Mentorship has a reputation of taking a lot of time and work. But what if it wasn't? Here are ways to get a mentor, be a mentor, and how to navigate it. I have always worked on getting mentors in every corner of my engineering career. I have mentors that do not even know they are my mentor. But I like it that way. I will go into how to get a mentor at any stage of your engineering career and how to be a good mentor/mentee.
How to Get a Mentor Without Telling Them
AI Generated Video Summary
This Talk explores the topic of mentorship, focusing on how to get a mentor without explicitly asking. It discusses the qualities of a good mentor and the importance of being a good mentee. The benefits of mentorship include personal growth, career advancement, and fostering a collaborative work culture. Strategies for finding mentors and mentees are provided, along with tips for navigating mentorship conversations. Overall, mentorship is seen as a powerful tool for learning, growth, and mutual support in the field of software engineering.
1. Introduction to Mentorship
Hello, everyone. I'm Erin Fox, and I'm so excited to be here today at the TechLeague conference to talk about a topic that I'm very passionate about, how to get a mentor without telling them. But as I was refining my talks and key concepts, I noticed that it really should have been called how to get a mentor without telling them, or secretly get a mentee.
Hello, everyone. I'm Erin Fox, and I'm so excited to be here today at the TechLeague conference to talk about a topic that I'm very passionate about, how to get a mentor and not tell them. But as I was refining my talks and key concepts, I noticed that it really should have been called how to get a mentor without telling them, or secretly get a mentee. And a quick side note, if needed, I have this talk in a blog post format. So I tweeted that out earlier today. So if you need some words, feel free to head over to Twitter. My handle is Erin Fox, so it's Erin Fox with two o's if you need some words there.
2. Goals and Approach to Mentorship
I'm hoping for a few things from this talk, how to get a mentor without telling them, obviously, how to be a good mentor and a good mentee. And third, of course, I want to help anyone and everyone be inspired to be a mentor or a mentee. We're gonna look into mentorship, particularly engineering mentorship, talk about some tips on how to be a good mentor and a good mentee. And maybe even touch on not maybe we will touch on an example I've had with a not so great mentor and how to handle that and how to recognize it if you're in that situation. And lastly, I'll share three stories from my experience on how I got mentors without asking them. So let's dive in. Engineering mentorship. It has always come very natural for me. So up until a few months ago, I didn't really know how I was getting them or what I was doing, it was a blind spot for me. So when you first think of mentorship, it could sound like a pretty large commitment or intimidating or a lot of time, but I'm hoping to show you that it doesn't necessarily need to be that. My definition of mentorship, specifically engineering mentorship is teach people what you know and how to teach themselves. And in many mentorship relationships, there is usually a mentor and a mentee. And throughout that relationship, these titles can flip back and forth.
And let's go ahead and start off with some goals. So I'm hoping for a few things from this talk, how to get a mentor without telling them, obviously, how to be a good mentor and a good mentee. There's always room for improvement in your career by helping others, mentoring others, being the best mentee that you can be. It can really enrich your career and maybe even your life on how you feel about work and how you show up to work. So really redefining a good engineering career.
And third, of course, I want to help anyone and everyone be inspired to be a mentor or a mentee. And if you're here today, I kind of already bucket you in the category as yourself as someone who's looking to enhance your career. So really, this is a great way to attend this conference and just by listening to this talk. So I already know I'm talking to the right crowd, which is great.
And so how are we going to achieve We're gonna look into mentorship, particularly engineering mentorship, talk about some tips on how to be a good mentor and a good mentee. And maybe even touch on not maybe we will touch on an example I've had with a not so great mentor and how to handle that and how to recognize it if you're in that situation. And lastly, I'll share three stories from my experience on how I got mentors without asking them. So let's dive in.
So engineering mentorship. It has always come very natural for me. So up until a few months ago, I didn't really know how I was getting them or what I was doing, it was a blind spot for me. And so I sat down with my manager to map out strengths for promotion. And she said, You're really at getting people to help you and you help them out so much, you don't really realize it. And so naturally asking for help, putting yourself in vulnerable situations in order to become a better engineer, ends up not only progressing your knowledge and areas, but has the ability to help others further their career, maybe even established a new thread of learning throughout your company or team.
