A little story

I enjoyed an impecunious year mostly in Bergen, on the West coast of Norway, mostly 1995. Among the many delightful folk I met there were three journeyman carpenters I met, who'd come from Germany and Switzerland. They had done their apprenticeships with the guild in their home cities: after apprenticeship comes the journey. For three years each is forbidden to come within 50 kilometers of his home city: in the mean time, he earns his living by practicing the craft in the places to which his journey takes him.

The journeyman carries a book - it is a sort of guild passport, in effect. It opens with a message from the guild to the journeyman's potential employer and includes a map of the area from which the journeyman is excluded. The journeyman's employer is exhorted to add an entry in the book: give an account of the journeyman's work. When the journeyman returns to his guild, the craftsmen read the book and decide whether to accept their erstwhile student as their peer.

I am glad those three young men were continuing the tradition. It means the old guilds really have survived down the years far enough to touch our present - in which hackers are discovering the virtues of a very similar approach. I believe there is much room for learning from the surviving guilds: their history will contain plenty of lessons for those pursuing more modern crafts.

Guilds: employment, training and trust

Consider any activity that produces something that someone is going to use, typically for some time - long enough that the worker who produced it is not prepared to let payment wait until the purchaser knows that the work really was good. Suppose that doing it well takes skill, application and experience. Folk who recognise they can't do it well, but need it done well, will turn to someone they think will do it well: who may reasonably ask for a pay-back of some kind.

Some folk, of course, are mistaken about whether they can do the job well - and one can never be sure who might lie on the subject. (This is true for errors in either direction.) The fact that folk will pay someone to do the job gives scope for someone who can't do it well to get paid for doing the job, if the customer doesn't realise the job wasn't done well until the money's changed hands. Folk consequently want someone whose judgement they can trust, both before hiring someone and as referee if they have doubts about how well a job has been done. The incompetent needs to be taught that he really hasn't done the job well, and folk want the charlatan exposed - quite apart from all the issues of gaining refunds and redress for wrongs.

Furthermore, the best one can realistically offer before embarking on a piece of work may be an assessment of what one'll probably be able to achieve, along with an account of where the risks arise. In such a case, the notion of doing the job well includes making faithful predictions - where faithful must somehow express the idea that reality falls within the range of the estimates, but really does sometimes come close to the edges (that is, the estimates are no more vague than reality forces - unless greater precision is possible than is useful).

The trusted third party is needed all the more: when things go awry, arguably within the scope of the warnings given beforehand, the customer needs to know whether this is due to misfortune, ineptness or fraud - if only because, in the first case only, paying the worker to make things good, on top of what's already paid for doing that first attempt, may actually be a reasonable way forward; while, at least in the third case, the customer has been harmed by the fraudster, compensation may reasonably be expected, and let the fraudster beware his neighbour's wish for retribution.

Guilds provided such trusted parties by restricting membership to those respected in the craft after showing their competence to their teachers and subsequent employers. Each craftsman then serves as trusted witness to potential customers of his possible peers. The guild also serves to advise legislators, and their electors, on issues relating to its craft. A guild also provides a framework for training - the apprentice's folk might have to pay a significant sum to the craftsman, to cover food and lodging as much as training, and the apprentice may be bound in service to that master for a fair time, but when that time is up the journey can begin that will turn the apprentice into a free and respected practitioner of the craft. So long as the craft earns well enough, it can more than repay the initial investment.

Naturally there are ways for the process to go horribly wrong, the guild becoming a cartel under another name, or falling into disrepute. Both the respected practitioners and their potential customers will look for ways to arrange that such does not happen: but no amount of civil law, guild constitution or institutional regulation can ever guarantee security from such error. The only sure guard against such failure is a culture of honest skilled work and straightforward decency in business.

The modern world employs many folk as skilled practitioners of crafts outside the remit of any guild - eg hackers. In practice, all the same needs arise: there is only so much one can learn without experience of practicing the craft, and one's work while gaining that experience is worth far less to an employer than the work of someone with the experience; knowing whose work to trust can be hard to judge, yet such knowledge is wanted when planning projects. Practitioners start out, possibly with a good education, as novices in the craft; with diligence and a few kindred virtues, some develop a talent for the craft; of these some gain the respect of the generality of practitioners. It bodes well for a craft when the generality of practitioners attend well to the opinions of those they most respect in choosing who to respect.

In practice, then, we get a structure (possibly informal) for which the guild is a handy model. Apprentices are novices in the craft; some may indeed train themselves; most, in their training, will learn from the work of other practitioners (both those they'll thereby learn to respect, and those whose (often clever) errors, once recognised as such, teach lessons). Those who get good enough can fairly earn a living thereby - though plenty get this good, and even go on to master a craft, without ever being paid as practitioners of that craft - and may sensibly be viewed as journeymen of the craft. While the journey is no longer obliged to be a physical one, all who have passed beyond the ranks of apprenticeship (and many who have yet to do so) can make sense of the journey as a metaphor for how skill in the craft matures. Though that journey never ends, the good journeyman comes, in time, to be recognised by the elders of the craft as their peer: truly, a craftsman.

This model works well, in my opinion, for hacker culture: but less so for the world of employment. Still, in that frame, it has its echoes and can help in seeing what's going on.

Employers of practitioners of such crafts rely on interviews, career histories and the judgement of a potential employee's previous employers or, to some degree, educators. A student's first employer bears, in practice, some cost from training the student: which may be offset against the student's initially low pay (relative to trained practitioners) and the good work the student will need to have done (at that cheap rate) to justify pay-parity with the trained practitioners. That investment is always a chancy thing - the student may never get good enough to be worth employing, or may leave to work elsewhere after the training but before the pay-back.

Against the latter, however, notice that the trainee is probably shy of using current employer (who I'll refer to as you for brevity) as reference - and hasn't demonstrated competence yet such as to give you reason to commend in any case. Thus the second job is (at least initially) sought on the strength of educators' opinions, which are what got the first job, so no huge leap in salary can be expected - and the second employer hasn't seen your trainee's competence to date, as you have, so probably won't give full pay as soon as you would, especially given the delay of learning a new working context - until you've recognised your trainee as deserving full pay.

So, where the apprentice was bound in service to a master, now the student is free to move in principle, but wise to persist in a job long enough to be a net win to that first employer - if only so as to be able to count on a good reference when hunting the third job in the student's career. The freedom may be needed simply to find a competent enough employer to make the grade and move up to journeyman pay rather than apprentice: but that employer, once this status is granted, will look far more promising in the new journeyman's eyes than others where ill-trained colleagues must be endured.

Written by Eddy.