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Cover image for YES! You Should Be A Mentor!

YES! You Should Be A Mentor!

molly_struve profile image Molly Struve (she/her) Updated on ・6 min read

I have been working professionally as a software engineer for over 7 years now and I have loved every minute of it. Despite being happy and content, a year ago something happened that changed the entire trajectory of my career and my sense of purpose in this industry. I became a mentor. It was not planned and it was terrifying, but it turned out to be the best decision I have ever made. Let me take you back a year and tell you exactly what happened.

How I Became a Mentor

It was August 2018 and I had been working as a software engineer for almost 6 years at that point. Work and life were going great. I had recently been given the coveted senior engineer title and was finally starting to feel secure in my role as a software engineer. Then one day I got an email from a colleague of mine that threw me for a loop. (Names replaced)

"Hey Molly -

Kristen is a brilliant engineer at EvilCorp who had another career before switching to dev work. She’s been looking for mentorship from someone along her path but her current city is a small world in software.

I hope you two have a productive chat :)"

My reaction πŸ‘‡

You want me to mentor someone? Now I have taught a lot of junior devs over the years, but strictly on a professional, here is how you write code level. I never found myself in a position to give anything besides black and white technical advice. I panicked, and immediately wanted to reply you’ve got the wrong girl! Luckily, I didn’t. Instead, I did what my mom taught me to do and slept on it.

The next day after a therapeutic run I talked myself into trying to help. The girl wanted advice on navigating the software industry as a woman, which sure, I am also a woman, but that didn't make me feel at all like I was qualified to give someone else advice on the topic. But since I agreed to help, I took the commitment very seriously. I talked to colleagues of mine and took a hard look at what helped me be successful. After getting lots of great feedback from coworkers, I replied to my new mentee with the advice.

I had no idea if any of the advice would help, but the least I could do was try. Much to my surprise, it did help, a lot! The next monthly chat I had with my mentee she was a different person. She had applied the advice I had given her and it had paid off. This is when the shift began to happen for me. Seeing my advice help one person was so incredibly rewarding that I thought maybe others would find what I have to say useful as well.

Enter Twitter

My relationship with my mentee continued to grow and during that time I decided to get more involved in Twitter. I had recently dusted off an old Twitter account to use to promote my first ever conference talk. Then it suddenly dawned on me, maybe I could use my Twitter account for more than just promoting my conference talk. Maybe I could use Twitter to share with others the kind of advice I gave my mentee. With the help of my mentee, who was basically a Twitter expert compared to me, I figured out who to follow and really got my Twitter account off the ground.

Hello DEV!

After entering the Twitterverse I stumbled upon other engineers who seemed to have the same goal I did, using the internet to help and encourage fellow software engineers. A lot of these Twitter users were also using a site called dev.to, so I checked it out. It seemed like a really solid and nice community. Around the same time, I also checked out Medium but was overwhelmed with it and all of the options and hurdles that came along with getting set up and going. DEV seemed like a place I could publish a post and get πŸ‘€'s quickly so I went with it and started publishing blog posts.

I started out with simple technical posts that were inspired by my conference talk. These were so well received that I kept going, writing posts on everything from soft career skills to hard technical skills. Once again the responses I got were invigorating and made me want to keep sharing more and more so I could help as many people as possible.

Fast Forward a Year

Since starting that first mentoring relationship my mentee has grown tremendously personally and with her career. I mean, the girl is absolutely crushing it! But you know who else has grown just as much personally and professionally? ME!

I have grown a solid base of Twitter followers, published over 50 blog posts, been on 4 podcasts, done multiple career interviews, given 5 conference talks, and personally mentored developers from all over the world. While I was the driving force behind all of these things, I credit a lot of my ambition and motivation for doing them to my mentee and our mentoring relationship.

How Becoming a Mentor Changed Me

I Learned I Have Something Valuable to Say

Becoming a mentor taught me that I have something valuable to say and that what I have to say has the power to help others. Prior to being a mentor, I was only teaching technical skills to the developers I worked with. It never occurred to me that I could teach others beyond my coworkers or that I had things to offer besides just black and white technical advice. Mentoring opened up eyes to see that thanks to the internet and technology, reaching out to others all over the world and teaching them can often be as easy as teaching someone who is sitting right next to you.

My Confidence Improved

I would never have the confidence I have today if it wasn't for my mentee. Having her look up to me pushed me to be better myself. I imagine it is probably similar to when you have kids. You don't want to let them down and you want to set a good example so it pushes you to be not only better professionally, but also personally.

I Learned More About Myself

Throughout this past year, I have learned a lot about myself. I have learned that I have the capacity to be empathetic despite my often hard exterior. I learned that I genuinely care about those around me and hate to see people struggle. I learned that because I am so fulfilled in my job, the most satisfying experience throughout all of this mentoring for me has been helping others find that same satisfaction in their own careers.

