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:: So Long, Twitter

Right, just so this is official and trackable.

i’m no longer on Twitter.

i closed my account tonight and will have nothing more to do with that site.

i’m on Mastodon, currently. You can check my network page for how to reach me, or just go to https://jrconlin.com/mastodon

Hey Elon, i’d tell you to turn the lights off before you leave, but that might require you getting someone to tell you how they work.My recently closed and now very dead twitter account

:: What is Mentoring?

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.

:: Mentoring Sucks

Tech people: Mentoring sucks, it’s sucked for a while, and will probably continue to suck.

First off, let me start with a little story.

i generally start my day early. Back when offices were a thing, i’d often show up early enough that the folk who keep things running would still be there. One morning i’m working away while someone was on a ladder repairing an air-conditioning duct. He’s up there a while, comes down, and walks away. A few minutes later, he comes back with someone who is definitely his senior. Senior goes up the ladder checks a few things and comes down. Senior tells Junior that he did a good job, but there was one tricky thing that he missed, then explained what it was. Junior starts peppering Senior with all sorts of questions like “how do you check for that?” and “is there a tool or technique i can use to spot for that in the future?”. The back and forth go on for a while, before Junior and Senior collect the tools and head off.

Why, yes, that should sound familiar. Basically it was the HVAC equivalent of a code review. It wasn’t judgemental. Nobody yelled or complained. It was clear, focused and deliberate because it was something that industry has built in for decades. Heck, you could argue that it’s something that the other trade industries have had for centuries. It’s also something that Tech just recently figured out was a good idea, and we are still generally terrible at it.

In my professional life of close to 35 years i think i’ve only really had one real mentor. Everywhere else i went through the usual horrible interview process, balanced a binary tree moving at some fraction of the speed of light on a whiteboard, got hired, and was then left to either sink or swim. That’s an absolutely terrible work environment. It’s like being proud of the fact that you work in squalor and know just how to sleep so the rats don’t bite anything critical. i’ve not had a whole lot of great mentoring role models to pick from. Chances are, neither have you.

Granted, i have a theory about that. Companies don’t care. Think about how many engineering managers you know that got to that position because they’d either been around longer than most or because the company was hoping that they would some how magically make mini versions of themselves. Then, either the new manager burns out and leaves, or the people under them burn out and leave. The company doesn’t care because they’ll just repeat the cycle and back-fill with (preferably) cheaper folk. (i also have a theory that companies love Imposter Syndrome because it’s a lovely boat anchor that makes you put up with crap you wouldn’t otherwise, but i’ll leave that for another screed.)

And we engineers put up with it because we have no idea how to change it or that things could be better. Surprise! You can change it. Things could be better.

Your boss doesn’t have to be your mentor. Honestly, your boss probably shouldn’t be your mentor. They sign your paycheck and are judged on your performance. They have a bias and it’s probably not in your favor.

A good mentor not only provides good technical insight, but also improves you, the holistic you. Hell, it’s why i’m writing this up. If you’re a better person, i don’t have to clean up the damage you did to the person i hire which lets me spend more time on things that matter, like making that new hire more effective and productive so that we can get more done. Likewise, i can start learning new things from that person since mentoring is a two way thing.

Awesome! So what’s the solution? Hell if i know.

i just told you that i’m a product of terrible or non-existent mentoring. i have spent the past year or so trying to work out what might work. i plan on sharing what works and what doesn’t here because this is also my mental dumping ground.

i will say that not everyone is cut out to be a mentor, but that just means that you’re missing a required skill. Senior+ devs need to be mentoring younger devs. This means having regular discussions with them where your compassionate and empathetic. You were also dumb and ignorant, so it’s not their fault. If you struggled with something, it’s not a badge of honor, it’s a system failure. Fix it. Part of your job is making junior devs into peers. If you’re not doing that, you’re a crap engineer. You’re basically a glorified calculator and can be replaced just as easily.

But, yeah, if y’all have ideas, the comments are open.

:: Voice of Authority

i have a cheat code in video meetings (well, honestly, any meeting, but definitely true in video meetings).

First off, a bit of neuroscience. You have a bias, and it’s a weird, kinda silly one. It’s called Enclothed Cognition, and basically it works out to how you present yourself can lead to changes in how much authority people give you. (i liked to a fun podcast episode about it and i do encourage you to listen to it.) Basically, if i give you a white linen jacket to wear and refer to it as medical garb, most people will lend you more credibility than if i had you wear the same jacket and presented it as an artist’s smock.

