From ordering food and buying cars to advocating for women’s economic status and diagnosing genetic disorders, 8th Light’s team of developers, designers and technologists is helping organizations craft experiences with real-world consequences.
The Chicago-founded company targets a wide range of software projects, and its team offers equally diverse perspectives in the quest to craft quality solutions.
Instead of favoring fresh computer science graduates, 8th Light leans into the drive and strength of the career-changers and self-starters. As evidenced through its comprehensive apprenticeship program, attitude and aptitude can be as valuable as formal education.
As evidenced through 8th Light’s comprehensive apprenticeship program, attitude and aptitude can be as valuable as formal education.
Over 17 years, the company’s people-centered approach, hiring practices and emphasis on long-term education shine bright. And its emphasis on non-traditional backgrounds is a feature, not a bug.
Before Founder and President Paul Pagel started 8th Light, he worked at a training organization that helped teach engineers test-driven development and object-oriented programming.
He and his mentor encountered a repeated piece of feedback: “This didn’t land in my team — I can’t write a test if the next person breaks it.”
When a tactic doesn’t produce the desired results, it’s time to pivot. And that’s precisely what Pagel and his mentor did.
“Instead of persuading and trying to convince people that a series of practices and processes get us there, we should teach them and then build it together,” Pagel explained.
Starting as an apprentice, Pagel had little experience and a limited vision for the future. But he and his mentor quickly saw how practical demonstration and experience fulfilled whatever the cohort lacked in preexisting know-how.
Likewise, this experience exposed an unrealized opportunity. Through the apprenticeship program, “it was clear that we were doing something that others weren’t,” said Pagel.
“Investment in education, teaching people how to do things right from the beginning, moving slowly and caring about quality — these things were going to beat the ‘move fast and break things’ culture and ethos in the software community,” he explained.
“Teaching people how to do things right, moving slowly and caring about quality — these things were going to beat the ‘move fast and break things’ ethos.”
What has happened since is the lifeblood that sustains 8th Light.
“There hasn’t been a single founder personality that drove this growth; it’s a group of people who have passionately produced who we are today,” Pagel noted.
Watching apprentices with diverse professional experiences transform into company leaders “has pushed and driven 8th Light forward.”
Pagel traced 8th Light’s path from its initial spark to the wildfire it is today — and what the future holds for its team.
What did the early days look like, and how did you support the company’s growth?
My mentor and I went out to find people who believed in this form of budging software and were able to hire a bunch of people. We realized most of the top talent coming from the best universities in the midwest were going to the coasts — to Google or Boston for biotech — and we struggled for talent.
The answer to that was creating the apprenticeship program, which was the same thing I had done in the past in my apprenticeship. That enabled our talent development to allow for unconventional pasts to enter software. We were able to look at a broader base of potential talent.
Over time, we gained so many career-changers, people who could use their history of leadership elsewhere and focus on education.
What are the key lessons 8th Light has taught you?
When we hired the first five employees, we were trying to prove that software craft mattered. We worked long hours in the same room to try to impress our clients and create a baseline for success. It’s been really fun to watch how the concepts of craft software and strong quality practices have grown beyond our early personal contributions.
Now, watching the organization take that value we create to implement at other organizations has given us longevity as a company in a way I believe can continue onward. We’ve grown because of the people we work with and the way we hire and teach. We look at talent acquisition and community building as long-term investments for a market opportunity.
“One thing that’s been part of 8th Light from the beginning is taking a long view of people and skill sets.”
The world of software consulting moves fast for two reasons. The tech community itself moves fast. With consulting, you’re constantly in and out of organizations trying to find what’s wrong, why something didn’t work or what the opportunity for development is.
That place of continual learning, improvement and knowledge-sharing is such a fun space to be — while holding on to your fundamentals and values underneath it all.
One thing that’s been part of 8th Light from the beginning is the long timeframe: taking a long view of people and skill sets. We’ve never planned for one-year exits with our cohorts or fundraising to get to the next one. We’ve been able to continuously take a long-term view as any new tensions or opportunities arise.