March 14, 2019

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1 big thing: Training unlikely techies

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In several midsize cities across the U.S., unusual software teams are programming apps and websites. In past lives, these workers delivered pizzas and parcels, tended stores and taught in schools, or drove Ubers and forklifts.

Kaveh reports: They made the unlikely jump to tech by way of apprenticeships — free intensive training followed by jobs at the companies that taught them.

  • Why it matters: This train-and-hire model is a potential answer to a huge outstanding issue — how to get people whose jobs are likely to be automated into new, future-proof work that requires vastly different skills.

What's going on:

  • Catalyte, a Baltimore company, runs five-month training programs and hires graduates to work on software projects for clients like Nike and eBay, deploying them into its offices in Chicago, Denver, and Portland, Oregon, as well as Baltimore.
  • Techtonic, a software consulting company, runs three-month trainings in Boulder, Colorado, and hires graduates into six-month apprenticeships. Afterward, most stay on — Techtonic says it has kept on 80% of its 100-plus graduates — and some are later hired away by clients.

These companies are hunting for potential tech workers where most don't look: They advertise on Craigslist, on social media and in local workforce training centers, and they give the people they find aptitude tests.

Rather than programming know-how, they are screening for character.

  • "We don't care where you come from, or what degrees or certifications you have," says Techtonic CEO Heather Terenzio. The majority of Techtonic apprentices don't have technical backgrounds, she says.
  • Getting the answers right on Catalyte's online test matters little. Instead, the company is watching for test-taking behaviors — how long is spent answering a question, or even how many browser tabs are open — that hint at qualities like resourcefulness and perseverance.
  • No resume is required: As a result, Catalyte tells Axios, hiring bias is reduced. The firm's demographics are unusual for tech: In Baltimore, 26% of its employees are African-American, one in three did not attend college and the average age is 33.

The goal is to find "people who have largely been ignored, from pools that have largely been ignored by this digital economy," says Catalyte CEO Jacob Hsu.

Looking in uncommon places can be a shrewd move as companies struggle to find good hires from the usual sources, like universities.

  • "People who have traditional indicators that they have tech talent — an engineering degree or previous work experience in tech — those people are being snapped up really quickly," says AJ Tibando, executive director of Palette, a Toronto nonprofit that helps workers adapt to automation.
  • "Now it's about how we can look at people who are maybe a good fit, but don't fit the traditional profile or have those traditional indicators," Tibando says.

But, but, but: One enormous obstacle stands in the way of people hoping to slide sideways — or uphill — into a technology career: For some, the training and apprenticeship programs can be a serious, if temporary, financial strain.

  • Catalyte pays a small stipend during training, after which pay starts at $17 an hour.
  • But the company says that 39% of former apprentices make six-figure salaries after five years.

Bonus: Schoolteacher to software developer

Photo illustration: Alicia Waide/Axios Visuals

Alicia Waide was two decades out of college when she started thinking about a tech job.

Kaveh writes: She'd worked at Procter & Gamble for three years, then as a biology teacher in Baltimore high schools for another 16.

  • She often brought tech workers into her classroom to inspire students — and eventually fell under the spell herself. She was looking for a job that would let her spend more time with her family and pay better than teaching.
  • One speaker told her about Catalyte's online assessment. She took the test in late 2017 and was accepted.

Training was really hard. "It's unlike anything I'd ever done before," Waide tells Axios. She took an accelerated course: five days a week, seven hours a day, for 16 weeks.

  • She studied another two-plus hours a night, catching up to classmates with software backgrounds.
  • It proved a significant financial burden, too. "Basically, there's no salary for four or five months," Waide says. Without savings from her teaching career and support from her husband, it would’ve been impossible.

Waide graduated last year and is now approaching the halfway mark of her two-year apprenticeship.

  • Her salary is still low. "I'm making half of what I was making as a teacher," she says. But watching her colleagues, she's confident that will change after the apprenticeship.
  • She's on a project for a big-name consumer products company — she couldn't tell me which — creating a web application. She learned two programming languages during training, and she has picked up two more since.
  • Waide says that as an African-American woman over 35, she feels like a unicorn in the software industry. But at Catalyte, "I'm never reminded that I'm a unicorn."