I Discovered Amazing New Resources

Through mentoring I have discovered the incredible plethora of online resources that exist for developers. These resources give everyone the chance to make connections with people from all over the world. They provide many newcomers to the industry that support I only dreamed about when I was starting. Some of these resources are:

Try It Out

While mentoring had a large impact on my career ambitions and completely changed the way I approach interacting with fellow devs online, your experience doesn't have to be that drastic. Mentoring showed me that I have something to offer and in turn, I choose to try and find ways that I could share that with the most people possible. If you are not the kind of person who likes interacting with a lot of people, that is fine! No matter how shy or introverted you are, I bet you have something to say that could help someone else. Even just words of encouragement will go a lot further than you think. I have found that most mentees just need someone in their corner telling them they can do it.

I firmly believe we are all in this technology rat race together and the more we help each other the better it will be for everyone. The next time a coworker, friend or acquaintance reaches out seeking advice or mentorship keep an open mind and consider it. Could you spare an hour a month? Could you spare 15 min to respond to an email? I believe becoming a mentor in any capacity will benefit you in more ways then you can imagine which is why I wholeheartedly encourage EVERYONE to try it out!

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Molly Struve (she/her)

@molly_struve

International Speaker πŸ—£ Runner πŸƒβ€β™€οΈ Always Ambitious. Never Satisfied. I ride πŸ¦„'s IRL

Discussion

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DEV is naturally a space for mentorship in a variety of ways,

We have a space for explicitly seeking mentorship and offering mentorship...

dev.to/listings

Currently we haven't done a great job of promoting it so this listings feature is underutilized, but please feel free to consider a mentorship listing (seeking or offering).

Listings has been a huge success in the areas it's been most adopted and we still feel like mentorship is a great use case, we just need to promote it better and build up the ecosystem over there.

 

I know I've considered looking for a mentor, at least for the parts of JavaScript that confuse me (or perhaps I'm just not wired in a way that lets JS feel 'natural', like CSS does). I'm just worried about two main things-

Cost - I've not had the privilege of working in any sort of coding environment, nor have I been around traditional coding college classes or coding camps. I'd have a long way to walk (multiple days) across an empty desert with no source of water other than a canteen to be even remotely close to other people who write code. I really have no idea how much mentorship normally costs and no way to really pay for it anyway.

Time - My schedule isn't so much a schedule as it is a constant barrage of surprise crises to deal with. My paid job requires I have a flexible schedule (I am informed if and when I will be working no more than 7 days out with no set shift, it could change at any minute and I need to be at work instantly if that's called for, and no holidays) and my main unpaid, but legally mandated job is a 24/7 live-in thing. I have absolutely no control over my own time and have no way of guaranteeing I can even show up remotely on any pre-arranged time schedule.

I'm hoping that changes someday, because I'd really like to know what it's like to have some sort of guidance from a live mentor and not just random tutorials, blogs, articles, and questionable answers on Stack Overflow. Don't get me wrong - they can all be quite helpful, but I imagine it's not quite the same as having an actual human mentor, one on one.

 

Great Article, Molly! Thanks for sharing your story! Now that you mentioned mentorship, it got me thinking about its relationship with developer advocacy one way or another.

I just transitioned to the role(I have a software engineering background originally) and I am still taking baby steps. What's the one piece of advice you can share that will eventually help people in my shoes move faster please? Thanks!

 

Glad you enjoyed the article!

Not sure I understand the question, what do you want to move faster at?

 

My bad. I was referring to developer advocacy.

I am far from an expert since I have only been exploring this world for a little less than a year but one thing I am learning is that you should be your true self when you are interacting with people online, it will make the interactions much more worthwhile. Don't try to fit someone elses mold, create your own.

Also, know that you can say NO to things. I have said yes a couple of times to too many things and ended up pretty overwhelmed. Don't try to move too fast, take opportunities as they come but never feel like you have to take all of them.

Exactly what I need right now. Thank you! Speaking of saying yes, how do you manage work expectations without being too hard on yourself?

Keep it in perspective. Do things that you enjoy, life is too short to be miserable for any extended about of time.

 

❀️ Mentoring!

I'd like to add that as a mentor, you also gain team-building skills, leadership skills and greatly improve your communication skills, which would in turn give you a leg up in your career. 😊

 

Thanks Molly for writing this! 100% agree. BTW: You have a fantastic casual but on point writing style. Impressed.

Funny enough just yesterday I launched my blockchain mentoring program to teach developers how to program their first blockchain application: web3.coach

Let's mentor each other!

 

I have been doing CodeMentor.io for a couple of weeks and nothing feels better than to help a fellow peer out with an issue they happen to be experiencing.

The years of debugging and coding get put to challenge and I happen to teach and build confidence in other developers during the journey.

 

I've always liked being a teacher and a mentor when either under my own volition or as a necessity. I share anything I learn that's useful, important or interesting by nature.

There's a maligned culture forming around it though where the expectation to teach others is used to create roles for programmers that are devoid of any other responsibility for reasons that aren't often appropriate.

It can be used to remove competition from the playing field. Advanced a long way and much further than anyone else? People tell me I have to stop programming now and get back in the class room.

