The mentor is not equal to Google, while the mentee has a hard time swimming with a holey life jacket. What to do and not to do, what to pay attention to, while you are a mentor, and what to focus on, if a mentoring program is planned to introduce at your company?
You have just finished a 1.5-year software development bootcamp, or got your degree, graduated from university. You should see a bunch of opportunities in front of you, yet you enter the first job of your life with trembling legs, or right after a career change, get experience in a completely different environment than earlier. You are committed, but also full of questions and doubts. At your new company, they point to an experienced colleague and say (s)he is the one you can turn and talk to, if you have questions or in case of any professional uncertainty – (s)he will be your mentor. Do you calm down, or are you even more nervous?
You have been working for a certain company for years, you feel valued, and you are often approached by colleagues for professional advice. In such cases, you are always happy to help, it feels good that you can share your accumulated knowledge with developers and analysts. Your workplace is introducing a mentoring program, you apply for it, being selected, and finally the big day has come: today you will finally have a mentee with bright and sparkling eyes! Everybody is happy, but in fact, you have no idea how it will work in practice, you are concerned with at least as many issues as your mentee.
Whichever above mentioned role you are in right now, plenty of questions about mentoring will be answered in our article! If you’re planning to introduce a similar program at your company, the next few lines are absolutely worth reading! :)
At Danubius Expert (hereinafter: Danubius), the mentor culture has been building for 12 years, from the very beginning: the first mentees of the founders became the first full-time colleagues, who later also mentored new trainees, juniors, and so on… Nowadays more than 60 IT experts, specialized in web and mobile applications, develop financial and educational softwares for both domestic, and foreign clients as well.
We regularly organize internal knowledge sharing and discussion forums, where actual topics and issues can be talked about, which encourage people’s active involvement. Most recently, the mentor program came under a deep scrutiny.
Creating a well-functioning mentoring program is not easy at all, Danubius has also made quite a few mistakes over the years, until we have reached the current level. It happened that too many mentees were allocated to the very same mentor, who could not make as good progress as earlier with their own tasks during the process. It is also important to match right mentor and mentees, “pairing” was not perfect all times. Attempts have always been made to draw conclusions from these errors and to improve the methodology. For a couple years, we have been preparing our colleagues for the role as part of in-house mentoring and have also developed an assistance system for mentors.
What affects success the most: accordance and harmony
At Danubius, the majority of mentors have joined the role after working at least 2-3 years at the company, and they agree that being a good mentor is primarily not about professional knowledge, but a strong intention and ability to help someone, and love to work with people closely. “If a person has the gene to help others, it can be a very good base to start building from” – one of the mentor points out. No problem, if the mentee is working on a project or task that is not the strength of the mentor, or (s)he has no experience with: “When the client started to focus on frontend development in one of our previous projects, it was clear that this would not be in my senior expertise domain, my mentee had better understanding in that particular area. If a question arose that I couldn’t answer, I showed who should be asked from the team or how we can handle and solve such difficulties together. I learned that I don’t have to play a role of knowing everything :)” – said a former mentor.
Becoming a mentor is bidirectional, in which not only the mentee learns, but the mentor can continually improve as well. If you have self-reflective personality, you can start to go on a serious developmental curve not only by yourself, but by the communication and continuous connection with your mentee. To achieve this, of course, the mentor needs to forget and release the illusion that (s)he is the one, who knows everything.
At Danubius, mentors exclusively select their mentees, and for making the connection fruitful, they also need to know, which personality they can work with most effectively. During the interviews, they especially focus on the candidate’s and the potential mentor’s communication, common understanding. Are they able to think together? Do they speak the same language?
As usual, not only mentors have expectations towards mentees, but also mentees have a projected image about an average senior colleague, which can be near to a half-god sometimes. “I had to realize that a mentor is not like Google and may not be able to answer all my questions right away. Sometimes (s)he has to think and lookup things like anyone else.” – explains a colleague coming from one of the previous bootcamps.
Overall, mentees expect the mentor to be able to give guidance, not the final solution, as they cannot learn from it. In most cases, they need help on the way reaching results by the end, during which they can learn an approach, an analytical point of view. They consider important to try solving the issues by themselves first. This attitude is decisive in how quickly mentees can gather the knowledge they need for becoming an effective colleague.
Mentees are sometimes insecure about how many questions are too much to ask, or vica versa – did I ask too few ones? “Let’s come up with the same question no more than twice, you need to write notes” – highlights a mentee. Of course, this is not always measurable with such exact numbers, but it is worth striving for a healthy balance. According to a saying, the only bad question is what you don’t dare to ask. If we do not know something, dare to indicate it and point out.
The number and frequency of feedbacks are questionable, each mentee is very individual: some people are totally okay with a green checkmark next to the code they wrote, and it is enough for them on a daily basis. Others need more frequent feedbacks and praises, when something went fine. “If something doesn’t work well, it’s already an appreciated feedback, when the mentor says only »it’s a really hard task, but give it a try«. So I know the solution is not trivial and I am encouraged to find more alternatives.” – adds one mentee.