So when you first think of mentorship, it could sound like a pretty large commitment or intimidating or a lot of time, but I'm hoping to show you that it doesn't necessarily need to be that. So if you think about how you approach someone for a conversation, if you come up to them real fast in their face, straight on, like face to face, it can be pretty intimidating. So if someone comes up to you and says, you're really smart, will you be my mentor? That's pretty intimidating. But if you slowly approach someone from the side, like shoulder to shoulder, it's less intimidating. So starting out with something smaller and specific, asking questions, a smaller topic can be very less intrusive than straight on. So smaller topics is more approachable way to get a mentor or a mentee. And that's kind of what I found really has worked for
My definition of mentorship, specifically engineering mentorship is teach people what you know and how to teach themselves. Try to keep it as simple as possible. And in many mentorship relationships, there is usually a mentor and a mentee. And throughout that relationship, these titles can flip back and forth.
3. Flipping Roles in Mentorship
In a mentorship relationship, the titles of mentor and mentee can switch back and forth. For example, if I'm skilled in React and my teammate is skilled in Rails, we can exchange knowledge and information. Mentorship is a two-way street of learning, and it should not be one-sided. There will be times when you are both a mentor and a mentee.
And throughout that relationship, these titles can flip back and forth. So say I'm really good at React and the front end. I've been doing it for a few years and another teammate is not as familiar with React, but they're really good at Rails and like all that magic that Rails has. So I want to connect and I want to swap knowledge and information. And it's a two-way street of learning with this mentorship, and it should never really be one sided. So when I'm teaching about React, I'll probably be the mentor and the mentor shoes in that situation. And then they're going to be learning from me and they're going to be the mentor, and I'm going to be the mentee learning about that. So there will be times when you are a mentor and a mentee.
4. Qualities of a Good Mentor
A good mentor is someone who is willing to share knowledge, listen, and explain hard concepts in different ways. They guide the mentee without taking over, teaching them to teach themselves. These small moments of mentorship can go unnoticed. However, it's important to recognize counterexamples, such as the 'Segal effect,' where someone comes in, makes changes to your code, and leaves you in a worse situation.
And so, when you are a mentor, what makes a good one? I think a mentor is someone who is willing to share knowledge and help others. willing to listen and explain hard concepts in a handful of different ways. I think the smartest engineers I have ever worked with are able to explain hard concepts very simply and in different ways.
So, it's such a skill to be able to explain what you're doing, like, in words, and then, like, teach others. So, they provide guidance by guiding the mentee in a certain direction, not by doing it for them. So, if you're pairing on the same screen or your screen sharing, don't take over the screen, don't take over the keyboard. Teach them to teach themselves. And if they're not good at Googling, Google with them. Show them how you Google. Show them which docs are good, which docs are not so great. Copy and paste code from Stack Overflow together. Maybe they don't know much about that. Show them shortcuts, your keyboard shortcuts, that will save you time and their time and make everything more efficient. And so these little moments of mentorship are mentorship. You might not even really realize it.
This is fun. So some of you maybe you've tried a mentorship and it didn't work out. Maybe you're in a pair session and one of your mentors it just, it wasn't what you thought. So it's always fun to show a counterexample and not have a fun one. I was working pair programming with the more senior engineer that previous job of mine common situation. So we were just pairing. I needed help with my project, but I kept leaving the pair session way more confused and more lost than when I started. And so this really helped me understand, I don't know if I created it. I'd like to say I did. So we'll just go with that. But it helped me understand and create what I like to call is the Segal effect. And what the Segal effect is, is when someone comes in, cracks all of your code and then flies away, just like the seagull bird at the beach. This doesn't have to apply to only pair programming, Seagulls can be found in many life situations. So they attempt to help you make a bunch of changes to your code, then leave you hanging because either they got overwhelmed, they didn't know how to solve it, they got too busy with their own work, you ran out of time, you didn't do time management well. But overall, they crack all of your code and leave you in a worse situation than you started.
5. Evaluating Mentorship and Being a Good Mentee
If you're feeling lost and struggling in your role, it's time to evaluate your mentorship relationship. Consider being more direct with your needs and feedback, and if necessary, find a better partner. Taking a pause can also be helpful if things aren't working out. The seagull effect is a metaphor for someone who may seem knowledgeable but lacks experience. Being a good mentee is just as important as being a good mentor. It requires openness, willingness to learn, and preparation.
