Following on from our first article on National Apprenticeship Week, we turn our attention towards ex-Microsoft Apprentice and tech entrepreneur Joshua Uwadiae whose education and career has been unconventional to say the least. Of all the case studies I was working on, Joshua’s story was one that immediately grabbed my attention. From being arrested and expelled from school, to receiving the Microsoft Apprentice of the Year award at the Houses of Parliament and starting up his own company WeGym in his early twenties. To find out more about Joshua’s inspiring story, I spoke to him about his experience on the Microsoft Apprenticeship Programme and how his company is now looking to give back the same opportunity that he was given.
Tell me about your company and your role?
I’m the CEO and founder of a start-up company called WeGym, where we make fitness and personal training more accessible, fun and affordable – you can train with a friend so you’re splitting the cost and sharing the experience. With technology as our driver, we hand pick the best personal trainers, fitness professionals and studios to help you do more.
Why did you take part in the Microsoft Apprenticeship programme?
When I was 15 I was expelled from school and I was always getting into trouble, but I always had an interest in technology and IT because I was handy with computers – when I was a kid I would always fix the Wi-Fi, modem and internet at home, so I was comfortable with it.
After school, I joined a three-year course at college. I got about a year in to my BTEC Level 2 – which I got a distinction in – and I was working towards my Level 3, but I just found it really…boring. And I didn’t feel I was learning anything and that bothered me a little bit, because it didn’t mean anything.
I already knew in my mind knew that University wasn’t for me and I was more driven by the desire of wanting to go out and work. I wanted to go out and get a job – start making money and start my life – and I didn’t think that three more years of education was part of getting on with my life.
Then I just happened to see a poster on the wall at my college about the Microsoft Apprenticeship Programme and it looked perfect for me; a real job, I could earn money, I could learn skills that were internationally recognised and from a globally recognised company like Microsoft. I decided to drop out of college and do the apprenticeship, much to the dismay of a few career advisors and my Mum who said: “You don’t finish anything!”. But I wanted to do what was right for me.
What drew me to it was that I could earn while I learnt and start my career there and then. I didn’t see the benefit of going to University for a technology job – those skills are learned and not taught.
Was that the main reason why you didn’t go to Uni?
Honestly, I was just a bit sick of education and I wanted to work; I wanted a job and to start my career. I just didn’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of going to University – three years to me felt like a waste of time where an apprenticeship would let me do what I wanted to do immediately. The tip of the iceberg for me was when I worked at The Olympics in the IT team after college and I got to work with an IT Director for three months, who said to me: “you can either have a half-full experience or a qualification”. So, in my mind, everything was telling me to go and work.
Was an apprenticeship something you always wanted to do when you finished school?
To be honest, I didn’t even know what an apprenticeship was! Traditionally, no-one at school told you about it so it was never an option for me. Even at college where perhaps, 2-3 years on from school, nobody ever told me about an apprenticeship and if it wasn’t for the good grace of the poster I saw at college then I would be in a wildly different place in my life! I really do think that doing an apprenticeship was a really big, positive catalyst for a lot of my life events.
From a business point of view, an apprentice is great for a few reasons – you get access to someone who is extremely talented who you can invest in and who can grow with your business.
How did the Microsoft Apprenticeship programme prepare you for the workplace?
The Microsoft Apprenticeship, delivered through QA Apprenticeships, put me in the work place. For me, it was my first real job. It was great for me because I was an apprentice at a small company with about 80-100 people, which allowed me to do work that was relevant, and I was a contributor to the team. But the sweetness of it, was that as an apprentice, I could make mistakes.
The Microsoft Partners are happy to help you learn, teach you and invest in you. And they appreciate you’re a junior because you’re there to learn so you’re given the grace to make mistakes and learn from it – and I did some real dumb s***!
What are the three most valuable skills you gained from your Microsoft Apprenticeship?
It made me hungry to learn. It made me want to improve and learn more, because I would learn stuff in the classroom and then do it! The problem I have with theory learning is that you’re forever learning and never doing, so you never get the full cycle or the feedback from the thing you’re learning. If I’m learning how to improve the security of a network – but not practising it, I’m not using that skill in a practical way that’s tangible. So therefore, you miss out on some gratification, which ultimately, stimulates you to want more.
It also built my confidence. You’re given a safe place to learn, which gave me confidence. It was amazing being able to contribute ideas too, despite being an apprentice. And you learn to deliver. I got the chance to be involved in company-wide projects and that gave me the chance to build my confidence even more – I was given real responsibility.
What is the most exciting thing you’ve done in your career so far?
That’s a good question! There’s been a lot of exciting things… I guess there’s two things so I’m going to give you two…I’m going to break the rules, I’m sorry! (laughs) Always rebel, that’s what they say!