There is a complete consensus among current mentors and mentees that, ultimately, the most important thing is to find a common voice with each other, a working harmony. The mentees usually highlights, when they ask anyone at Danubius about anything, they always got a satisfactory and helpful answer. If they were initially afraid of asking their questions, it was completely over after a couple friendly guidance.
Together on the path of development
If we have a common voice, the expectations are clear, only one question left: how? It is not trivial at all, how the cooperation will take place, and which way will the mentee gather cultural and professional knowledge. “Ideal approach – when a well prepared, planned roadmap can be followed as it was described – is quite rare.” – points out an experienced mentor.
In general, two approaches can work: one is an earlier mentioned structured roadmap, other one is picking tasks from actually running and allocated projects, and learn step-by-step, doing daily jobs as a practice with the mentor.
At Danubius, several mentors select a predefined development curve, which new colleagues are guided through: for example, they first get acquainted with the development environment, then learn how to deploy on it, make it available online, etc., and when all of these are well-known, they get increasingly complex tasks and opportunities to grow further. In many cases, the following method has been proven successful: when in first period, mentee is given a more detachable, isolated task that does not block the work of the other members in the project team. Of course, the question immediately arises about how much working alone helps or hinders the integration into the team. On the other hand, if they participate in all discussions, the new employees do not feel excluded. Of course, it is also possible that a mentee performs better under a certain load due to his or her personality and is less motivated to stay in detached tasks. The mentor needs to recognize this and determine when s(he) can actually be involved in other types of todos as well.
The next question to take into consideration is, which one is better, to allocate a mentee to a greenfield project, when even the customer’s needs are not clear at start, or to a structured one, where frames and limitations keep her or him on the field.
Each type of project has its advantages and disadvantages. Once you have the framework, it will teach you certain, proven patterns, but over time, it is a good idea for your junior colleague to see a project from design to implementation as well. Of course, often all these cannot be sorted out, and you have to learn to swim in dirty water and find the flow: “In the beginning I went into deep water with a holey life jacket, now at least the life jacket has become well-functioning. ☺ No matter how exaggerated it seemed that a very junior colleague was sitting there at a client meeting, I learned a lot from it, and it also has the non-negligible benefit of being able to learn the common business language very quickly. Without this, I would not have had as good vision for the project as I do now” – tells one of the mentees.
The next big question about collaboration is how long the mentor allows the mentee to try (“suck on”) a particular task? Of course, it is difficult to give precise guidelines for this as well, as it basically depends on the perseverance of the mentee: some are good at trying for a long time and learning a lot in the meantime, while others get frustrated and blocked by the deadlock after a certain time. It can be a good solution to include several checkpoints and milestones until the task is completed entirely, since achieving these can give the mentee a sense of success even if the final result is not reached yet.
At Danubius, mentors use a variety of approaches: some define a maximum period of time in advance, others let them try for longer, try to intervene as late as possible, but always keep an eye on the mentee.
The last year and a half has not been easy for the perspective of mentor-mentee role, it is far from easy to learn a completely new job in remote work. Additionally a Danubius team started testing mob programming (when the whole team is gathered around a single machine and keyboard, working on the same task) just before COVID. This also had to be transferred to the online space, with Zoom remote control, this has been done perfectly. A team of two juniors and one senior colleagues rotated every 10 minutes, who was hitting the keyboard (who is programming de facto). They spent 3-3 hours in the morning and afternoon, 3-4 days a week. Through this approach, everyone can learn a lot, and junior colleagues can develop very intensively through it.
Beyond the mentoring program
Who can take what out of a mentoring relationship beside professional knowledge? It may sound trite, but you can get only as much as you put in earlier, as much as you are open to improve and develop. “I learned new approaches. I learned to think with my colleague’s head and to break down a process into smaller steps. These are values that I can use in other areas of my life” – highlighted one mentor.
At the side of the mentees, an important lesson of the program is that there is no need to be afraid of new tasks and it is worth drawing courage from the accomplished tasks and projects. They understood that while production development tasks are quite deep water, nobody will let them drown.
What happens when the program ends? Everyone goes on their own way, the mentee is armed with a lot of professional knowledge, confidence, a sense of success (and of course some tolerance for failure)… And the mentor? How do they see it?
“A mentor can’t just be a mentor at work, I’d like to think that once I’ve been mentoring someone for a year and a half, we can talk even if we’re already on another project, maybe at another company.”
“You can’t know what you’re learning from the mentee, the thing is two-way: the mentee learns the technical stuff, and as a mentor we sharpen our soft-skills.”
If you’re looking for a job as a career starter or junior developer, it’s worth exploring how a company helps integrate new employees: do they have a mentoring program, and if so, what framework does it have, is there a career path, where they support your further development. And if you like to take others under your wing as a senior professional, look for companies, where you also get support as a mentor!
If you would like to be one of the mentors of Danubius Expert, don’t hesitate!
The article was originally published in Hungarian by ITmap, you can read it here.