I use this blog to organize my thoughts about my professional work, with the intent of helping others organize their thoughts, if they find themselves in a similar position. While much of my work is related to writing code and connecting the technology dots, another large and growing part of my work is centered around technical and career mentorship.

This article will focus on the mentorship part of my life. First I’ll define what I believe the role of a mentor is in a technical setting (may be applicable to other industries). Second, I’ll attempt to impart some wisdom I’ve acquired during my years mentoring, with the hope that future mentors will have a fruitful experience with their mentees.

The role of a mentor

In my opinion the role of a mentor is to provide the following guidance - in order of importance:

  1. Challenge the mentee’s thought process without breaking their spirit or making them feel stupid for not considering the alternative points of view.
  2. Offer information recommendations (books and tutorials) and provide opportunities to learn new skills.
  3. Introduce them to other people that may help shape their career.
  4. Bring the mentee back from the metaphorical cliff’s edge just before they are about to jump (convince them not to quit).
  5. Ask subject relevant questions, that help the mentee consider 2nd and 3rd or effects of the choices they are making.

I hope those bullet points are self explanatory, but if they are not hopefully the rest of the article will offer more practical advice.

Don’t give them the answer

Beginner mentor’s often make the mistake of thinking they are a dictionary to be used as a way for mentees to lookup the answer to a specifc question. Don’t make the mistake of acting like a far inferior version of google or stack-exchange. First you will never keep pace with the vast knowledge the internet can provide, so don’t even try. Second, even if you had a photographic memory you would be doing your mentee a disservice by giving them the answer.

I firmly believe that giving someone the answer to the question is a form of intellecutal theft. Robbing someone of the pride and joy of struggling through, and ultimately solving a hard problem, is antithetical to your role as Mentor. Try as hard as you can to avoid this trap.

What you should do instead

Guide them towards the answer by asking them questions they didn’t think to ask.

For example a mentee may ask if it’s worth writing a unit test for a specific piece of code slated for a production release. You could respond by saying, “yes you always write unit tests, no exceptions”. The outcome is likely, that a test gets written and the mentee is slightly better at writing unit tests.

By telling them yes and giving them the answer, you have actually done them a slight disservice. Giving them the answer inhibits their ability to forge the neural pathway themselves by discoving the why on their own. If instead, you asked a question that explored what would happen if they didn’t write a test for the code, the mentee will typically convince themselves of the idea and cement the reasoning required to forge the idea into a habbit and eventual practice.

Not giving the answer, takes in immense amount of patience, from both parties. It’s important that both the mentor and the mentee understand the reasoning behind taking the long way around, to avoid frustration and resentment.

The movie inception is spot on, with this concept, in my opinion. It’s very hard to convince an individual of an idea. It’s often more effective to guide a person towards believing they had the idea all on their own.

Be less available

It’s tempting to think that always being their for your mentee at all hours of the day will provide them with the best, quickest path towards growth, and enlightenment. However, I’ve found this to be completely untrue in practice. If you are always available, you run a very high risk of creating a codependent mentee, where they are unable to complete work, without your input. This is unhealthy and ultimately won’t serve to enrich the career of either party.

What you should do instead

If the question being asked is simple, and your mentee is using you like a dictionary, I advise just ignoring them for a short period. An hour or so is usually sufficient, then follow up with them and ask if they still need help. If they still need help, guide them with pointed questions, and perhaps a link to some reference material you have handy.

If the question is non-trival and involves more thought, encourage them to schedule something for the “following day” on your calendar. This will give them time to think about questions they want to ask and ponder possible solution and literally, sleep on it. This process of sleeping on it, is really important. What often ends up happening is that, the next day meeting ends up taking the tone of an informed discussion, where the mentee is just verifying their already cohesive thoughts about the orignal question, rather than trying to answer the orignal question.

This process is valuable because it offers the mentor an opportunity to learn something from the mentee and vice versa. In general, discussion is greater than lecture, in the context of your relationship with your mentee.

Discuss your history

Mentor’s often have more domain experience than mentee’s. Openly discussing this experience can provide some great direction for self guided learning. For example, if you have extensive experience with a particular technology. Covering the pros and cons, and lesson’s learned while using that technology, can be incredibly valuable to help focus an individual’s selection, in books or academic courses that can enrich their learning.

Be careful to not to impose too much of your bias on a particular topic. Statements like, technology X doesn’t do this so don’t use it are less helpful than guiding mentee’s towards the technology that would likely be adaquate.

Adaquate is key here. There may be 5 ways to solve a problem where each one is better than the next. It’s not always important that your mentee jumps right to the best solution but that they implement something that solves their problem and then reflect on what they could have done better. As with so many things in life, learning is about the journey and not the destination as long as immediate requirements are satisfied. Be okay with imperfection, but not negligence.

Don’t let them quit

Assuming they have chosen their career path and are pursuing some goal. Don’t let them quit when the going gets tough. Ultimately much of success in this world comes down to grit. How many cycles folks are willing to put into solving the problem makes a big difference in reaching a successful outcome.

Help them achieve smaller wins instead

Try to reframe success in the form of a smaller problem. For example if your mentee says they would like to create a nuclear fusion reactor in the next year with zero prior knowledge of what’s involved, it’s your job to lay out some first steps that will lead them ultimately to conclude that their original plan was unrealistic and they lacked the skills, while still keeping them on a productive path. Instead you might suggest they take an elementary physics course and meet with some experts in the field.

Small wins will keep folks engaged and reduce the likelihood of a quitting and bring folks back from the brink of collapse.

Don’t mentor an unwilling participant

Forced mentorship rarely works. Several times, my mentees have decided I wasn’t the right person for helping them achieve their goals. Additionally, I’ve had to drop certain mentees because they weren’t keeping up their end of the bargain. Missed appointements and closed mindedness are usually the triggers. If the mentee can’t be present and is unwilling to engage in discussion with the mentor the relationship will not be fruitful and it should be terminated.

In addition to not being a good fit in the first place, If you do your job correctly, your mentee will eventually outgrow you. A mentor to mentee relationship may not be forever. Evaluating if the relationship is working every once in a while will help you figure out if it’s time for a change.

That’s all I have for now, I have to give a shout-out to my current employer Agero, while we don’t yet have an official mentorship program, I’ve found that if you’re a willing mentee there are a number folks in leadership positions that openly offer guidance and support. In the cut throat tech world this can be hard to find. If you are looking for a job at a company that supports continual improvement and learning for its workforce, I would encourage you to apply for an open position.

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