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Dive 22: 4 types of mentors… and how to succeed with them
Hey, it’s Alvin!
In Dive 16, we looked at our interactions with managers to get clues about them and the company we work for. Today, we’ll look at various types of mentors I’ve worked with in over 10 years of software development. And how you can make the most of your time with them.
A couple caveats:
You don’t need a mentor to succeed, but a good one can accelerate your growth.
A mentor can exhibit traits from more than one persona below.
1. The White Rabbit
The White Rabbit is a character in Alice in Wonderland who’s always in a hurry. White Rabbit mentors are, likewise, always in a hurry to be somewhere else. They speak at 500 words per minute and always seem to have an eye on the clock and a foot out the door. It’s not just that they’re super busy, it’s that they’re not present in any situation. They’re always in a hurry to leave and do something else.
As a protégé, it feels like I have to rush my questions. Asking follow-up, clarifying questions makes me feel guilty for wasting the White Rabbit’s time. Coffee chats? Not gonna happen.
That’s why if I have questions for a White Rabbit, I prepare them. Then, I schedule a block of meeting time to have them answered. They might be distracted, but at least I have some peace of mind that they shouldn’t have anywhere else to go for a while.
No matter what kind of mentor you are, leave time in your day-to-day schedule for working with your protégés. It’s the best way to help them grow experienced enough to share some of your workload.
2. The Perfectionist
The Perfectionist is an expert at finding flaws—to a fault. Finding flaws to fix is critical to ensure the customer’s getting the best product or service they paid for. It also helps to find out what you did wrong, so you can fix it and learn how to avoid it in the future. It’s part of personal and professional growth.
BUT, as I mentioned in Dive 6, not knowing what you’re doing right can lead to a feeling of aimlessness and worthlessness—like you can’t do anything right. Knowing what you’re doing right can also boost your growth because you know what you must continue doing. If the mentor doesn’t mention any positives, I’ll ask them, “is there anything I’m doing right?” And make note of it.
Giving positive feedback isn’t intuitive for everybody. I got better at it by practicing—by deliberately looking for positives. Because I believe that if someone’s trying their best, they must be doing something worth recognizing explicitly.
3. The Socrates
A Socratic mentor is someone who employs the Socratic method or something like it. They respond to questions with their own set of questions with the goal of teaching you to think for yourself. Here’s a dialogue I had as a junior developer with a Socratic mentor:
Me: The feature I deployed isn’t working properly.
Socrates: Well, what’s the first thing we should do when there’s a problem?
Me: Check the logs?
Socrates: Even before that. What else can we do?
Socrates: Have you tried checking it locally first?
The Socratic method isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t like the experience because I don’t like a question in response to a question of my own. Sometimes I just want a straight answer. And if I have a question about the answer, I’ll ask.
So, to avoid long-winded one-on-one Q&A interactions, I learned to anticipate the kinds of questions I might be asked before approaching a Socrates. That trained me how to think for myself, which is what every experienced developer must be able to do and is the intent of the Socratic method. So, even though I didn’t like it, it worked.
If you’re a Socratic mentor, learn to gauge your protégé’s abilities. If you’re not getting much of a response to any of your questions, then your protégé might be lost. Asking more questions won’t help them much. And even if it does, the learning process will be painfully slow.
Take control of the situation by showing your protégé how to do the job the way you would do it. Explain what’s happening every step of the way. And every time you reach a decision point, ask your protégé what they would do. This lets the two of you bounce ideas off of each other while involving your protégé, keeping them engaged in the learning process.
4. The Historian
Every existing project has a Historian. It’s simply someone who’s worked on a project long enough to be familiar with its history. The Historian knows why a software was designed and written the way it is. Their time spent on the project means they’re also familiar with the business domain the software was built for. Because they watched the software evolve, they have insights into quirks within the code that may befuddle newcomers. They also have experience with internal business processes that no one outside the business knows about.
So, when anyone’s stuck on a project, the Historian is the go-to person who’s always asked for help. They may not be able to answer every technical question, but their historical knowledge can’t be found anywhere else. All their context-specific knowledge can help solve problems unique to the software being built efficiently and effectively.
Historians might not check in on their protégés. They’re often quite busy doing their own work and addressing questions from others. So, if I have a question, I don’t wait for them to approach me. I take the initiative to ask them.
If you’re a mentor, don’t be afraid to share background info on the project. It allows institutional knowledge to spread, which takes pressure off you. And it gives others clarifying insights.
As I mentioned in Dive 8, a quality mentor is someone who dedicates time to mentorship. The best mentors I had sat down with me to work through problems together. And as a mentor who’s tried that, I know it’s not easy, especially with tight deadlines and limited resources. There’s a lot more to being a high-value mentor and you can learn more about that in Dive 8.
So, make time for it.
Focus is needed to solve complex problems.
Compassion is needed to give useful feedback, both constructive and positive.
Patience is needed to cultivate independent thinking.
Time is needed to impart contextual knowledge that can’t be found elsewhere.
It’s similar if you’re a protégé. You’ll need compassion and patience for your mentors who likely have a packed schedule. Always make time to learn. And when you get precious time to work with your mentors, focus on what needs to be done, so it’s not wasted.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of 4 types of mentors. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. What other types of mentors have you had? Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. And I’ll see you in the next one.