So you have no solution, no confidence, messy code, failed tests, and maybe you're just like, even questioning your life decisions of becoming an engineer or whatever your role is. So you really should be flying, soaring high together, in the right direction, not one just cracking all over the place and flying away.
And if this is happening, I think, I think it's good. I think it's time to take a pulse check of the situation. Be more direct with what you need. Be more direct with some feedback, and really evaluate if the mentorship relationship is getting you to your goals, or if it's even helping them out in any way. And if it's not, it's time to find a better partner, find a better bird to fly on the same, same path with. And if it, one trick that I like to do is, you can always take a pause. So if you are just really overwhelmed with work, or they're very overwhelmed with work, or it's just not a good mentorship pairing relationship is to say, I want to take a pause for now, there's a lot going on, and we can revisit this in a few months. And so that's always a trick that it's not a trick, but it's a tactic that I use if something isn't working out in that moment.
So the seagull effect really is like a fun metaphor. But as I was scrolling on Twitter, as we all do, I recently came across this Twitter post. So it says rescuers learned that the exotic bird they found was actually a seagull covered in crate. And I haven't found quite a good metaphor for this one yet. Maybe it's someone who seems to know it all or doesn't have enough experience with the act like they do. I don't know. There's something there maybe for my next talk. But maybe you've been a seagull before, and that's okay. There is a cure. Understanding how to be a good mentor is really the first step. And now that we know not to be a seagull and a good idea of how to be a good mentor, what makes a mentor? Being a good mentee. No one really talks about this. I remember looking around for this information when I found a really excited mentor to work with me, and I didn't want to disappoint them. And I found that being a good mentee takes some skills, and it's someone who is open and willing to learn. They're excited. They show up prepared. They've googled the topic. They've watched videos. They've read blog posts. They've searched the company Slack.
6. Benefits of Mentorship
Learning about each other's styles saves time, enhances the experience, and helps with company culture. Mentorship is a great way to find satisfaction in your career and feel good about helping someone succeed. It's a powerful tool that can change the way we work and feel accomplished as engineers. Both individuals need to show up, learn, and grow together.
They've searched the code base. Maybe they've found the file, and they don't know exactly what to do in that file, but they found it. They should show up with questions and listen and really value the mentor's time. You get to learn how the other person likes to work. You get to learn how a mentor likes to work. So figuring out what works best for them in the beginning really helps set up you efficiently and use both of your time efficiently. So if they need to know ahead of time, like what PR you're working on, or what topic you want to talk about, maybe you send that to them a couple hours ahead of time so they have time to really find that information, look over it, and then being able to discover some brainstorming ideas that they can bring to it. So learning about each other and their styles saves time, enhances the experience, and helps with company culture, and it can overall just speed up learning. And so I actually have written an article about how to be a good partner when pair programming. There's a handful of tips that I found, and I will tweet this one out as well. I'd love to hear more tips if you have any. I'm always looking to improve and help others improve when mentoring. And so mentorship is a great way to spend your time and really find a satisfying feeling of a good career or feel really good at your job. And you can feel good helping someone succeed, and you can be rewarded knowing that you've impacted that person. Maybe they wouldn't be who they are today without your help, or you wouldn't be as satisfied with your career. It's really a powerful tool and it can change the way we work as individuals within our teams, within our companies and how we feel accomplished in our roles as engineers. Both you and the person really need to just show up and learn and soar and not be seagulls, whether it's really a granular topic, like how or what best architectural practices for React app, maybe learning the basic of Rails or really getting 20 minutes of career advice on how to negotiate a higher salary. Both individuals have to want to be there and benefit from it.
7. Getting Mentors Without Asking
Throughout my career, I've always sought out mentors to help me become a well-rounded engineer. I identify my weaknesses and find people who can teach me. In return, I share my strengths. I've had mentors through mentorship programs, like the one at ConvertKit, where I work as a full stack software engineer. The program pairs you with a teammate, and I've been with my mentor for three years now. Our mentorship has been successful because we come prepared.
And so we talked a lot about how to be a good mentor or bad mentor or bad mentee. Now let's talk about some specific situations on how I got mentors without telling them.
