Me, a mentor?
When I was first prompted about mentoring an engineer within Redgate, it was one of those moments when impostor syndrome bit. Sure, I’ve had a lot of experiences in the past, but how specifically can I help awesome people working on things I don’t understand yet?
I’ve asked myself that question a few times since — as well as having taken some good hard looks at myself along the way through three separate mentoring relationships with other engineers. My first priority is that the time needs to be a good investment for those I’m working with — and it’s obviously been a worthwhile experience for Andrea, Ajay and Stefano, or they wouldn’t have kept coming back! It’s been a thoroughly positive experience for me too, and I think I’m a better engineer as a result of what we’ve gone through together. It’s also been very enjoyable to put to good use a large backlog of experience from my career. What do I get from my relationships and why should you consider becoming a mentor to someone at your company — or even someone else from outside?
It’s hugely rewarding helping someone hit their goals
Not all mentees start with the same expectations of what we can achieve. They may have a very clear picture of where they want to get to, such as to reach a certain level within the company. Andrea was determined to become a Lead Software Engineer, and the culmination of our time together was him achieving it. The goal need not be nearly so focused, though. The career path forwards for a software engineer has a number of forks in it, and sometimes the aim of my sessions is to throw some clarity on which of those paths might be the best to pursue. Having been both Tech Lead and Lead Software Engineer in my time — two highly contrasting roles, which open doors to different places — I can try to pose the right questions to my mentees to understand their own motivations and interests. I can also provide some reassurance that their path into the future may well not be linear, as mine certainly wasn’t, and there’s no harm in that.
Ticking off a major career goal is also a good point to step back and review our relationship. The point of the exercise is that I’m there for them, not my own ego, and for me it feels really satisfying when someone moves on and finds another mentor for the next phase of their journey. They’ve outgrown me — that’s something to celebrate! Even better when they swap sides and begin mentoring the next generation themselves!
No two sessions are the same
This surprised me most of all. My basic principle is that it’s up to my mentee what questions they want to work through at any given time; I can and do suggest areas to explore but I’m hopefully clear that I don’t always have simple answers for them and there’s a lot of “it depends”, and context and experience to unpack on both sides of that cliché — often a question leads to several deeper ones. That does keep me very much on my toes; I certainly don’t have a lot of pre-prepared material to go through and I’m more than happy for conversations to take an unexpected turn.
At different times our half hours have been talking through presentations and preparing for internal interviews, looking at very specific coding problems that have come up over the course of the previous week and picking through alternatives and preferences, spelunking through unfamiliar codebases to get an appreciation of the wider Redgate ecosystem, working our way together through some of the best books for career planning, chewing over recent events in the team, or simply sharing war stories. It shouldn’t be a surprise that my thirty years in the industry have brought both significant successes and complete dumpster fires. Both have given me nuggets of wisdom to pass on, but the disasters more so; and sometimes a mentee going through a hard time really needs to hear that you can work through pretty much anything and come out stronger and wiser.
I’ve learnt a lot about myself along the way
My career has taken many turns; talking through them with my mentees not only illuminates what is possible and practical for them, and what pitfalls to avoid, but also makes me revisit my own motivations and misconceptions. How did my teams, colleagues and the environment around me help shape what I thought were my own decisions? What things have become obvious with hindsight? How did my experiences at seven other companies make me the person I am today? I do tend to reflect on my past quite a lot in any case, but having mentees eager to hear my stories has pushed me to collect them into some sort of coherent whole and anchor them in what I understand now.
I also have to give a big thankyou to Gareth from Redgate’s internal coaching team. Having someone to talk through all the experiences I’ve had as a mentor has been remarkably helpful, particularly when it hasn’t been too clear what impact I was having. One of the best things in trying something new is knowing you’re not alone!
I can’t recommend the experience of being a mentor highly enough. It’s a great way to help someone else grow in their career, and also to develop and stretch some new skills of your own. It doesn’t have to be someone in your own team, in fact a little bit of distance from the day-to-day work can make it easier to cultivate a safe and productive space. I’m always happy to talk through my experiences (especially if there’s tea involved), and if I’ve piqued your interest, there’s only one way to find out if it’s right for you...