Mother of two, chef, chauffeur, laundry fairy, and Pixeltree’s founder and benevolent overlord, Serene Yew, takes a committed approach to mentorship. “I take a vested interest in every person who considers me their immediate manager. Now that I’ve hired them and they are on my team, it is my responsibility to guide them the best that I can”. When she’s not running Pixeltree Serene volunteers as a coach with Startup Calgary every Sunday “strangers come together for a weekend to flush out ideas, then pitch them on Sundays. I provide my experience with building startups.”
Serene sat down with Kent C. Dodds to discuss her experience with mentorship (listen to the podcast here) and we at Pixeltree took the opportunity to develop a step-by-step guide for how you can become a truly effective tech mentor.
A good place to start on your journey to mentorship greatness is with a quick audit of your specialized skills, strengths, qualifications, and interests that you think could be beneficial to someone looking to gain some experience. Asking yourself questions like what parts of my role do I feel confident explaining to someone else? What areas of my role do I need to improve? Is there a particular area of my field that I would like to mentor someone in specifically? Am I open to more generalized mentorship roles where my mentee hasn’t defined their particular career path? Who are/were my mentors? Did/do I want to emulate their mentorship style? The majority of these questions can seem daunting to someone who has never conducted an assessment like this before. Don’t panic. A lot of these questions will answer themselves throughout your mentor journey but it’s good to have a rough idea of what you have to offer and what you’re looking for before starting out.
The second step to becoming a great tech mentor is the actual arrangement of a mentorship. A good place to start your search can be through a formal mentorship program at your local university or college. Do a quick scan through their career services website to see if they offer a mentorship program and once you’ve established that they do, call in or stop by to find out their mentorship program details. Different programs may vary in terms of time commitments and/or mentee requirements so it’s wise to look into this information before signing up.
Your journey to mentorship greatness doesn’t have to end if the more formal mentorship options are beyond the scope of what you’re able to give. There are many informal ways to become a mentor to a less experienced individual if the more formal structures don’t work with your schedule. For example, if you are already a manager, consider taking a step back and reviewing your leadership style. Maybe your leadership style up until this point has been lacking in the one-on-one quality essential to mentorship. Start small by scheduling a 15-30 minute meeting with one or two of your team members to see how their work has been going and offer some feedback. You do not need to have a formally declared mentorship to provide someone less experienced with guidance that helps them grow as a professional.
“Thinking back to my younger days, I was a 20-year-old, fresh graduate out of university. I was so fortunate to have leadership on a team with managers who were willing to mentor me. It was not a formal mentorship, but they would sit down with me one-on-one to really understand where I was struggling. I didn’t understand at the time how valuable it was, but now I clearly see that it completely shaped who I am today as a programmer, manager, leader, and mentor. Sometimes, when I encounter a difficult problem, I think back, and ask myself, What would Ted do? What would Joseph do? I hope that one day I can make such a difference in someone else’s life.”
This enables your mentee the time and space to ask you or their assigned mentor any and all questions and inquiries about the job that might have taken hold since your last meeting.
It is your job to keep your mentee accountable and to do so you need to be tuned in. As mentioned, the real value in mentorship is the one-on-one attention you’re able to provide your mentee within a consistent, committed manner. Keep your mentorship ventures to 1 or 2 (at the most) to provide your mentees with your best, engaged self.
Making yourself available to your mentee not only means carving out the time in your workday to physically meet with them, but also requires that you re-assess some of the workflow habits, career choices, and past leadership decisions you’ve made in ways that you may not have done before. Such self-reflection requires a certain level of vulnerability (ew → we know) and honesty that not everyone is used to, which is completely understandable and okay. Just keep in mind that while your mentee is their own individual and you are, in fact, strictly there to guide them, we make better workplace decisions with the more workplace experience we have. Don’t be afraid to say “I would have done this differently” or “I did this but I wish I had done this” if you see that experience being something worth sharing.
Sometimes other work duties and responsibilities will have to take precedence over your bi-weekly mentorship session. Understanding that sometimes things happen that prevent meetings from occurring, try your very best to reschedule ASAP with your mentee. If you’re not able to meet with them later that week ensure you reschedule a time for the next week to meet with a little more padding than usual to ensure they have the time and space to get in all the questions that may have accumulated since the two of you last spoke.
A bi-weekly meeting not only showcases your commitment to your mentee’s learning and growth but it removes any of the pressures or fears that might be associated with breaking your higher up’s concentration or workflow. It also puts a certain level of accountability and responsibility on your mentee to truly engage with the work they’re doing by having them frequently check-in with themselves and analyze the duties they’re performing to brainstorm what questions they should ask in their next meeting with you.
