I met a young software engineer on the train the other day, and we started talking about mentoring. Although he’s only been an engineer for two years, he works with several less experienced engineers. When I asked if he had been able to mentor them, he responded, “I’m too scared.” I thought that was a strange response, so I inquired further, and he explained, “The guy who mentored me at my last company always made me feel bad when I made a mistake. I don’t want to do that to someone else.”
“The guy who mentored me at my last company always made me feel bad when I made a mistake. I don’t want to do that to someone else.”
I assured this young man that making someone “feel bad” is not mentoring. That is the behavior of a bully.
I wondered how his coworker even got to be called a “mentor,” and then I remembered this passage from The Heart of Mentoring:
“In many cases, people today who call themselves mentors are merely going through the motions. They are motivated by guilt or necessity, not by a passion for making a difference in the lives of others.”
Mentoring relationships come in many varieties, but at the core, they’re about supporting others through advice and help. Mentoring is built on humility, kindness, patience, and generosity. It’s also a way of investing in the future — perhaps the future of your company, the community, or the world.
Here are some guidelines to ensure that you share your advice and wisdom with your mentoring partners in a healthy, supportive way.
Humility over Arrogance
You may be older or younger than your mentoring partner. You may be more experienced or less experienced in your field overall. In any case, you have some advice to provide that could benefit this person, and that’s why you’re entering the mentoring relationship. However, if you start the relationship off thinking you’re the superior one, you’re unlikely to succeed in helping anyone. Good mentors are humble; they recognize that they can learn from the mentoring relationships as well.
Let’s say you’ve been a software engineer for 30 years, and you’re mentoring a newcomer who is fresh out of school. You’re showing her how to deploy code to production through typing a bunch of commands in the terminal, and she mentions a continuous deployment tool she used in a previous internship to automate this deploy process. You’ve never heard of this tool. That’s wonderful!
We can learn from anyone we encounter, even those we mentor. This junior engineer may even be able to mentor you in using the deployment tool. Mentoring doesn’t have to be a rigid unidirectional concept based on seniority. No one is an expert in everything, and everyone has something to offer.
This is also why I avoid the term “mentee” and similar labels in favor of “mentoring partner.” I’m borrowing that idea from The Heart of Mentoring, where the author explains, “This term seems right because mentoring is not something you do to someone but with someone.” It helps avoid any implication of superiority or authority.
Patience over Impatience
When we gain expertise in an area, it can sometimes be hard to remember what it was like to live without this expertise. This is a common problem in mentoring situations.
A well-meaning mentor may be helping a junior engineer learn git. When the junior engineer goes to use it, the mentor may see him doing something strange or inefficient, like manually adding each of 30 changes. The mentor could get impatient and ask, “What are you doing? Why aren’t you just using git add -A?”
However, she must remember that he is new to git, and he may not even be aware of the command option. It’s best to avoid using “just” when asking about someone’s behavior. As Stacy Kvernmo has discussed, there’s an implied insult when questions are asked in that way. The mentor could more kindly ask, “Hey, have you heard about git add -A? It’s a helpful way to save you from adding each change individually. Do you want to try it?”
Also, don’t be surprised if the junior engineer sticks to adding files one by one the next time you see him do it. Learning takes time! That’s why a good mentor is patient. Gentle reminders and supportive questions are helpful tools in your mentoring inventory.
Detachment over Attachment
Taking the previous example a step further, what if that junior engineer never becomes proficient at git? The mentor needs to make peace with that. As mentors, we do our best to help our mentoring partners, but we cannot be attached to any given outcome because it is not within our control.
Earlier in my career, I volunteered to mentor a new software engineer outside of my regular work. I was excited to help her on her programming journey. She lived in San Francisco, and I lived in Mountain View, so I had to commute quite a ways to see her, but to me, it was worth it because I felt I was making a difference. On the day of our first meeting, she canceled last minute, after I had already arrived in San Francisco. I was disappointed, but I tried to brush it off. She kept avoiding subsequent meetings, and we ended up meeting only a couple of times over the course of three months. At the time, I felt very disappointed by the experience. I had envisioned helping this fledging software engineer spread her wings to fly, and reality was nothing like that. I was so attached to my expected outcome, and when reality didn’t line up perfectly, I felt unappreciated and useless. I even felt resentful.
With time, I realized that my mistake was having expectations at all. You can’t control the behavior of others. Mentoring is an act of kindness; like loving, it is about giving of yourself generously and being detached from the outcome. Most importantly, as David Stoddard writes, “Mentoring concentrates on the needs of the one being mentored, not on the agenda of the mentor.”
You may, of course, decide to stop mentoring if the relationship is not productive, but don’t let unmet expectations make you feel disappointed in yourself or others. We’re all doing our best.
Who can you help?
You don’t need to mentor someone formally in order to make a difference. You also don’t need to mentor them for life. You can mentor someone over an airplane ride. You can mentor someone in a one-day coding workshop. And you can, of course, mentor someone continuously over the course of their career.
What really matters is that you’re humble, patient, and kind.
About the Author
April Wensel is a veteran software engineer and technical leader who loves mentoring. She also volunteers with diversity-focused organizations like Hackbright Academy and Black Girls Code. She founded Compassionate Coding in order to bring more emotional intelligence to engineering.
When not coding or leading workshops, she enjoys running marathons and cooking vegan food — because animals deserve our compassion, too!