I see increasingly more situations where seniors are expected to take the passenger seat and mentor people chosen for success. You become a mentor while someone else is appointed to take the driver's seat, even though you're the best driver.

When you see this happen it won't be a temporary arrangement but perpetual. It won't be a mutual arrangement but parasitic.

There's no single motivation behind this. Any circumstance other than where people work together both cooperatively and competitively in a fair but merit driven environment you can see this kind of thing going on.

It can arise from common forms of workplace corruption such as cronyism, discrimination or nepotism.

I have seen quite a few cases where the established best developer or even the first one to get hired can't be unseated from their throne so the only option to produce better results be bringing in a better person is to make them a mental rather than an active player to ensure the holdout still retains the credit for all accomplishments and their title.

In such situations if you dare fix anything yourself or in anyway steer credit away from selected people then you can get into a lot of trouble. In extreme cases I've seen critical fixes rolled back because the wrong person did it. You become an unwitting surrogate. Someone can do all of the real work and solve all of the problems but end up with nothing to show for it as the proxy gets recursively promoted over them.

This is a larger part of what can go wrong. Mentoring and teaching is important but don't let the expectation of that when you reach a higher skill level be used against you. It has to be on your own terms.

There is a paradox. Mentoring is to some level essential to achieve the best results. The opposite extreme is also not good. "A magician never reveals his tricks." does not work well at all in programming. Some people horde their knowledge though in most cases they simply neglect it through lack of opportunity and other responsibilities. Either never on the front lines or always on the front lines tends to be far from ideal.

Good mentoring will often yield positive results when you find yourself having to put into words that which you usually take for granted and can also expand your own understanding of a concept as well as reveal questions you don't know the answer to.

When you're helping people randomly or as a service there's no opportunity for this to happen but watch out when it becomes defined as part of a role in the workplace. You may up with less opportunities for success than you bargained for.

There's another cautionary tale that comes with mentoring. Quite often not everything people have learnt is right. It's very important to not present anything as 100% certain unless so. A really useful part of mentoring is whenever in doubt do the research or do the science. There's a significant class of people who either believe themselves to be mentoring, instructing, informing, etc but are really spreading misinformation, dictating, pushing their preferences or opinions, etc. It can be very hard to tell two apart. This does damage that in many cases has to be undone when you step into the mentoring shoes.

Part of mentoring can also involve unteaching things that people have been taught that wasn't entirely right. You can sometimes have to start out with "forget everything you've learnt". I would assume people who seek out mentoring are inherently receptive. Those who seek out to mentor might not consider that they also need to be so as well. To truly master mentoring requires having confidence (to learn) without having confidence (of having learnt everything).

If you have to figure something out the mentoring process becomes a lot more useful where someone sees the processes you take to learn something and find something out as well as to self correct and improve. This is usually better than giving out free fish. If you build up good a good skillset to gain knowledge rather than putting all faith in knowledge gained then this will create both a true confidence and a far more useful transferable skill when mentoring.

My general experience is that juniors who would like mentoring have good attitudes. They tend not to have problems with domineering or conceit. Nothing is guaranteed though. The moment you expose a tell people can always pretend.

 

I've been watching some of your "Cache is King" videos and I absolutely love them. I have no experience with Ruby or Rails but I loved listening to you explain the types of problems you faced and the solutions.

You just have an internal set of qualities/tools, possibly polished by your experience at work that most teachers in this type of career, just don't have.

 

Awesome post, it was kind of scary for me as well when I was thrust into mentoring junior developers this year.

Having been on the receiving side of mentoring. I instantly felt I'm not good enough to do it.

 

Thanks, Molly, for sharing how you learned from your experience and turned that learning into wisdom about mentoring. I'd like to be able to share this article fully with the subscribers to our non-profit's members through The Peer Bulletin Magazine. Can we have permission to reprint? We'd include proper attribution and reference the source. We can send you a copy of the issue of the online magazine when it is published.

 

Definitely, I would love for it to be shared to reach more people. Thank you for asking!

 

Great Article! Thanks for sharing, especially the resources. I can highly recommend Coding Coach. I've been a mentor on there for a few months now and have had a lot of great experiences so far. Also met some awesome people from all around the world.

 

About a year ago, I too wrote about what being a Mentor meant to me. linkedin.com/pulse/what-mentor-mea...

 
 

Wonderful article thanks Molly πŸ˜„ I'm going to send it to my new mentor! He he

 

Awesome article Molly!

What is your advice for people who want to be more active on Twitter? :)

 

Determine how you want to be active, what kinds of things you want to Tweet about and then look for people that value the same things you do and follow them. It will take some trial and error, I followed a bunch of people at the beginning and then ended up unfollowing a few that really weren't putting out the kinds of messages I thought were beneficial.

Also, Twitter is great for really expanding your mind and exposing yourself to other viewpoints so try following some people you might not normally meet in real life, that will help you gain a more well-rounded perspective on things.