June 15, 2006

Sitting with Nellie

When I started work "sitting with Nellie" (which meant watching an experienced member of staff do a job, and eventually graduating through helping to doing it oneself) was a time-honoured way of learning to perform a task. Back in mediaeval times it could take five years or more to learn a trade by apprecticeship, but you were a fully trained master when you were finished. Apprenticeships fell out of fashion when companies wanted their staff to be more versatile (and hence more interchangeable), and their death was hastened by the rise of "the training industry" in the 1960s, (with an interest in the training revenues that formal training and its inevitable out-sourcing brought with it).

Apprenticeships may no longer be appropriate, but it's also undeniable that sitting with Nellie had certain advantages over formal training. From a personal standpoint the major advantage was the ability to soak up what I might grandly call the prevailing culture and ethos - to learn how the place worked by talking to people who had been around much longer. I well remember having some of my more naiive assumptions and suppositions being questioned hard by cynics whose cynicism was borne of experience (and sometimes occasioning much good-humoured amusement).

Interestingly, Jon Udell has recently observed that the open source world could use similar techniques to educate people about what was involved in developing software, and specifically the techniques and tools used by the open source world. This approach to an extent generalises (because the open source world is very diverse and so the tools of one project may not be appropriate for another), but the idea has a lot of merit. Ted Leung has further observed that children really don't have any effective way of finding out what they'd like to do, and that a "sitting with Nellie" approach could be helpful in this respect too. This rings true with my own experience. Google's Summer of Code project allows open source projects to offer some experience to students for a liimted period, but there's a lot more we could do.

Le plus ça change, le plus c'est la même chose, as they say in France. We need to realise that change isn't always a good thing and, even if a change once were good, it needn't necessarily be permanent. Perhaps when apprenticeships were discarded an important baby was thrown out with the bathwater of restrictive work practices. Let's see if we can't arrange to have would-be programmers spending some time sitting with Nellie.


Anonymous said...

mr. steve,

'timing is everything that isn't clocks' ...

i've been saying this for a while now, but up to this point had not been so acutely aware of it's essential truth.

belief can become faith and that same faith can go/be blind.

in the spirit of my sight-related analogy above...you are quite a spectacle.

i see said she,


Steve said...

If I knew what this meant I'm sure I could say something profound in response. Thank you for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve

I've been trying to trace the origins of the expression
Sitting with Nellie.

I came across it in several firms in the North of England (textiles, engineering, mainly) over a period of years.

Interesting to learn it's an expression used internationally.

Any suggestions will perhaps earn a footnote in some text or encyclopedia!

Best wishes

Steve said...

@tudor: Strangely enough my first job was as a trainee production engineer in a TV factory in Bradford - a North of England engineering environment if ever there was one. So it's probably not as widespread as you suspected.

You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy!