998, my goal was that he would be better off in four years than if he had gone to college. He exceeded my expectations, and so has every other apprentice I’ve ever taken on. In my experience, a college graduate with a B.S. degree in Computer Science or Information Technology or even Software Engineering knows less about software development after four years in school than those who’ve gone through the apprenticeship path at RoleModel do in less than two years.

There are a lot of reasons for this. I personally believe it is because the model of older men teaching younger men one-on-one is God’s design, and colleges are designed to get as many people through a “program” in four years with as few teachers as possible. What is remarkable to me is that while the colleges are trying to make it “efficient,” it actually costs the student far more.

We charge only for the most intensive training during the first three months we call the Immersion Phase. Assuming the student succeeds in the Immersion Phase, he moves into the Apprenticeship Phase and begins to get paid, rather than pay, for the rest of his career.

In the Apprenticeship Phase the students are given additional assignments, but they are sitting in the same room with, and often next to, professional software developers. They are assigned to Craftsmen who oversee everything they do. Sometimes they are “pair programming” with others. Some of their work is on paid projects, but every line of code is reviewed by a professional. They are mostly given “simple (professional) tasks” that they have been trained to do in the Immersion Phase and we see how they do. We give them a few “non-trivial (professional) tasks” and if they aren’t completely overwhelmed, they are ready to move on to the Residency Phase, where they are given another bump in compensation. If they stay with our program, they’ll probably be at break-even at the end of the first year, and then be making money thereafter.

Once they’ve consistently proven they can handle the “non-trivial tasks” and are not completely overwhelmed by more complex tasks, we make them a Junior Developer, which is what most people call college graduates or those in their first two or three years of their professional software career. We’ve found that the people that have gone through the Academy are far better Junior Developers than all but the most rare college grads, because ours have a foundation that is much more relevant to what they do every day.

SCM: What are your thoughts on college and alternatives for today’s job market?

Ken: I’m not a big fan of just spending a bunch of time with people your own age.  “The glory of young men is their strength, And the honor of old men is their gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29). Young people have strength and fertile brain synapses. What they lack is wisdom. In my experience, put a young, respectful person with an experienced and wise older person and amazing things happen for both of them. The energy of the young inspire and encourage the experienced, who may not have the energy they once had. The wisdom can be passed down to the naive and energetic, and they mature at a fast pace. The theory is that this happens in college (young students and wise professors), but its setting is often academic.

I can’t speak authoritatively for other professions, but I have talked to many people in other professions who say that the best college students are the ones who have had internships. That’s where they pick up the practical wisdom. So, if you go the college route, I’d strongly suggest looking for internships, paid or unpaid, between semesters and to start those as early as possible.

There are many ways into various industries that don’t include college. I already mentioned the farrier industry.  (A good, experienced farrier has a six figure income). There are many others that don’t include four-year schools. In some industries, college is not the norm. In others, college is only one way into the industry.

I encourage every young person to spend as much time as possible thinking about what they might want to do in the long run and to seek to learn about the jobs they even think they might be interested in, and then determine what course of study is needed. There are certainly professions where a college degree is an important pre-requisite. But, there are a lot of people who spend a lot of money on college degrees and have little to show for it. There are a lot of people who have very successful careers and a lot of useful knowledge who never went to college.

My daughter, Hope, has been a professional piano teacher since she was 14 and is a professional writer. She was offered a scholarship at a prominent music program, but chose instead to pay for some private “college level” instruction from a college professor and forego the four years of school. I think she has done quite well and is far better off with her own car, grand piano, a royalty stream, a flexible job that she can intensify or lighten from year to year depending on her other goals, and no debt. How many 22-year-olds can say that?

My son, Caleb, tried out a lot of things. He’s currently dual-enrolled and exploring either a business degree or fitness science degree along with a Criminal Justice certificate as he actively explores both law enforcement and the health and fitness industry. He’s not sure whether he’ll stop at an Associates degree or go on to a Bachelors, but he’s doing it while working at a gym and apprenticing with the local police department. I think both of them are choosing wise paths.

The “piece of paper” can be very valuable, but it is not the only valuable thing a person needs to move forward in life.

Lastly, and most importantly, we must guard and value our walk with the Lord.

SCM: Have homeschoolers been well suited to what you are trying to accomplish?

Ken: I am looking for people who are eager and respectful learners, who have already taken some initiative to learn some practical things and proven that they know how to work. I often find this in homeschoolers, but not all of them. My experience has been that I have a better chance of finding the right kind of person “fishing in the homeschooling pond” than “fishing in the world’s ocean,” but I’ve turned away more than one homeschooler who hasn’t been well-prepared in one way or another.

The biggest mistakes I often see in homeschooling is a mom who is too protective and hasn’t encouraged a son (or daughter) to take initiative himself, or the father who doesn’t know how to participate in raising up his children and just thinks it’s time to move on from living at home to college. They seem to have missed the “training up to maturity” that all parents are called to do.

SCM: What should a homeschool student be doing now in preparation if he or she wanted to get into software development?

Ken: Learn to program and learn to serve others through work. Learn about web technology. Learn about iPhones and Androids. There are many ways to get the basics through self-learning or I’d suggest taking an “Intro to Programming” course anywhere that you can have someone help you over the hurdles.

I gave a talk at the North Carolinians for Home Education conference last year titled, “Equipping Your Budding Technology Entrepreneur,” and added a blog post on my personal blog to provide some pointers for homeschoolers of all ages.

SCM: How should students interested in the academy get in touch?

Ken: Simply go to our website for more information. We’re taking applications through March 20 and plan to start our next Academy on June 1. We are currently only planning on offering the Academy every 1.5 years or so, so this will likely be the last one until December of 2016.

Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to share my story.