The Menternship: Why mentoring isn’t a chore

Helen presenting! -sniff- they grow up so fast

A few years ago, I started off as a summer intern and made my way back to a full-time position at Evernote and before that, I was an intern at Workday. I still remember how daunting it was to work in a real company and how overwhelming it can be without someone to guide you. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor in both my internships and it was from those experiences I realized how important of a role the mentor plays in someone’s internship.

However, I never thought about what things a mentor should know before taking on an intern. While interns get a nice email detailing all the things they may need to know for their intern project, or perhaps an onboarding packet on how to get their environment set up to start contributing code, mentors may not really get much upfront. It leads them to believe that being a mentor is just another assignment when in reality it’s so much more than just that…

This year, Evernote asked me to be a mentor for an intern, Helen, on our team. Over the course of the summer, I learned so much about what it means to be a good mentor, so I wanted to share some thoughts of what every mentor should know. I encourage you to take these thoughts into consideration not only for their sake but for yours as well. This isn’t just about fostering growth in your intern, but also growth in yourself as a mentor.

Set formal expectations

Depending on if your intern has been in an internship before, they may have some expectations of what they want to learn. Likewise, your company may have some expectations of they want your intern to deliver. In either case it’s important to set aside time early in the internship so that everyone is on the same page.

Some good things to talk about at the very start:

  • The format of the internship and their project(s)
  • What do they hope to get out of this internship? Any key things they want to learn?
  • What does the company expect from them?
  • How much time you as a mentor are available

The relationship you two develop over the summer is entirely up to both of you but it should be clear that your intern can ask you for help. While you may not always have all the answers, they should feel comfortable asking questions. (They just need to ask the right questions which I talk about later below)

Get a baseline of what your intern knows

While school does teach a lot of fundamentals about computer science, they may not have the same exposure of what goes into software engineering or application development. In Helen’s case, she had limited prior exposure to Web fundamentals so we spent time throughout the summer going over some of these things.

This baseline should also help set your expectations of what they can actually do and when they can actually do it by. Our team has bi-weekly sprints where we deliver features once every two weeks but, naturally, if someone needs to learn, things may take them longer and that should be okay.

The more important thing you should be asking as a mentor is if your intern actually understands what they are learning. You understand Redux? What is it? They don’t need to know everything, but they should have enough understanding to achieve what they are trying to do. This gives them openings to explore and you want them to do that.

Do not discourage questions, encourage the right questions

When you are trying to solve a problem, it’s pretty typical to just ask how to solve that specific problem. As an intern who wants to “get shit done,” this seems like the most straightforward thing to ask.

However, as a mentor, it’s your job to step back and really understand what they are trying to solve. Sure, you might know the answer to the question they asked, but is that what they really want? This is classically referred to as the XY problem:

That is, you are trying to solve problem X, and you think solution Y would work, but instead of asking about X when you run into trouble, you ask about Y.

The more specific their question, the more likely they are tunnel visioning for an answer. In this case, before you even answer, always try to get context of what they are trying to solve and how they are solving it before diving right in. You can still answer the question, but just make sure that is what they really want. And there will be times when you will have to step in and say they actually want something else.

Helen taught us how to make dumplings! (mine were the best)

Let them drive, but be there to give directions when needed

Mentoring is a lot like riding in the front seat with someone who is lost in a city. They know how to drive but they don’t know how to get from A to B.

That was my terrible attempt at an analogy but, to be clear, a huge struggle for me was when there was a problem, my first instinct was to figure out what is wrong myself — I would take over the computer, open up the debugger and step through to see what was wrong. This is tempting, and while this might get to the root issue faster, it is far more invaluable to your intern to guide them so they can figure out the issue themselves.

Remember, it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” You as a mentor shouldn’t be expected to know everything but if you were given the same project you could say what you would do in their situation. Sometimes, no one knows what the answer is and that’s still okay. It’s times like these you really need to show where the process comes in — set up a meeting with the product owner and have your intern talk about some of the technical hurdles you both are facing. More than likely, you both can find a compromise that still satisfies what the team is ultimately trying to do.

Never stop growing

It’s easy to forget that this internship isn’t just about your intern. It is just as much of a mentorship as it is an internship. You can’t have all the answers and while it’s important to encourage your intern to learn how to find answers on their own, it’s also important to realize that this is an opportunity for you to find some answers as well. My team has helped explain a lot of things that I would not feel comfortable explaining and, as a result, I ended up learning a lot of things that I would have never pursued to learn on my own.

Since Helen’s internship, I have personally learned:

  • The difference between reflux and redux
  • Pitfalls in our onboarding process
  • Debugging asynchronous JavaScript with Chrome dev tools
  • A variety of tech debt items that the team needs to address (whoops)
  • A stronger understanding of Evernote’s implementation of Thrift
  • How Evernote handles syncing user preferences on Desktop clients
  • How to make really yummy dumplings
  • How to be a good mentor :P (at least I hope…)

If there’s anything I’ve realized after working for 3 years, it’s that you never really stop learning. I remember dreading to wake up in the morning to go to class back in college, but now I find myself driving an hour through traffic just to go to meetups or a conference where people talk about how they are tackling some of the problems in the world. The passion to learn is contagious, and that’s something you want your intern to takeaway as well.

Have fun :)

I have seen many companies treat internships like summer trials when they should be really seen as learning opportunities. People learn a lot more effectively when you make it fun and a lot of people in Silicon Valley lose sight of this. People who are full-time can learn a lot by being a mentor — it takes a great depth of knowledge and understanding to be able to explain how something works and guide someone without actually giving them the answer. This internship, mentorship, whatever you want to call it doesn’t have to feel like a job — it should feel like an experience for both of you.

I know it might be hard to tell from our disguises, but I’m the one on the left and Helen is on the right

Closing Thoughts

For those of you are who have internships coming up, I encourage you to look for these qualities in your “assigned” mentors. Set up a meeting to set some formal expectations and realize this internship is just as much your experience as it is the company’s to share. (Feel free to share them this article too if you feel it’s good!)

And, of course, for those of you that are mentors, I want to congratulate you because not everyone gets the privilege of being a mentor — it means people respect you for what you know and they feel confident that they can leave someone else’s summer experience in your hands. This isn’t an assignment; this is an opportunity for you to grow.

I want to personally thank my mentors including Damon Cool who served as my first manager during my internship, everyone on the Frontend Happy Hour podcast including Ryan Burgess who was my first full-time manager, and, of course, the marketing and web team at Evernote who have constantly been teaching me things these past three years.

I will be honest — being a mentor is not for everyone and it can be overwhelming if you do not manage it well; however I can assure you it will be worth it because there is nothing more rewarding than seeing someone else succeed.

Did I miss anything? Feel free to leave a comment about what a good mentor should know because I don’t want this to be just an article — I want this to be a discussion.