Renzoku is Victoria’s first tech apprenticeship-based school 

Chris Yue is the CEO of Renzoku Tech School.
Chris Yue, CEO of Renzoku Tech School. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

We’re in conversation with Chris Yue, CEO of Renzoku Tech School. The immersive one-year training program is deeply embedded in industry and, through a hands-on approach, aims to lower barriers of entry in the sector. With plans for three annual intakes and an immersive summer program, the school took in its first cohort of students in January. 

Why did you start Renzoku?

Victoria is known to have a shortage of tech talent. That’s where the idea for Renzoku came from — wanting to solve that issue for young people who might have a degree but not the right experience or those that would prefer to learn tech like a “trade” rather than an academic pursuit.

We’re hearing from businesses that are saying, ‘we really need to hire 10 people.’ But there aren’t 10 people because of this big drain on competent people — they’re being lured elsewhere for bigger salaries and other reasons. Or they get people that are coming through that are great in the classroom, but they don’t have enough in their portfolio or enough experience. Do you risk it from the company point of view?

Our program is geared to try to bridge those two things. 

Why do companies need talent?

Companies have always wanted to hire the best people. But with COVID, you no longer need to live in Silicon Valley and people started recruiting around the world. A lot of good developers that were in Victoria can now work in San Francisco without having to live in San Francisco. We lost a good number of people there.

What are the skills that companies are saying they need?

We’re hearing there is a big need for full stack or web developers. The other one is around sales and managing client bases. Victoria has some really great companies that are doing very well in the whole grand scheme of things — they’re competing globally. In the past, a successful startup in Victoria might have 25 or 30 people. Now the successful startups have upwards of 100. 

They’re wanting to bring people up, that are local, in terms of sales and developing client bases. That’s what Renzoku tries to do — we call business tech, which is the customer facing side of the business, and then the web development, which might be more than the development back side of things.

What is the tech training landscape like? What kind of competition are you up against?

More traditional tracks, like UVic or Camosun, can be a bit long for some people — two to four years. By the time they get experience, it’s another tech and another year on top of that. The other option is on the opposite end of that spectrum — three month boot camps. They’re great. They meet a need, particularly for people that are mid-career and only have three months or six months to devote to it. And so they’re learning in this intensive program. But it’s a lot of information to take in three months. 

We’re trying to bridge the gap that’s there. We just want to get as many people into tech as we can. Industry likes it. We’re of the deep belief that rising tide raises all boats. We don’t feel in competition with the boot camps or the traditional institutions, we think they’re great. They’re just not for everybody, just like we’re not for everybody.

And so the more we can find those people and give them opportunities to come into tech, I think it’s better for everybody.

Why is it called Renzoku?

It means continuous in Japanese, our hope would be that our apprentices would continue seamlessly from education into practice and vice versa. The idea was, they start with us, and at the end of one year, if we’ve done our job well, they work with the company. It’s just a natural progression, you don’t have to go and get a job. It’s partly a continuous learning, but also a continuum between Renzoku and the companies. 

How do you stay up to date?

Working really closely with the businesses is our key differentiation. We’re not academic or theoretical, it’s very applied and takes an apprenticeship-based approach. The school is sponsored by a number of local companies — right now, we’re working with five. We have to be careful to get the balance right, we can have too many companies and not enough apprentices. They sponsor the students and keep tuition down. These companies are working on the cutting edge and they have a lot of say into the kinds of technologies that we’re teaching. Our students will go on site and see those places.

How is the program structured? 

Class cohorts start in January, in May and September, and each cohort would have between six and eight students. Grading is competency-based. Every few months, I will sit down with the student and have a conversation with the curriculum lead to see if the student is keeping up with them too and to see if they are learning. Grading is done through an interview. We tried to replicate what a job would be like.

The work is around what they produce: How did they contribute to that project? Was the code any good? How were your teammates? How do they see you in your role? Were they contributing well on that team? it’s not necessarily just coding, but how they are doing all-round. 

We recognized that even one year can be intimidating for people. This summer, we’ll offer six week courses. They’re going to get the taste of the apprenticeship-approach and they’ll learn a specific skill in six weeks. It doesn’t have the same job focus that we might have in a one-year program, but they get a taste of it. And if they like it, they can join us for the year. 

How much time do students spend with the companies?

We designed the program for people assuming they don’t know anything when they start. For the first three months, it’s foundational — the alphabet of coding. The next three months are a little bit more contextualized, and the last six months are increasingly more directed towards a particular company or particular focus. 

In the first six months we’ll tour them through, they may see a staff meeting or something like that and we introduce them to a few people. But the last six months will be much more intensive than that. A number of the companies that are involved with us have said that they would love to come in around month nine of our program and meet our students.

There would hopefully be some kind of opportunity, even before they’re finished — as they get to month 10, 11 or 12 — to think ‘okay, I’m gonna be at Company X.’ 

I’m excited about that. 

We have a few students now who have done three months and our conversations as a team are about where we might see those people in terms of culture fit, and in terms of what aptitudes we’ve seen in them.

What are the benefits of the apprentice-based model?

When you’re learning a trade and you’re doing it as you go along, it’s a little less intimidating. We really want to lower the barrier of entry into tech. By not having academic prerequisites, we’re able to provide opportunities for different people.

Whether English is a second language; or it’s someone being very intentional around hiring; partnering with iWist and other organizations that bring women into STEM; making it accessible to non-binary, immigrants, refugees — because they’re learning as they’re doing.

And you don’t have to have that high level of English and prerequisites and you might have for a traditional institution. We love that aspect of it.

Who is interested in the program?

We’ve been through some of the high schools to show them that there is another option when you finish school. We have those people that are brand new graduates. We also have people that have finished a traditional program, like Camosun, and they come to us looking for a network and looking for more projects and specific skills. They don’t know how to showcase what they know.

We’ve also heard some people that are second career people and no longer want to be in that career. They’re seeing tech and saying, ‘oh, it’s really growing in the city. I want to be involved.’ But the thought of going back and sitting in a classroom at university is intimidating. Sitting in a classroom with six people is much less intimidating. 

What kind of response are you getting from high school students?

I have spoken to kids that are soon to graduate. In their minds, they think they’ve got to go to university, or get a job. It’s been fun to say to them, you can kind of have both, right? If you want to try this, give it a try. You don’t have to commit four years of your life. You can try it in six weeks or try it in a year. It’s been neat to see that light bulb turn on, where they feel like they can get an education, it’s practical.