Is a college degree the one sure path to career success?

My family always assumed I would go to college. For my first career, as an engineer, it was pretty much a given; when I moved from industry to consulting, it was a requirement for licensure. But with a down economy, rising costs, and the never-ending decline of campus social culture, parents are asking, “Isn’t there an alternative?”

In some careers, it may actually be better not to pursue the ivy-decked halls of higher education.

Recently I spoke with Ken Auer, one of the nation’s leaders in software development, about the idea of formal apprenticeships. Ken doesn’t see this as indentured servitude, like it was in the days of Johnny Tremain, but it’s a lot more intense than an after-school job, too. In his field, Ken said, the hands-on approach where students learn from masters of the craft is the best way to teach software development.

While the four-year college program is “a well-worn path,” he said, the emerging model of apprenticeship training is becoming “well-accepted in this industry.”

“It’s way better than a computer science degree,” Ken said.

One thing that makes this field so ripe for apprenticeship is the difference between learning facts and actually gaining experience, he said.

“Software is more like a trade than an academic discipline,” he explained. “You don’t experience ‘history,’ you learn it. You don’t have to do anything. A computer science program teaches the theory of how software works, like studying the history of architecture when what you want is to build a house.”

Ken has practiced this sort of training for many years. In fact, his company is named “Role Model Software,” to reflect the concept of disciples learning from a master teacher. It also reflects Ken’s Christian world view; he is an elder at his church, Southwest Wake Christian Assembly, which meets in nearby Raleigh, N.C.

“In the late 1980’s, I learned object-oriented software development by doing it,” Ken said, “and most talented people I met in the field did not have computer science degrees.” His first apprentice actually lived with a family where Ken worked for six months, and Ken was “amazed at the results” of the intense, one-on-one interaction and training that were possible. He trained “two or three dozen” developers in similar ways before starting RoleModel Software where he has trained several more.

To make this proven training method available to more students, Ken has created the RoleModel Software Craftsmanship Academy ( and is accepting applications for the first session this summer. SCA will offer the equivalent of 6 months of project-based training with Ken and his development staff; the latter half of that time will be working for actual customers, and graduates will continue into a twelve-month internship with RoleModel or another firm. Several screened companies have already committed to provide internships in anticipation of the SCA program and its expected results.

Ken speaks of the importance of having “an integrated lifestyle,” where each part works intentionally and harmoniously with all the others – career and family, spiritual and physical. It naturally leads to the training methods used by Christ with His disciples.

“You have to think about how your career choice will affect your family,” Ken said. “How will taking four years off for college affect your family?”


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