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Dive 8: How to Boost Your Career with a Mentor… And AS One
Hey, it’s Alvin!
When I started working as a software developer, I didn’t have a mentor. Like many others, I learned by searching the internet, copying legacy code, and asking whoever around me had time to answer my questions.
Some say you can succeed without a mentor. I agree. But that’s a longer, painstaking journey.
I copied code but had a hard time understanding what I was copying. I often didn’t know what I was copying at all. I just knew it worked. Actually… I just thought it worked. And source code is always customized to a specific context. For that reason, you’ll rarely find exactly what you need searching online.
So, for the first three years of my career, I got stuck… a LOT. And getting stuck often meant never gaining the momentum I needed to get into a flow state. It’s like riding in a car, being stuck at a red light for 30 seconds every 100 meters.
In my fourth year, I was paired with one of my all-time favourite mentors, Val. I only worked with him for one year, but I learned three times more that year than in the previous three years combined. It didn’t feel that way, but I recorded more accomplishments and skills learned in my performance review that year than in any other year prior.
What was the difference?
Val was the first mentor I had who asked me for my thoughts on things. “Here’s the problem. How do you think we can approach this?” “How much time do you need to finish this?” He didn’t judge my suggestions. He just asked a lot of “what if” type questions, and we bounced ideas off one another. This was all done so whatever solution we developed covered all the scenarios we could think of. Sharing ideas to cover each other’s blind spots is a major benefit to both the mentor and the protégé.
Rather than just telling me what to do, Val involved me in the problem-solving process. He let me practice problem-solving, giving me feedback along the way. It included constructive feedback on things I needed to work on AND positive feedback on things I should keep doing. This just isn’t something you can do with a mentor outside the company you’re working at if you’re working on proprietary software.
Because Val had years of experience working with that specific team, he also had a lot of domain, process, and historical knowledge I didn’t have.
Knowledge specific to a domain (e.g., retail, telecommunications, banking, etc.) isn’t always openly available online, but you need it to tailor software for the domain in question, especially all the edge cases.
Different companies have different processes for product or service delivery. It includes knowing who to ask for approval to move things along. That kind of information isn’t always easy to find internally, though.
Sometimes code looks weird because it’s written by different people with different skill sets and perspectives trying to solve different problems. Software evolves. Knowing the history of the project helps you make sense of why something looks the way it does before you make wholesale changes.
Having a mentor who’s familiar with the domain, company, and history means you don’t have to waste time searching for information that’s common knowledge within the team.
Part of why I’m so grateful for Val’s mentorship is because he took the time to sit down and work through problems with me when I was stuck. That takes patience, especially since he had his own work with tight deadlines.
We even had lunches together when we talked about life beyond work. We bonded. That, in itself, is rewarding. We keep in touch to this day.
Since then, I found myself on teams with junior developers. And knowing the tremendous, positive influence Val had on me, I wanted to do the same for them. And I found out firsthand a couple of other benefits of being a mentor:
Explaining how things work to a protégé is a great way to learn. It doesn’t have to be about technology, either. When you explain something specific to the domain, how a business process works, or the history of the project, you’re forced to understand how it works in detail. And since you’re explaining it to someone with less experience, you’re better off simplifying complex ideas by using analogies and metaphors. That also helps improve your own understanding of those ideas.
All the while, you’re practicing teaching skills, which will help you become a better mentor to other protégés in the future.
Of course, you won’t have all the answers. I certainly don’t. So, when I get a question to which I don’t have an answer, I say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and let you know,” especially if I know someone else who might know the answer. Or “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together.” In that case, I’ll sit down with the other person (maybe virtually) and we’ll learn together.
One of the best feelings in the world is helping someone else and then seeing them succeed.
And the faster you can help your fellow teammates level up, the faster they’ll be able to help you with your tasks. That’ll free you up to take on bigger, more important matters.
By being a quality mentor, you’re also training new mentors. It’s said, “give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” In fact, when you teach a man to fish, you also teach him how to teach others how to fish, too. That sets up a career development pipeline within an organization. It’s how good companies develop talent within. In other words, by investing precious time and energy in your team, you and your team benefit exponentially more.
As you can see, mentorship benefits everybody. Protégés benefit from personalized feedback and context-specific knowledge that can’t be found elsewhere. Mentors benefit from fleshing out their knowledge and watching success unfold before their eyes. Both benefit from exchanging unique perspectives. And organizations benefit from developing talent within.
And you never know, you may make a lifelong friend out of it too.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of mentorship. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. Let me know of your experiences with mentorship. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. And I’ll see you in the next one.