So it was through mentorship programs. I didn't have to set it up, I just kind of got paired up, pair programming and leveling up. So mentorship programs, I'm a full stack software engineer at ConvertKit. ConvertKit is a creator marketing platform where we help creators earn a living online. And we have about 20 engineers, I think it's about four or five teams. And when I joined a few years ago, I got hired as a full stack. And I've only really worked on the front end. So I knew I needed to do a lot of self teaching, and you don't read a lot. But I also wanted to be able to learn from a more senior engineer who has been at the company for some time and learn from them all of like, how one how the company is run and how to get more better at backend data and all that. And luckily, we had a formal mentorship program. And it was optional. Not everyone had to do it. You would pair up with a teammate where you meet once a week, maybe every other week, once a month. And I ended up getting paired with a great mentor. And initially, the program was quarterly. So you can switch mentors every quarter. But we have been meeting and continue to want to stay with each other for, I think it's always been three years now. So it's been such a great, successful mentorship for me and for them. Mostly because I think a big reason it's been so successful is because we come prepared.
8. Exploring Side Projects and Pair Programming
We focused on side projects, exploring code that no team owned. One project involved email signup validation. I had the opportunity to ask questions, learn at my own pace, and become a well-rounded full stack engineer. The mentorship also provided an avenue for my mentor to work on passion projects. Pair programming became more common and led to better mentorship and learning. Engineers now pair every day, fostering a culture of collaboration and learning.
We share, we have shared goals. And we focus a lot on side projects. And so, you know, those projects, the ones that you're dying to work on as a senior engineer that you just don't have time for. So we're able to kind of dig into the code where no team really owned that code. And we're able to come up with a really great, fun project.
So one that we worked on is an email signup validation project. So a new signup email, when you misspell your email, maybe you put gmale instead of gmail. And so we'll do a popup, we'll check it. We'll do a third party API and updates the UI and it's just the proper email. And so I had a space to really move slower with the corner of the code I've never got to explore. I got to ask a lot of questions, pause when I needed. And for my learning style, it was a great setup. We didn't have a deadline. We met once a week for an hour and it really helped me become a more well-rounded full stack engineer.
And then from the mentorship's perspective, I really allowed an avenue for them to work on parts of the app that doesn't really fall into a certain team. Like I mentioned, we got to work on a passion project of theirs. It was something that was just like really bugging them. We can get more signups if people just stop storing their email incorrectly. So we helped the business. My mentor was able to really have like a win-win situation all around. So I got this mentor without asking them through a formal informal company program and they're easy. It's great. You could sign out a Slack team. Or who wants to work on a side project with me once a week for an hour, you can set up a mentorship program within your engineering teams and just send out a Google form and match people up and boom, like mentorship.
And really throughout that mentorship, one thing that worked very well for us is we did a lot of pair programming. And so I started introducing pair programming to be more common and welcome practice across our remote engineering team. And before joining, pairing at the company, it was infrequent and not regularly practiced. And I wanted to make it more common because I knew I needed to get my job done and I knew I'm very good with people and forming relationships. And that really leads to great mentorship and learning how to do my job better. And now, more engineers pair everyday across teams and you can help build a culture of engineers working and learning together through participation and encouraging pair programming.
Benefits of Mentorship and Q&A
Pairing is a great way to get micro mentorship sessions without directly asking for mentorship. Mentoring can open doors for career opportunities and help you explore different paths. Setting up mentorship programs, focusing on side projects, and peer programming can enhance your career. Be open to learning as a mentor or mentee and inspire others to do the same.
So, by bringing in and starting to work together more, the entire team is better for it. A simple Slack or email of, hey, anyone want to pair today on use effect? I can't get my code working. It could really lead to a great pairing session and spread knowledge. It's not something that can be seen as a weakness. It's an opportunity to be vulnerable and allow yourself to really grow and learn. And pairing is a great way to get little micro mentorship sessions in without having to be a formal asking for mentorship. It's more asking for help and they can be small little mentorship sessions.
