Mentor

/ˈmɛntɔː/

noun

  1. an experienced and trusted adviser.
    "he was her friend and mentor until his death"
    synonyms: adviser, guide, confidant, confidante, counsellor, consultant, therapist.

verb

  1. advise or train (someone, especially a younger colleague).

During my career so far, I have been at different companies, in different countries. I have had the pleasure to work with many different colleagues from different cultures. This leads to learning a lot of different approaches to dealing with situations in the work-place, as well as individual growth.

For some people individual growth and/or dealing with work-place situations comes easier than for others, but in any case, a form of guidance makes dealing with these two aspects of a career a lot more managable. Even though one might not feel like they have a need for a mentor, it never hurts to have somebody available.

Personally I’ve had multiple mentors up until now, either because one was proposed to me by my employer, because they felt it was good to have such a resource available, or because I requested somebody to be my mentor, or because quite simply… They never actually found out I considered them a mentor for me. One might argue that in a way these people are role-models, but then again, these were role models I had access to. I could ask them questions. I could make mistakes in front of them, and they would be able to help me avoid making the same, or similar mistakes in the future.

Why is mentoring important?

In the field of software engineering, it happens very often that once people settle in their job, they stop learning. Sure, here I say ’stop learning‘, even though we actually still learn every day. We type questions in google, browse multiple stack-overflow posts, find a solution, apply that solution and move on to the next issue.

I am not sure from where I remember this quote but I think it applies very well: Do you have 10 years of experience, or do you have 1 year of experience 10 times? Going through the problem solving cycle by asking google and stack-overflow for each issue might get you experience, but it is essentially the same experience over and over again.

Surely this doesn’t apply only to the technical side. In our day to day work we also have to deal with company policies. We have to deal with people. You deal with your direct colleagues, your managers or bosses, customers, and maybe even team members that come from other consultancy companies.

It takes some experience to know how to deal with people, situations, and your own development. This experience one could gain by themselves, but it is then usually very hard and labour intensive work. You will be going through all the mistakes that many people might have already made before you. Why not learn from them? Learn from their failures and their successes.

What makes a good mentor?

All a good mentor really needs is experience, and a way to share this experience to others. This could be any kind of experience, whether they are hard skills, soft skills, or anything in between. Mentors often end up doing quite a bit of teaching, even though this is not their primary role. The primary goal of a mentor is to guide. A good mentor listens, evaluates and through experience will be able to give the right advice, at the right time.

Those in the role of being a mentor are unlikely to be mentoring full-time. At least not actively. They have their own jobs and tasks they need to be focusing on, but in the spare time around or between tasks they are likely to be able to guide their mentees. It often doesn’t take more than a few minutes a week, or a couple of hours a month.

A good mentor also likely has a keen eye for when guidance is required, making them able to guide passively while doing their own work. Of course additional guidance can always be requested by the mentee when necessary. It is important that there is a good trust relationship between the mentor and mentee. If the relationship between a mentor and a mentee doesn’t feel right to either, it should be absolutely OK to change to a different mentor.

What makes a good mentee/mentorship?

While a mentor should understand what his role is, and is not about, it is important that the mentor and mentee are able to work well together. They should find a way of working that works for them.

It is the job of the mentee to try to figure out in which direction they want to develop themselves. The right mentor can then, depending on the size and complexity of the goals help making these more managable and measurable. An example of a mechanism that could be used for documenting this could be using SMART Criteria.

Additionally, the mentor could enable the mentee by use of their personal network. This could be considered sponsoring the mentee, by putting them in contact with people that can help them learn the specific things they want to learn and grow in.

Mentoring is not all about looking forward though. Also aforementioned potential struggles with colleagues, bosses, customers etc. are a topic somebody should be able to discuss with their mentor. It is not just the hard skills they would have experience in.

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