Active listening is described as listening where the listener is “fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker” (Wikipedia). Serene explains “it often takes less than an hour per week to sit down, even virtually, with a mentee to just hear about their week, really understand what’s going on, and consider if there’s something you can contribute. Maybe it’s a connection you can make, a book recommendation, or even just a compassionate ear. It really makes a difference.” Don’t let your thoughts wander to the tasks awaiting you post-mentorship-session. Be present in the room when your mentee is speaking and fully engage with what it is that they are saying. Once they’ve finished, make a quick assessment of what advice, knowledge, or tools you can provide them within that moment that can best foster their professional growth.
If you don’t know the answer to a question your mentee is asking don’t be afraid to take some time to think about your response. Make yourself a note and do some research (brief or extensive depending on your free time) whenever you get the chance. Let them know that you will get back to them with an answer at your next session or within the next few days and then, here’s the important part, actually get back to them on it. Not only will your mentee appreciate your commitment to their learning but you may very well learn something you also didn’t know too.
You don’t need to, nor should you, have the answer to everything. While your mentee is YOUR mentee because they’re interested in what YOU do, they may have questions that are better answered by a more specialized individual in your professional network. Say, for example, you’re a Senior Developer for your company and your mentorship is focused on building Ruby on Rails specific knowledge with your mentee. One day, your mentee begins asking you questions about a particular area of DevOps that you know your company’s Software Engineer could answer in a more in-depth and concrete manner. Depending on their level of interest in mentorship (not everyone wants to be a mentor) don’t be afraid to connect your mentee with this individual to answer these questions. You won’t lose your status as the best-mentor-ever and your mentee will appreciate you going above and beyond to provide them with the most advised, thorough answer to their question.
Whenever you find yourself questioning your mentee’s capabilities or progression, remind yourself that your mentee is probably experiencing the same feelings of nervousness and anxiousness that you did when you first started out. Rather than pass judgement, talk to your mentee about what they’re experiencing (again, feelings, ew → we know) and see if you can offer them any advice to help overcome their concerns. Odds are, you faced similar ones yourself.
There’s something to be said for the art of tough love. It builds confidence, resilience, and most importantly, self-reliance, however, there is also something to be said for its counterpart, compassion. The best mentors know that mentorship is equal parts coaching and cheerleading. Sometimes you’re going to need to encourage your mentee to buckle down and figure things out on their own but there are also going to be moments where it is in your mentee’s best interest to cheer them on. Reinvigorate their confidence and let them know that you believe they can do whatever it is that is causing them to doubt themselves.
Good mentors are humble and recognize that while they may have accumulated a significant amount of knowledge and experience in their field of choice, also know that there is always more to learn in this ever-changing world. Especially in the world of code. New innovations to programming and software development are moving quicker than ever before. A method or way of doing something that may have worked in the past may not be the best, most efficient way to enact something anymore. Be open to the idea that you too could learn something from your mentee and don’t rule out unconventional ideas or suggestions. Rather, encourage your mentee to think outside the box and help them investigate these eccentric or unusual ideas. Maybe there’s merit to it, maybe there’s not. Either way, the problem solving and assessment experience will prove invaluable for your mentee’s learning endeavours and who knows, might get your brain working too.
“In times of high anxiety, uncertainty and stress, we are seeing the best and worst in people. Some people have chosen to pull inward, to only protect themselves and their family. However, I’ve also seen huge groups of people, strangers, who are banding together to brainstorm and build innovative ideas to help the less fortunate, or to pave a brighter path forward.”
In doing so, you will teach your mentee that a certain level of discomfort and anxiety accompanies innovation but that those anxieties can be overcome with practice and perseverance.
Be prepared to take your own advice. Whether it’s in the way they choose to innovate and strategize during product ideation or the means by which they handle team relations, the habits that young professionals form today will influence how they work tomorrow. This in turn, will shape the way the tech industry operates in the not-so-distant future.
You can’t expect your mentee to take your advice on cultivating their time management skills if you’re consistently late to your scheduled meetings with them. Nor can you expect your mentee to dedicate time to learning a skill they find unengaging if you’re frequently redirecting your less interesting work to someone else. Demonstrate that you not only believe in the habits you’re advocating to them but that you live them consistently.
Don’t give advice that isn’t in line with your values or work experiences. While your mentee’s career goals may differ from what yours were when you were in their position, it’s not advisable to offer them advice that you don’t see yourself genuinely being able to promote or live yourself. That being said, it is still in your mentee’s best interest to entertain new solutions to old problems. Something that may have been the best option a few years ago may not be the case anymore. Remind yourself to be open-minded but avoid straying away from your core values to try and do so.
Mentorship is a big commitment that should not be taken lightly. It takes dedication, patience, and a great deal of humility but if you are able to take the time, we strongly encourage you to try and spend some time with a mentee. We promise you will learn something that you never knew before, and you’ll make a huge difference in someone else’s life.
“Change only happens one person at a time. Never underestimate the power of changing one person’s life.”
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