Let's talk about how all this can help you level up your career without you might not even realize it. So, how can a mentee help you as a senior engineer level up? Another teammate and I started working together once a week for about an hour, sharpening up my skills. It was a great opportunity to get to know this person, their dear friend. They're amazing. They're super smart. I got to learn their passions, what's going on in their life, and create a great work relationship with an engineer from an entirely different team that I would normally not get a chance to work with. And so, as I was leveling it up, I didn't realize they were also leveling up. So, not only was I getting better, like really great at using Tailwind, debugging, and finding different UI solutions, they were learning how to mentor. And I would ask them for career advice and they found themselves discovering that they really actually really like these type of works. So, eventually an engineering manager role opened up for them and since they had the experience to get the job because of the mentorship we started, they were able to apply and get the role. I was not only leveling myself up by learning a lot of new front-end and UI from them, but I was leveling up them and helping them manage up not even realizing it. So, mentoring can open the door for career opportunities. It doesn't need to be a heavy label or a large time commitment and it's really a great way to lean into different career paths if you're interested in becoming a tech lead or becoming a manager. It's kind of an easy way for you to see if you're interested in those type of roles. So, putting yourself out there, be open to learning as a mentor or mentee can really inspire people to want to do the same. So, setting up mentorship programs within your company, focusing on side projects, which is a win-win, peer programming, and helping others enhance your career is all mentorship and that's what I'm hoping you get from this talk.
So, learn about these ways to get a mentor without telling them or maybe even secretly get a mentee to help you level up. And so, this is a rising passion of mine and I think about it constantly. So, thank you so much for listening. We're going to go ahead and do some questions. I want to start though with the answers to your poll question. So, it looks like actually quite a lot of interest in mentorship. 66% of people have said yes that they have been a mentor, 26% want to be one, and 8% said no.
Finding Mentors and Mentees
I think it's really interesting to see that it lines up and is expected. Finding a mentor or mentee can be challenging, especially as a first-time engineer. Start by looking for senior engineers at your workplace or in relevant communities. Attend conferences, explore online platforms like Twitter, Discord, or Slack channels. The key is to find where the work is being done and connect with experienced engineers. Formal mentorship programs can offer benefits such as getting to know teammates better, career advancement, knowledge sharing, and the opportunity to work on side projects. Starting a program can be as simple as setting up a questionnaire and pairing individuals together. It's important to start small and be open to seeking help.
Does that surprise you those results or what do you think about those? I think it lines up perfectly with my talk. I wish I had a follow up poll now of have you ever been to Siegel? So, that would have been fun to see.
Yeah. Yeah, it's I think it's really interesting to see that that lines up and is expected. We do have some have some questions to get started here. The first is, you know, where do you go to find a mentor or a mentee? Yeah, I think for me that was really hard, especially as a first time engineer coming into your career. I immediately start at where I work. If there's more senior engineers there again, you kind of find what your weakness is, where some, it's someone's strength. Another good place is to find out where they're like, if you need to learn about React, find out where these communities hang out, go to conferences, look it up on Twitter. I'm sure there's a lot of discord chat, chat, Slack or Slack channels that you could be a part of. I think the main thing is like, where is most of this work being done and where are more higher level engineers working on this? So just find the communities, it can be a little scary if you're not a big extrovert to put yourself out there, but there's different alleys and spots to find where the work is being done and who can help you with it.
Awesome. Yeah. And as for a more formal mentorship program at a company, what are some of the benefits or pros and cons of that? And if somebody's interested in starting one, how could they go about that? Yeah. I think at ConvertKit, we just had a simple Google questionnaire of what are you good at? What do you want to work on? How long are you willing to commit? And then one person set it up and one person paired us together. It was a huge benefit. One, you get to know your teammates better. Two, you get to get a mentor or a mentee. It can help you further in your career, get a promotion, knowledge sharing throughout the company. You could work on side projects, so code that never really gets touched. You could do a project there. Con wise, I don't really come across any. I mean, sometimes it could be not a great pair. You could get really busy. It does take away time from your sprint, your cycle projects. So there's timing wise that you need to be able to balance with that. But I think just start small. Don't make it a big deal. Just even send out a Slack or a Discord question of like, Hey, I need help with this. Does anyone have an hour a week to help me? It can really like blossom into a really cool mentorship.
Informal Mentorship and Setting Expectations
Having a shared match and starting small are important in mentorship. Mentoring can have a significant impact on both the mentor and mentee. Dealing with unresponsive mentees requires setting expectations and having regular check-ins. The need for a formal discussion and structure in an informal mentorship relationship can vary, but starting slow and testing the relationship is often effective.