"I didn't think there was a clear pathway for someone like me who's a mid-career changer," Waide tells Axios.


Yesterday's bonus item "Small cities, big companies" misstated the terms of Facebook's tax incentive package with New Mexico. The state issued $30 billion of industrial revenue bonds on behalf of Facebook, which will result in property tax breaks over 30 years.

2. Peak China

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty

China is beset by a trade war, pushback against its global infrastructure plans and allegations of industrial spying. Growth in factory production appears to be at its weakest in 24 years.

Parag Khanna, a Singapore-based global strategist, says that all of this may signal that, after years of forecasts of a Chinese juggernaut, we may have reached what he calls "peak China."

  • The 5G race: The highest-profile current global technological rivalry is in 5G, the coming step change in communications and connectivity. Huawei, the Chinese giant, is ahead both technologically and logistically. But the U.S. is pushing allies hard to block Huawei's system.
  • The U.S. is also pushing against Chinese espionage: In reports and presentations around the world, NSA and military officials are warning of a grave long-term threat by Chinese hacking.
  • Abroad, too, counter-balancing is going on: The EU, Japan and India have all launched cross-regional infrastructure initiatives meant to counter China's massive Belt and Road infrastructure system.

"China is experiencing in just three years of expansionism the kind of pushback it took 300 years to muster against some European empires," Khanna, author of "The Future is Asian," tells Axios.

  • China is fighting it: At a dinner in Washington, D.C., last night, hosted by Arizona State University, Slate and New America, Chen Futao, head of the science and technology section at the Chinese Embassy, argued against decoupling the U.S. and Chinese economies, a much-discussed idea in U.S. foreign policy circles.
  • Chen especially fought accusations that some Chinese students spy for Beijing and that Chinese companies steal technology for their products. "We believe our innovation is a result of our own research, not stealing," Chen said.

Go deeper: China’s formerly white-hot tech sector is in the doldrums

3. Knowing the future of work

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty

For the next eight weeks, some of the best-known minds in the study of the future of work will be appearing at MIT.

It's a free online course led by MIT's Thomas Kochan and Elisabeth Reynolds, and it will track technological history going back to the 19th century, income inequality, labor groups, automation, German manufacturing and more. In the final four weeks, students look at the social contract coming out of WWII and create a new one for the new age of automation, Kochan tells Axios.

  • Among speakers (appearing in videos made for the course) are tech historian David Mindell, roboticists Daniela Rus and Julie Shah, labor economist David Autor, and automation expert Erik Brynjolfsson.
  • Some 1,900 students from around the world are already signed up, Kochan said.
  • The median age of students this year is now 38, up from last year's 30, as more professionals sign up, he said.

The course starts next Tuesday. I myself am going to be taking it. Register here.

4. Worthy of your time

Tesla in space, 2018. Photo: SpaceX/Getty

How AI can write like a journalist (Janosch Delcker — Politico)

An interplanetary internet (Andrew Freedman — Axios)

Cog in an Amazon warehouse (Cameron Brady-Turner — Medium)

A defense of cosmopolitanism (Kwame Anthony Appiah — Foreign Affairs)

India's conquest of YouTube (Snigdha Poonam — FT)

5. 1 hotel thing: To robot or not to robot

Photo: Michel Renaudeau/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

Among some people, the talk is all robots, all the time. Not at Hilton Hotels. Matt Schuyler, Hilton's chief human resource officer, tells Axios that the chain is not contemplating robots to staff its front desks or to clean rooms — not now, and not in a decade either.

When it comes to cleaning, robots may get rooms somewhat scrubbed, "but I don't see in our lifetime robots cleaning rooms to the satisfaction of our guests," Schuyler says. It's a similar story with reception. "We want this to be a human experience."

  • In Japan, robots are having a mixed experience as they are introduced into hotels, reports WSJ. Robots are being created for the hospitality industry, but they don't appear to be quite ready for prime time yet.

Last month, Hilton came out on top of Fortune magazine's 100 best places to work list for 2019, a leap from last year, when it was ranked 33rd. Hilton has a global staff of more than 405,000, some 913,000 rooms in 5,600 hotels, and some 22,000 jobs openings.