Actively acknowledge and encourage individuals with potential

The Practical

As a mentor, evaluate individuals based on potential vs. overall results. When you find someone with potential, especially if they’re in an under-represented group, actively acknowledge their potential and encourage them to keep exploring. They might not be aware of their own skills.

The Story

Since we’re at the beginning, I figured I’d tell the story about the first time I thought I could have a career in computer science.

Growing up, I didn’t get a lot of exposure to computer science. In fact, I didn’t even know what the word meant until I went to college. In high school, I went down the straight and narrow of traditional science and math, and the high school I went to didn’t offer anything beyond a typing class when it came to computers. My parents always encouraged me to pursue math and science, but programming never came up.

When Spring Quarter of freshman year arrived, all my friends and I decided to take Stanford’s introductory computer science class “CS106A” on the recommendation of an RA that said, “Everyone who goes to Stanford should take CS106A.” I didn’t really know why at the time, but I’m glad we all trusted him.

Through the rest of the quarter, I genuinely enjoyed the coursework. We learned the fundamentals of coding and got to code up games and logic puzzles. I did alright… but when it came time for competitions in class, I realized very quickly I was behind the learning curve. During a graphical programing competition, I wrote a buggy program that threw an axe at a pixelated Stanford tree. Others in the class wrote programs that were rich animated videos. Working really hard, I earned a consistent B+ on assignments. By mid-quarter, I found myself feeling like an underdog among peers that had been programming since middle school. I decided I wouldn’t be daunted because I enjoyed what I was learning.

I was lucky that Stanford has a very hands on approach to teaching beginning computer science. I had a TA named Jonas who taught a small group of 10 students and hand-graded programs. On the last day of the quarter, I had one last meeting with Jonas to cover my final coding assignment (I’d already received a B on my final). We chatted, went over possible areas of improvement for my program, and then something life-changing happened to me. Jonas said:

“You know, you’re really good at this. You should really consider pursuing Computer Science. ”
— my introductory CS TA

I was shocked. I responded, “Are you sure? I mean, I’ve been getting B+s the whole time. There’s so many others in the class who are way better at this.”

He quickly assured me that it wasn’t the grade or performance that mattered, it was potential. He saw talent in me, and urged me to enroll in the next level course. I hadn’t even considered taking another CS class until that moment, since it was clear so many others were “better” at coding than me. That conversation lasted only a couple minutes, but it shifted my perspective to seriously consider technology as a career. The next year, I took another CS class, and shortly after declared computer science as my major.

Some time senior year, I saw Jonas visiting campus, and told him proudly that I was a CS major. He was really happy to hear the news, but not sure he ever understood how much he contributed to my identity as a woman in technology.

I wanted to share this story to illustrate how Jonas did two things incredibly well:

  1. Evaluate potential, not results — He evaluated my potential, not the quality of my code on the bell curve of my peers. Many of my peers had a lot of past experience, so their results looked a lot better. As a student who didn’t have access to computer science resources prior to college (like many under-represented groups), there were many years of experience between me and the A+ students in the class. But I think what Jonas noticed was how I quickly I learned concepts despite my lack of expertise, and I thank him for that.
  2. Proactively encourage — He sought me out and let me know that I had potential. I sometimes wonder if I would have considered computer science as seriously if I didn’t have his encouragement in the back of my mind. So if you’re a mentor, and you see someone who has potential, don’t hesitate to reinforce it with your words. On the way into a career as a minority demographic, under-represented groups hear a lot of things that might cause second guessing a chosen career path. By proactively encouraging your mentees, you’re putting a few more words of encouragement in the bank. And who knows, your one comment might cause someone to consider a career they never would have thought to pursue.

Originally published at www.fearofpoets.com on August 9, 2015.