The first one is when I went to Seattle with Microsoft this year to tell the story of my apprenticeship, which was super exciting for me. I’d never been to America! I got to go to the Microsoft HQ and I was like a kid in a candy shop! Super buzzing, I was out of my mind, I was so gassed! It was so amazing! This was an amazing experience and helped build my confidence further.
Secondly, and equal to that, was winning the Microsoft Apprenticeship of The Year Award at the Houses of Parliament when I was on my apprenticeship. My boss nominated me. This put everything into context – I had just turned 19 and I was invited to the awards ceremony at The House of Commons for an award – two years before that, I was running around with street gangs and in such a different place.
When they called my name, I was like “what??” (laughs) and that moment for me just changed my life forever. That for me was probably the most exhilarating moment in my life. It is just insanely memorable because I just always remember the place I was in. I had come from a chaotic world where I could only see a future of moving up in the gang’s hierarchy, to this. Everything that’s happened in the apprenticeship taught me I can become something. The potential is endless.
From a business point of view, what benefits do apprentices bring to a company?
We’re looking to hire apprentices at WeGym now, so from a business point of view, an apprentice is great for a few reasons. You get access to someone who is extremely talented who you can invest in and who can grow with your business. From my perspective, you want someone with a load of energy, who is passionate and who has a good attitude and who wants to work. Traditionally with apprenticeships it suits someone who likes to go against the grain – it’s not really the traditional path and I think that forges somebody who clearly wants it and has chosen to do this. That’s literally all you need in a start-up job – someone who has energy and interest, and then you can invest in them in the next 3-4 years – if you manage to keep them. And I think that’s how you build a good workforce, you get people who see the world a little bit differently.
Secondly, for me, I want to hire an apprentice because I was an apprentice and for me there is a romantic story in my head about it.
What skills do you look for when hiring apprentices at your own company?
It’s all aptitude and attitude. I don’t expect you to have any skills…
Do you expect them to have any grades from school or college?
For me, it doesn’t matter. I am the world’s biggest drop out! But I am going to look at why you dropped out – this isn’t a charity and I’m not Mother Theresa. I do want people who are good but I’m not CV sensitive, I’m not going to scoff at someone who’s never had a job. It’s more about what you’ve done and anything that is going to stand out.
If you’re making videos on YouTube, or you like tech so you started coding, or you want to be a journalist and you took part in a magazine whilst at school, or maybe you earned a buck by selling chocolate bars at school. I’m going to look at you as a person and ask, ‘what have you done?’ as opposed to saying, ‘what does this academic measure say about you?’ – because we’re not a data intelligence, PHD driven company – we’re a technology-based company and the people that we’re interested in are people that are exciting!
Predominantly though, grades hold as much importance as they do to the person – I’m mainly interested in attitude and aptitude – that’s the ball game. I just want somebody who is hungry to learn, somebody who wants this and is looking to make a career for themselves. If you give it your best and you’re asking questions and trying, then you will be a great apprentice.
Can you share three top tips for others considering an apprenticeship?
My number one tip is to weigh out the pros and the cons. It’s about evaluating what you want to do with an end goal in mind. If you want to be a Doctor, you can’t do an apprenticeship. If you want to be an Accountant, there is an apprenticeship route for you. If you want to be a technologist, then there is an apprenticeship for you.
I think it’s about identifying what you want your first job could be and then realising what route you want to take. Do you want to take the direct route – get a job and work in the industry for a year and learn the ins and outs and not pay the Uni fees? Or do you want to invest in yourself, learn for three years, then compete to get a job, and potentially have a deep theory about the subject but not necessarily practical understanding?
Do you want to learn through theory and practice or do you want to get a qualification? I would also ask myself “do I need to go to University to get there?” Because I think we’re often told that we ‘have to go to Uni’, and we’re encouraged and sold the story that we have to go to Uni and it’s not an option that we don’t. But a degree can be done any time, it isn’t going anywhere.
It’s always an incredible opportunity for a writer to talk about a personal success story and Joshua’s is as motivating as it is interesting. Joshua really is proof that even if education and academia aren’t your strongest points then there are still plenty of opportunities to make a success out of yourself. If ever any proof was needed about the importance of young people considering an apprentice to better themselves, then this is it!
To find out more about the Microsoft Apprentice Programme, see more about the variety of roles and opportunities on offer, and to apply for the apprenticeship, click here!
Microsoft has a longstanding commitment to increase the relevance and uptake of apprenticeships in the digital tech sector. The company announced in 2017 that it wanted to create 30,000 more apprentice starts in its Partner and Customer business by the end of 2020.
Microsoft’s Apprenticeship programme aims to give promising, motivated young people a vital first step in their digital technology careers, combining hands-on learning with qualification-led training, to give you a kick start to your career.
Digital apprenticeships are not just for those who are looking to pursue a technical career – we also have a range of roles available across sales, marketing and business, so if you’re looking for an alternative to university, where you can earn whilst you learn, then an apprenticeship could be the right path for you.