i should probably spend a few minutes outlining what i think mentoring is.
Mentoring is the long term sharing knowledge and experience with the goal of making life easier for the recipient.
If you’re only doing it once, you’re not mentoring. That’s a lecture.
If you’re not invested in the improvements of the folks you’re helping, you’re not mentoring. You’re preaching.
If you’re just pointing out flaws or trying to make someone change, that’s not mentoring. That’s coaching.
Mentoring is work. Being mentored is also work. For what it’s worth, i consider mentoring to be a bit holistic. If someone is struggling, it’s important to recognize why they might be struggling. Perhaps it’s a language or context issue (not everyone has the same background or experiences, so it might require doing some research to find the right way to express an idea so that it’s understood). Perhaps it’s a non-technical issue (perhaps they’re stressed about a personal issue. These can be tricky, and you should never delve into those uninvited, but letting someone know what you can do to help can be a huge relief).
When i mentor someone my goal is to make their life better. i teach technical approaches because i’m an engineer, but i also advise things about career growth, office politics, and other hard lessons i suffered through. The last thing i want is for anyone i’m mentoring to hit the same walls and fall into the same traps as i did. Likewise, i’m actually interested in their experiences and thoughts. Everyone has a different background and expertise. i want to learn about it because it’s different and there might be valuable things i can learn.
Honestly, if i’m not learning as much as i’m teaching, there’s a problem.
So, how does one set up a mentoring relationship?
A colleague pointed out that a good relationship starts with a mutual objective. So, a senior engineer would want to mentor a junior one if they’re both working on a given project. This makes good sense, purely from a practical point of view. The faster you can turn someone into a peer, the less work you have on your plate. Likewise, you now have someone you’re comfortable reviewing your code so you can work faster. If you’re afraid that someone is “going to steal your job”, you’re thinking too small. Instead, you’re building your own tiny army of folk that will support each other.
That’s actually a really important side benefit to good mentorship, the trust relationship you establish via mentorship can easily outlast your immediate employment. One of you might get a better job, or get laid off, or any number of other things. Maintaining that relationship means that you will have a personal network that will be looking out for each other, and possibly lining up folks for good jobs (and future hiring bonuses). Likewise, you’ll have third party folk that can give you honest answer to “Hey, so i’ve been asked to XYZ, and i’m not sure it’s a good idea.” It’s a lot easier to be ethical if you’re not as worried about having food and shelter.
It’s also worth noting that having a good mentor can sometimes help correct bad management. A manager may be temporary and a mentor may well outlive a managers role. To that end, a mentor may be able to guide an employee in ways that a manager never would. A mentor may point out other, better opportunities, which might mean that the mentee leaves their current team. A mentor may pass along crucial information that a manager may not feel is important, or may be damaging to the manager’s ego.
A good mentoring relationship may continue for quite some time, spanning teams, divisions, or even companies. Honestly, one of the most damaging things i’ve seen in tech is treating other company employees as “The Enemy”. Sorry, no, they’re not. You may be competing against them, and there may be good reasons to be guarded about speaking with them about your work, but in a week, you might be working with them or they with you. In sports a player may be traded from one team to the next. That never diminishes the athletic prowess of a given player, just what clothes he has to regularly wear.
Your employer will never love you back. However, you can still build lasting networks among the people you worked with. Mentoring can be part of that. Ideally, every one i mentor eventually grows into becoming a mentor themselves.
And that’s part of my Evil Plan on how to make the tech industry better.