I climbed the hill into town one morning on the way to pay some bills. The phone rang. I opened the phone: it was my colleague, Mike.   He shouted, “We won!” By factoring in an apprentice, Mike won a business project. I stopped. I stepped off the sidewalk to a bench at the county courthouse. What have I done? I needed to sit a moment and think about this.

Mike was telling me that the win meant a software project would stay in the U.S.   He beat the price of domestic competitors and of the foreign software shop.   He beat the price by factoring in an apprentice, Cliff, 20, of no software experience but a young man known to be of good character and sharp. Mike took a risk. Now he would have to perform.   He was ready to do the work himself if need be, but we both expected Cliff would step up and get the job done.

The client was in the used machinery business.   He buys and sells used factory equipment worldwide and needed to automate their paperbound system of managing the inventory. There was database work to be done and a website needed for customers and a website for the sales force. The peculiar terms and practices of the used machinery business would require some simple customizations of the standard software.   The manual workflow from loading photos of the used machines to adding the descriptions and approving prices and annotating the successful sales all needed to be derived from the users’ expectations and written into the software.

Here is how Mike won the project even though he was competing with very low-cost software developers overseas.   Cliff wanted to get some experience with website development because he thought that it was a skill that would be very useful no matter what direction he ultimately took. He loves to speak and wanted to add web media to his communications skills. So Mike offered $10 per hour for part of Cliff’s time, planning to need ten to fifteen hours per week. In addition, Mike set aside $6 per hour for Cliff’s education fund.   We are not equipped to teach everything, so we allocate money to pay for educational resources for Cliff, be they books, online courses, or mentoring that he will need. We allocated this fund to three categories: technical, business and worldview.   So for every ten hours Cliff worked, he accrued $20 in each of these three areas.   Mike would direct how some of this was spent, and they would mutually agree on how to spend the rest. On top of this, Mike planned $2 per hour for overhead expenses and $2 per hour profit. Therefore, the loaded rate for Cliff as Mike billed the client was $20 per hour, with half that going to Cliff directly, and 80% going to Cliff directly and indirectly when the educational component was considered.   Lastly, for every eight to ten hours of Cliff’s time, Mike would also bill the client one hour at Mike’s own professional services rate. This was for Mike’s supervision. In the aggregate, the client paid $29.44 per hour for the services that were delivered.

What was the benefit to the client? This $29.44 figure was less than half of what the client would have had to pay for conventional, local software providers and was competitive with overseas suppliers for small to medium software projects. The client got Cliff’s energy and intelligence combined with Mike’s seasoned judgment. He got the responsiveness of having two individuals working on and paying attention to his project. And he got Mike and me keeping a close eye on Cliff, making sure any mistakes made were quickly detected and fixed.

As for the benefit to the apprentice, Cliff got compensation for his time and he got experience on a real project for real stakes that was important to the client’s ongoing business operation.   Cliff’s mistakes could cost someone some money. His good and timely work could generate more profit for the client.

Cliff got Mike’s technical guidance. With the revenue that was earmarked for education, Mike bought books for Cliff on database and website design. Mike matched up the sequence of design work with the list of chapters for Cliff to tackle. Mike and I both offered Cliff insight and guidance on the business aspects. We did this by having Cliff in on our discussions of the client’s objectives and interest. Cliff got to observe how we explained our work to the client. A client always wonders if software developers will really help his operation. We showed Cliff how our very methodology of Build – Operate – Transfer was designed to assure the client he would get what he needed. The client would not be left holding the bag. This meant that Cliff built the software and then he operated it for months, updating used equipment records and loading and annotating photographs. That way he was involved in working out the bugs while the software began to improve the client’s sales. Then we transferred the operation to the client’s employees, teaching them how to run the system.   Cliff developed the teaching materials that we handed over at the conclusion of the project.

That morning when Mike called me with the news of winning this project, we did not know how it would turn out. I sat down on the park bench to think. Mike and I had talked about apprenticeships for years.   We thought through how the business could be arranged and the money programmed to provide for the educational resources. And we brainstormed how we might balance the benefits and responsibilities among client, business owner, apprentice and the community of mentors. Yet, to learn that by applying this concept to a concrete business opportunity, Mike won a deal on the merits – – well, that was like an earthquake under my feet. I want you to know the story of Cliff so you can duplicate the method and make it better.

The project did play out as described over the next six months.

No doubt, the success of this project was a tribute to the excellence of Cliff. I intend to bias apprenticeship experiments with the best, most motivated individuals I can find. Will these equations work for you? How about this method of collecting business, technical and worldview mentors around the apprentice?  You have important work to do. The work needs to get done. Under what conditions will you step up and take on an apprentice?