Mentoring

On Being a Mentor

Mentoring is a big part of what I do professionally, but my path to being a mentor started with being mentored myself when I was still very young. It all started with my first computer, a Commodore 64, which is what got me interested in IT. My dad saw that I had this interest, and fostered it. He introduced me to programming in addition to system building. The first machine I built was a mighty 286 from spare parts that my dad had laying around. It was also on this 286 that I started to learn to code and my the time I was in high school, I was hooked on computers. One of my teachers, Scott Brown, also recognized my interest in computers and let me run amuck in his lab. While Brown (as we called him) didn’t always have the answers to everything, he was “there” to support in any way he could. It was through his class that I was referred to my first tech job as a network administrator managing a Novell 3.1 network for Patrick Malloy Communities after school. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. The titular owner, Patrick Malloy, was the kind of boss everyone loves. He honored hard work and initiative and recognized talent and allowed people to take risk, and even sometimes fail. It was in these environments that my interests were incubated and grew. I can confidently say that without mentors like Dad, Brown and Patrick I don’t think I would have ever got through many of the setbacks that I had.

I started mentoring when I was in college, particularly other students. It wasn’t much, but by the time I was a senior in college, I had been working in IT for 5 years all while I was going to school. I had acquired some experience. Though meager, it was still much more than most of my peers. This put me in a unique position to be able to speak into many things that the soon-to-be graduates would be facing, so it seemed only fitting that I become a mentor. I started by teaching workshops through ACM and was also able to coach underclassmen through computer science classes. This mentoring lead me to my first job after I graduated college as a programming instructor. The requirements for the job were simple: a minimum of 5 years of experience plus a degree and I had both. It was during this time that mentoring kicked into overdrive because as an instructor, I had to do more than merely teach programming. I had to mentor students on all things related to career choices and how to navigate the IT business in general. Since this time, I have had many roles, and every single one of them has required me to be a mentor at some level.

My journey as a mentor has taught me many things. Of course, I am by no means a guru on all things mentoring, but even so, as I’ve mentored many people over my career, several things have stood out to me. Here are a few.

  • Teach skills, but more importantly teach one to learn. Whenever a college student asks me for some advice about what to do in it, my answer is, without fail, to say “never stop learning.” As a mentor, one of the skills that I tried to teach those I am mentoring is how to learn new skills on their own. Because IT changes so much, any skills that I teach today are likely to be virtually useless in 5 years. To me, the more important thing to do then is cultivate an attitude of learning and curiosity.
  • Be a mentor, not a know-it-all. Mentors are fallible, so they are prone to mistakes and have limits to their knowledge. The worse thing a mentor can do is pretend to be something he or she is not. A mentor should be willing to admit when he or she doesn’t know something. This, however, doesn’t stop someone from being a mentor. One of the best answers one can give in this situation is, “I don’t know, but I can help you find the answer” then guide the mentee to the answer. A mentee will come to a mentor for answers, but transparency will keep the mentee coming back for wisdom and guidance, which is probably more important.
  • Be available, be flexible. If there’s one thing that being a mentor has taught me, it’s to be available and be flexible. Mentoring comes in all different shapes and sizes. For me, it’s as simple as writing a code sample that someone can use to a more formal role wherein I’ve had the responsibility of meeting and coaching mentees over a long period of time. Mentoring is not holding office hours and having the learners come to you, rather it’s about meeting the mentees where they are.
  • Share more than knowledge – Mentorships usually start off with a mentor meeting some specific need of the mentee such as providing knowledge. But as relationships grow in a mentorship, sharing experience and wisdom becomes more the focus and will transcend knowledge.
  • Don’t be afraid to be critical. As a mentor, I’ve found that pointing out a person’s weaknesses is as important as affirming a person’s strengths. It is possible to do this in affirming and positive ways without coming across as someone is just seeking to point out flaws. But when pointing out weaknesses, mentors can provide coaching to help strengthen these weaknesses too.
  • Mentors don’t manage, they guide – Mentoring is not about being someone’s boss or manager. Having said that though, a good boss or manager will also be a mentor. However, if you’re not in a position of authority over a person, don’t pretend that you are. Rather, see yourself as a resource to another person that wants to bring out the best in that person.
  • Be Mentored – A good mentor seeks opportunities to also be mentored. This goes along with being willing to never stop learning. This implies being able to accept constructive criticism, and being willing to admit that one needs help.
  • Start small, but think big – Like anything, one doesn’t start off doing something at a professional level without first going through some growing pains. For me, those first few years as a programmer while I was a kid and teenager taught me a lot, and even my early mentorships didn’t always go as planned. In any case though, as a mentor I always want to be better and meet more people, so I’m always I looking for ways to this. A few practical ways I’ve found to be effective are blogging, speaking at conferences and meetups, creating videos, participating on social media, and sharing resources (such as code) openly. To this end. I seek mentors who can help me do these things better. For instances, while I might be an IT Pro, I can learn a lot about video production from video gurus.

So what are your thoughts? What do you think makes a great mentor? I would love to hear what others have to say on this topic. Like I said, I’m always learning something new – even how to be a better mentor.

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