To that end, i tend to wear button down oxford style shirts when i have my camera on, but i’ve discovered it’s more than that. i also wear a wired headset with a surprisingly good microphone, that i run through a noise suppressor so that my voice quality is very clean. i also balance my mic levels and have recorded and listened to my own voice enough to have even pacing, clear enunciation and diction that can be understood by non-native speakers. i try my best to look, act, and sound professional. In short, i’ve developed a Voice of Authority.

It’s an absolutely horrible hack. It’s why newscasters all sound the same. It’s a skill that a lot of folk might recognize as “code switching“, and i’m doing it.

Why do i do it? Well, for one, folk often cede control of the meeting to me, which lets me set agenda and make sure that folks are heard and present their ideas.

  1. i can do things like when folk are doing introductions, i can start, and then hand off to someone so that folks aren’t wondering if they should say something.
  2. i can keep a list of folk who’ve not said anything in the meeting and make sure that they get an opportunity to speak.
  3. i can keep folk on topic so that we’re not wasting time.
  4. And most importantly, i can ensure that the goal of the meeting is addressed so that we can stop having the meeting and i can go back to blissful quiet.

(Hey, fellow introverts! Hate meetings? Want them over faster? Gain control quickly so you can do exactly that.)

Granted, i don’t always do that. i’m more than happy to let someone more qualified or needed to run a meeting. If i think that someone is struggling or feeling overwhelmed, i’ll send them a note via a back channel and ask if they want help, and then make damn sure to defer to them as much as possible. They’re still in charge, i’m just there to keep things on track as long as they need me.

i honestly suggest that you try doing it yourself. Wear a headset with a boom mic instead of using your computer’s crappy built-in microphone. Consider getting foam wind screens to cut down on breathing noises. Use noise filters to limit outside sounds. Record and then listen to yourself. Pretend you got hired by NPR to read the news or give a report about soy futures. Listening requires effort, and folk can tire quickly if they have to struggle to understand you. Even if English is not your first language, getting a quality audio setup can make a HUGE difference. Also, don’t try to sound like an American from the Mid Atlantic region. Speak slowly, clearly, and with authority and no matter what your dialect, you’ll command attention.

And now, let’s go to Bob with the Sky-13 traffic…

(Sorry, habit.)

:: WIS vs. INT vs. CLV

(Apparently, i’ve never blogged about this, which is weird.)

Back in my youth, i used to play D&D. Mind you this was in the Version 2/3 days of “let’s make a fantasy role playing game for accountants!” era of D&D with thick tomes about fall damage and portage tables, but the other bits were fun.

As anyone who’s played will tell you, your character has a bunch of stats that are core. Two of these are a source of near endless confusion for many, Intelligence (INT) and Wisdom (WIS). Most folks can guess what INT is good for, but know that WIS has more to do with spell casting than anything else.

i view them a bit differently. To me, intelligence and wisdom are complementary. Intelligence generally allows you to understand complex math or literature, or scientific principles like quantum physics, where wisdom lets you understand why you don’t hand your wallet to strangers or why you take blind curves wide.

Oddly, i’ve met a lot of folks that tend to score high on one of these and not the other, and that’s generally fine. You can be highly intelligent and still struggle to open doors from time to time. You can be exceptionally wise and not understand how airplanes work.

i am starting to wonder if there might be a new category that i’ve missed. i’ve decided to call it “Clever”. (Granted, anyone who knows me knows that i tend to not smile on “clever” since that usually means you’ve forgotten how to document it and in six months you stare at it as the completely unfathomable solution that it is. Let’s ignore that for now.) A Clever person is someone who comes up with a new approach or technique to a problem. It may not be based on prior experience or it may use prior experience in a unique way.

Clever is the source of a lot of the redneck engineering that you see, well, the stuff that didn’t get someone killed. The first guy to tie balloons to a lawn chair and remember to bring a pellet gun was clever. i’d suppose that one could be high in Clever and low in Wisdom or Intelligence and still go far (possibly with reduced lifespan, but it’s possible).

Still, some amount of clever is required to do a lot of technical work. Clever gives you insights into potential solutions or alternate approaches that might work better for your situation (again, provided you document them so that the less clever person can later work out what the hell is going on).

i guess i’m just glad that it wasn’t added to the character sheets, back in the day. There would be a lot of folks trying to figure out how to apply that stat to a situation.

Well, except the clever folks.

But then the DM would call out “Right, rocks fall, everyone dies!” more often.

Blogs of note
personal Christopher Conlin USMC Henriette's Herbal Blog My Mastodon musings Where have all the good blogs gone?
geek ultramookie

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