Thoughts On Mentorship In Tech

Over the last 4–5 years I’ve had the amazing opportunity to mentor some even more amazing people. I want to share what I’ve learned.

Mentoring comes in all shapes and sizes

You might be mentoring someone right now and not realize it! Do people ask your opinion? Do you get hit up for advice? Congratulations, you’re probably mentoring!

Everyone has things they know and things they don’t. This means there’s always an opportunity to learn from or teach someone else. In tech especially, everyone is a beginner at something. Sometimes the best mentorship match up is between two people close to each other’s skill level, they might be able to relate to one another a little better.

There’s also no real timetable on mentorship. It doesn’t need to be a long-term relationship. It could just be a single pairing session, or perhaps it lasts a good portion of your career, who knows?

The only thing that’s important here is that both parties grow because of the relationship. Not only should the understudy grow and learn, but the mentor should as well.

Where do I find someone to mentor?

There are a lot of ways to do this. You could volunteer at a program to teach kids, or help at a workshop for people under-represented in tech. Or just help at any old workshop.

Personally, when I see someone working on a technology I’m really familiar with, and they’re a little new or they’re struggling, I just offer to pair with them. It’s simple to just ask, it just takes a little bravery on your part. Pairing can be done over the internet with tools like Screenhero or even Google Hangouts.

Remember: Mentorship is scary for everyone

The first thing to remember is that mentorship is scary for those being mentored. Odds are, this person admires your skill in some way and looks up to you. They probably feel vulnerable because they’re asking for your help, or worse they were told they needed mentoring. More than likely, this person is scared you will judge them harshly or reject them in some way. Worse, doing so, even via misunderstanding, could turn them off from their work entirely.

The next thing to remember is that mentorship is scary for mentors too. Mentors have a huge responsibility to those they’re teaching. You’re shaping their future and you owe them your best.

Note for the mentored: Your mentor might be really nervous to mess up in front of you, too! This person is supposed to be an “expert” and maybe they don’t feel like they are. If they mess up in front of you, they’ll lose their credibility.

Don’t help too much

You need to make sure that the person you’re mentoring is learning. This person is smart. Everyone is. We’re all the same species of ape that figured out how to build cities, fly and land ourselves on the moon… They’ll get it eventually.

Teaching requires that you be willing to step back and allowing learning to happen.

  1. Give them the basic knowledge and idea and show them an example. Maybe walk through the first time they apply this new technique or skill.
  2. After that, do not help until they REALLY need it. They might ask you for help very quickly, but give them a while to try to figure it out on their own.
  3. If they can’t figure it out on their own, tell them where to look, give them a hint, and stand back.
  4. If #3 fails, gently and patiently go back to #1 and work with them.

Patience and empathy

Neither one of you was born knowing whatever you’re teaching them. At some point, you were just as beginner as them, and all of us have felt vulnerable. Try not to get frustrated. Remember not everything has been easy for you, either. We can all remember a point where we had a hard time grasping something.

Point out when you learn something from your understudy

While mentoring someone, I can guarantee they’ll do something you’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s a shell command you’ve never used. Maybe you learn something from them that’s unrelated to code: A new word, some fact about music, how to fold origami chopstick holders.

Let them know you’ve learned from them! In my opinion, you should let everyone know what you’ve learned from them if you can. Show the person you’re mentoring they have something to offer you and that you’re still learning.

Celebrate their victories!

Whenever the person you’re mentoring finishes a tough assignment, or figures out a problem on their own, be generous with praise. It’s so important to let them know that you take personal pride in their victories.

Remember: You don’t own their achievements! They have done the hard work. You were only there to guide them.

Note to the mentored: Be sure to provide your mentors with a little praise for victories you feel you can attribute to their mentorship. Encouragement is something everyone loves at any level of their career.

Protect and guide them

Remember that the internet, and in particular open source, can be a harsh battleground for newbies to enter. If someone is just starting out, it can be really disheartening to get derided by a grumpy troll on GitHub.

Protect those you mentor if you can see they’re struggling with a harsh critic. Talk to them about a time the same thing happened to you. Remind them of how far they’ve come and assure them that someday they’ll be “the expert”, and they can make better decisions about how to treat people than the troll they’ve encountered.

Guide them through technical debates and open source politics. Remember there’s a learning curve there too.

Important note: If you think the person you’re mentoring is being harassed, be sure to report the incident to whomever is appropriate as soon as possible. Most communities have a code of conduct (if yours doesn’t, it should!), and their leadership should be keen to enforce it.

NEVER, EVER pretend to know something you don’t

This is a good rule to just follow in life in general, but I feel it particularly applies to mentorship.

It’s much better to tell the person you’re helping that you don’t know something than it is to teach them the wrong thing. Teaching them the wrong thing could send them down the wrong path later, or perhaps make them look foolish in public or at work. It’s really irresponsible to just make things up.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: Have fun!

This is paramount. Learning new things should be exciting and fun. Be sure to joke a little, provide rewards of some sort, bring snacks, etc. Learning is always easier when you enjoy it, and so is teaching.


This post was inspired by my dear friend Tracy Lee | ladyleet, whom I’ve had the fun of pairing with and mentoring on various projects over the last few months.
Also a shout out to all those people who’ve mentored me over the years, you know who you are and there’s too many of you to list. I’m still being mentored by people that might not realize it. I would not have made it to where I am without you, nor would I continue to succeed.

For additional reading on this from a different perspective, checkout Creating A Welcoming Workspace For Beginners by Raquel Moss

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