Yeah, I think that's interesting about what you said about having the right match is like really important. That's something that I've seen before too, and making sure that you have shared experiences or shared knowledge that's mutually beneficial and as well as being able to start small. I think a lot of people kind of had this idea of it needs to be big and formal and have like all these established processes, but kind of starting with what you can is a great first step.
So there's a question here from the audience. So actually the first one is more of a shout out and I'd love to read it. The two times I have been a mentor have been some of the most rewarding experiences. I felt like I made an impact on them and they made an impact on me. They are now on my team and their growth has been truly incredible to watch. So love to see that kind of what that impact has had. Have you had kind of similar experiences where you you get those warm and fuzzies from your from your mentorship experience?
Oh absolutely, I think my first mentor I've ever had fresh out of a boot camp had no idea what I was doing and I got hired and they really helped me out so much. I didn't even know how to like type really much code like with Git or anything like that and it was just such a great experience to enter the industry with having a mentor and I still count them as my mentor today and it is such a warm fuzzy feeling and I, now I love to do that with mentees and with people that I want to have the same great experience that I have gotten from that mentor and I want the chain reaction to happen like throughout the tech industry and mentorships really, really help make I think the ecosystem of the tech industry better so yeah definitely those warm, warm feelings. I love that shout out. Thank you so much for reading it.
Yeah absolutely and yeah there's something there's so many great things about it and there's also some challenges too and I think it's important to acknowledge those and this next question kind of is in line with that from the audience here. How do you deal with mentees who maybe aren't willing to put in the work or aren't as reactive to the instruction or advice that you give them?
Yeah as I mentioned in my talk I wrote an article about how to be a good mentee and I think there's a lot of tips there to have them kind of show up prepared. A mentorship is a two-way street, you both have to want to be there or it's just going to waste someone's time and that's part of the thing that I think a lot of mentees don't get is like you just show up and your mentor will teach you everything and that's not really how it works as in any relationship you both have to work and get better and have come up with ideas and questions and things like that. So I think setting expectations and what I like to do with a few people that I work with is I always have like these pulse checks so like every quarter or like once a month we say like hey how's it going? Is there anything that you want to work on or should we take a pause and maybe I have a lot of stuff going on in my home life? So I think frequently check-ins work because you don't want to just be on like a train of just things not working out. Yeah and I think having those check-ins and making sure that it's still a mutually beneficial experience is is a really great great advice. So this next question is about you know mentoring without telling them kind of that that point in your talk there. Do you think that getting a mentor without telling them may raise your mentor's concerns at what stage do you have to become vocal about it and negotiate a mutual time investment?
I don't think I quite understood the first part of that. So you you're meant you have a mentor relationship but it's not official. Sorry I don't quite. Yeah So that's that. I think what this question is getting at is if you do have an informal mentorship relationship, at what point does it does you need to kind of maybe have a more formal discussion and establish those expectations and you know put a little bit of structure in it? Is that something that can happen organically or is there maybe like a moment in time or a trigger for that kind of conversation.
Yeah I don't think I've ever had that conversation. I think it's always just the more natural and easy and less pressure you put on a mentorship kind of worked out the best for me. But if you are looking to have that hard like I want you to be my mentor, I think we talked about how to like start slow and kind of see how that is. Because mentorship does kind of have a heavy label, a heavy time commitment with it. And so I think if you just make it easy and go slow and kind of test the relationship and how the mentee and mentor work together, it's kind of like if you are dating. It's like, are you my girlfriend? Like, are you my boyfriend? It's like kind of a lot like an awkward conversation.
Navigating Mentorship Conversations
In a mentorship situation, you don't need to explicitly ask if someone is your mentor. If you're learning from them and they have been mentoring you, it doesn't require a hard conversation or labeling. Conversations can occur naturally for specific needs or changes in communication without the need for formal discussions.
And at least with a mentorship situation, you don't really have to say, like, so like, are you my mentor? It's like, yeah, they've been, you're learning something from them. They have been mentoring you before. So I think in my opinion, it doesn't need to have that hard conversation. Yeah, they don't need to label things. That is sort of great. Yeah. And I think it's also important to understand that like, conversations can happen for specific, like, things that arise. So if you feel that maybe like you do want more time, or if you maybe like want to change how you're communicating, or there's something specific, like, I think it's good to have those conversations, but there doesn't necessarily need to be like State of the Union type, like, formal thing.