Throughout my professional career, I've acted as both a mentor and a mentee. Whether it's been guiding someone along their career path or through a tough decision (like should I stay at my job or move on), or if I've been the one reaching out to a fellow professional for feedback.
Throughout my time in tech, I've seen many newbies struggle when they come into the industry. I've also seen how hard it is for students and younger folks to break into IT and find footing along their career paths. In my non-profit work at Code the Way, we’ve helped students find mentoring in the IT industry and partner with more seasoned professionals who can assist with building those essential connections.
It’s become clear to me, in my experience, that mentoring in the IT industry is crucial, but it’s also an industry of lone wolves, who sometimes prefer to take an independent path. Yet communication, engagement, and social connections are vital to anyone’s career success (let alone learning and grasping the next new concept). Here’s why mentoring in the IT industry is so important.
What exactly is a technology mentor? So much work in tech consists of human plus machine. The work is extremely hands-on, requiring folks to "do the work" rather than listen to lectures or participate in team-building exercises, right?
The truth is that those social ties are absolutely mandatory in any career, even analytical and technical careers like IT. In many ways, it may be even more crucial for technically minded people to work on forging those human connections. When we’re interfacing with different businesses and staff with varying levels of technical expertise, changing goals, and shifting approaches, communication and "people skills" are almost equally important to understanding the technology itself.
Traditionally, it's a common perception that someone's manager or supervisor will act as a mentor and a coach as well. In the course of overseeing an employee's work, they may be expected to serve in all capacities rolled into one. My suggestion, however, would be to look at them as three separate roles: manager, coach, and mentor. We all understand what a manager does—oversees the job and directs what needs to be accomplished. A coach may help you see where you need to do work and how to get better. Mentoring, on the other hand, offers more of a "big picture perspective." Rather than one specific aspect, they pull from their litany of experience to give you holistic guidance. While all roles are important, I believe mentoring is often underutilized yet invaluable, so today, we're going to focus on the role and impact of mentoring.
By definition, a mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. It's someone that you look up to—someone who's been there before and understands how to handle different situations successfully and offers insight into the path ahead.
To me, it's about finding someone who you want to emulate. Look for a mentor who has achieved what you would like to accomplish in 5 or 10 years. Those role models are ideal mentors. Mentors should have done what you're doing now, almost identically. They've been successful at the job and learned a lot from their mistakes along the way.
A mentor isn't always just someone older with more experience. You want someone who has faced similar challenges to your own. You also may want to find a mentor who has similar views on the world, a similar personality to yours, and who "clicks" with you. A mentor should take a genuine interest in your success.
The most critical factor in a mentor/mentee relationship is trust. You should trust each other with guidance. A mentee should trust their mentor's advice. They should also have confidence in their mentor's insights and feel at ease, sharing their biggest goals and fears. In other words, this is a serious, deep connection.
The technology field needs mentors immensely. As I said above, technology is a challenging career, where people are often focused on learning the engineering and mechanical aspects of the job. Technology changes extremely fast, there are many risks, and the nature of the work can be very stressful.
When you factor in all these aspects of working in technology, it becomes evident that mentoring in IT is crucial for success. Having a mentor who has written code, designed, tested, and implemented systems is invaluable. Having a mentor who also understands the teamwork aspects of the job is even more critical.
A mentor can help guide you through questions like:
· What certifications should you pursue?
· What types of systems and technology challenges align with your wheelhouse?
· How can you become a team player?
· How can you align your IT project with the strategic goals of the business?
All of these questions can be answered with the guidance of a good mentor. They’ll share their experience and give you an objective perspective on your path.
Now, what about the flipside of mentoring? Should you consider mentoring someone else? What are the benefits of mentoring a junior developer?
First of all, yes! Acting as a mentor can be a learning experience for both parties. It can actually help you build your communication skills and gain a deeper understanding of your own projects and technology. When we're teaching, we're often articulating processes and explaining procedures. Sometimes when we go through that explanation, we have those "aha" moments where we gain new insights and make connections for ourselves.
The benefits to the mentee are also extremely significant. Remember when you were in their shoes. Think of the impact a good mentor could have made on your life. Imagine the time you would have saved if you avoided some of the roadblocks and mistakes of your past.
As you're considering mentorship, also think about your successes. You can likely attribute all the great things you've achieved in life, at least in part, to the people around you who have made a positive impact. Many of those people may be considered mentors, whether it was in a formal capacity, or you just realize it in hindsight.
In my career, I've had a trusted relationship with a friend who's started multiple companies. He's failed occasionally, but for the most part, he's been highly successful. Over the years, I've gone to him to get some great advice. He's guided me on financial decisions, team decisions, and how to keep my energy and focus where it needed to be. Through my relationship with him, I've learned to eliminate noise, fog, and distractions, to stay on the path I needed to take. He's made tough decisions before, and when I need to make hard choices, I often bounce it off him. He's been there, done that, and he can offer fantastic perspective as my trusted mentor.
Mentoring sounds formal and "official." To be honest, even as a business leader, I don't always think of myself as a mentor. But, upon reflection, I have offered guidance to many people over the years. Within the IT space, we must be making those mentoring connections and putting out the possibility.
If you're looking for a mentor, start with your trusted relationships where you work. Ask your manager or boss for suggestions—could they help you connect with a mentor? Do they know of anyone who would be a good fit? Talk to your family, friends, and your network. Check through your connections on LinkedIn and reach out to someone who is in the role you want to be in.
From there, it's simply a matter of reaching out. Ask to grab a coffee, tell them you'd like to meet to discuss mentoring, and get their advice. You can make it a formal arrangement with regular check-ins, or you can keep it informal and ask if you could bounce ideas off them occasionally. Mentoring doesn't have to be long-term; it can be situational and moment-by-moment. However, in many cases, it may build into a key relationship in your life.
If you’re a business leader or working in a senior capacity, consider mentoring someone yourself. Reach out to up-and-comers in the industry and offer to assist them. If it’s possible, consider setting up a mentorship program in your workplace or partner with affinity groups and other community organizations in a mentor-exchange program.
The rewards on both sides of the mentoring coin are immense. You can make a positive difference in someone's life. In today's world, we could all use more positive connections to help us grow, wherever we are in our careers.