My experience as a mentor in Girls in Tech Helsinki

My reflection and few tips from this 6-month mentorship program

For the past 6 months I’ve had the opportunity to participate in Girls in Tech mentoring program as a mentor of a freshly service design graduate. While I’ve been getting my feet wet with teaching and informally coaching in the past few years (I like to help people whenever I can), I am far from an expert in my field, let alone in social and life skills. You might then think that I am going to write about how scared I was when I decided to join the program and take onto the responsibility of guiding a person who’s just out of university overwhelmed with the amount of choices and career paths available, and how eventually I managed to overcome my fears and have a happy ending like the ones from those self-improvement books.

To be fair, this story does have a happy ending :). But as a matter of fact, this time I wasn’t scared nor was I specially concerned with living up to my mentee’s or the program’s expectations. And here’s why:

Mentor? Approach the program as a learning experience for yourself.

Maybe because it was my first time being officially labelled as a mentor (I really dislike labels ^_^), I felt I actually had much more to learn than to “teach” — and this released a lot of pressure off my shoulders. I was genuinely interested in knowing the type of issues and challenges recent graduates face when finishing their studies, and whether I would be able to relate to those and share my experiences in the job market with my mentee (I’ve been on her side of the table not that long ago). Also, since I saw the whole experience as an opportunity of learning something new and stepping out of my comfort zone, I was open-minded, ready to commit my time and make the most of it.

Ask. Listen. Then be honest about what you can and cannot do.

Only by proactively asking questions and carefully listening to your counterpart you’ll be able to identify the areas in which you can contribute and support her the best. First of all, understand what her needs and goals are and then picture her journey towards those goals. Identify the stage she’s at, and what kind of advice and resources she requires in order to achieve whatever it is that she wants to achieve. It’s more than likely that you won’t be able to help your mentee in all the steps of the journey and that’s OK. From the very beginning, be completely open about the things you know and the things do you don’t know, and always trust your mentee: if she’s been smart enough to ask for a mentor, she surely can figure out how to move forward and step up to challenges on her own. After a few discussions with your mentee, you’ll realize that most of the time she does not need to develop or learn a new skill, but instead a small boost of confidence, or seeing things from a different perspective.

Have clear goals and schedule, but be flexible if circumstances change.

The Girls in Tech team did a great job putting the whole program together. At the launch of the program we were given a booklet to be used as a guide for the 6-month period which was really useful. The handbook helped us frame our roles and also served as a good starting point for planning our sessions.

Something that worked out really well and in my opinion was critical for a positive outcome is that we were able to identify in our kickoff session our goals for the program and also lock a series of topics to cover as well as a fixed time for our meetings (1–2h, every third Wednesday of the month), which in a nutshell looked like this:

  • Session 1: Goals and expectations, knowing each other, CV, portfolio and cover letter review.
  • Session 2: Visit to real-life working environment (a.k.a Tuxera HQ) and participating in a project for a couple of hours.
  • Session 3: Job interviews, networking, and search for hidden jobs.
  • Session 4: Identifying your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Session 5: How to develop in your area of expertise
  • Session 6: Working environment in Finland (practicalities, salary, etc.) and wrap-up.

Having a clear purpose and schedule also led to an increase in commitment from both parties towards the program. That’s not to say you should always stick to the plan. In our case, my mentee landed a job in the middle of the program — therefore we replaced the topics of our latest sessions to new ones focused on starting a new job and personal and professional development at the workplace. Thus, be ready to adapt if the situation changes, and always listen to your mentee and analyze how she’s developing under those changes.

Overall recommendations for new mentors

Once again, this was my first experience as mentor, but I feel I should share what I’ve learned in the hope that if you are new to mentorship you might benefit from this experience. Focus on learning, it will help both parties feel more relaxed throughout the program. Listen to the other party and avoid sounding condescending, your interactions should be conversational. If you are making a point or explaining something to your mentee, give concrete examples. Share responsibilities, like collecting what’s been learned and measuring results, and also share achievements. I’ve written in the past about the value of asking for feedback. Make sure you follow through with it and transmit its importance to your mentee. Be open and honest about what you know and what you don’t know, and be respectful and thoughtful with your pair: never forget the human factor.

“Always pass on what you have learned.” — Yoda, legendary Jedi Master.

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