How to Get a Mentor Without Telling Them


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.


Hello, everyone. I'm Erin Fox, and I'm so excited to be here today at the Tech League 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 Fuchs. So that's Erin Fox with two O's if you need some words there. But 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 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 these goals? We're going to 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 good 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 in areas, but has the ability to help others further their career, maybe even establish 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 me. So let's kind of break that down a little bit more. My definition of mentorship is specifically engineering mentorship is teach people what you know, and how to teach themselves to 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. 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 the mentee. And then when they're teaching me about Rails, and the magic, 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. 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. They're 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 you're 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 your shortcuts, your keyboard shortcuts that will save you time, 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 were 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 counter example and not have a fun one. I was working pair programming with a more senior engineer at a previous job of mine, and it was a pretty common situation. So we were just pairing, I needed help on 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 seagull effect. And what the seagull 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 crapped all over your code and leave you in a worse situation than you started. 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 crapping 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's 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 curry. 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 not doesn't have enough experience with the act like they do. But I don't know, there's something something that 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 good mentee. So no one really talks about this. I remember looking around for this information when I finally got a really excited mentors work with me. And I didn't want to disappoint them. And I found that being a good mentee, take 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, they've searched the code base, maybe they 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 mentors 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. And so if they need to know ahead of time, like what PR you're working on, or what topic you want to talk about, if 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 take 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 like 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 like show up and learn and soar and not be seagulls. Whether it's really like a granular topic like how or what best architectural practices for React app, maybe learning the basic of Rails or really getting like 20 minutes of career advice on how to negotiate a higher salary. Both individuals have to want to be there and benefit from it. And so we talked a lot about how to be a good mentor, bad mentor, and how to be a bad mentee. Now let's talk about some specific situations on how I got mentors without telling them. So throughout my career, I've always had a mentor. Wherever I've worked, I've always found people's strengths. Whether they've had like a decade of JavaScript experience or they've navigated their career with such like poise and confidence, I really seek people out to help me. And you might be thinking, whoa, Erin, that's pretty selfish. And it might be, but I want to become a smart, more well-rounded engineer. And I'm going to find the alleys and materials and the people that help me achieve those goals. And so my first step is really to figure out what are my weaknesses and where or who can I learn from and what are those their strengths? So then vice versa, like what are my strengths and can I share them with others? Part of the reason why my strength is why I'm here is because I'm a mentor. So let me tell you, I've got some of these mentors. 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 creative 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. I need to 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 was run and how to get more better at backend and 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 could 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, 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 G nail instead of Gmail. And so we'll do a pop-up, 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, it 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, like we can get more signups if people just stop selling 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, great. You can send out a Slack out on a, 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 every day across teams, and you can really help build a culture of engineers working and learning together through participation and encouraging pair programming. So by bringing it 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 effects? 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 realizing it. And 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 front end 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 up, I didn't realize they were also leveling up. So not only was I getting better, like really great at using Tailwind and debugging and trying 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 kind of is 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, pair 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. 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 a SIGL? So that would have been fun to see. Yeah, yeah, it's I think it's really interesting to see that that lines up as 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 weaknesses were. So 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 can 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 like engineers working on this? So just find the communities. It can be a little scary if you're not like a big extrovert, put yourself out there. But there's different alleys and kind of spots to find like where the work is being done and who can help you with it. Awesome. Yeah. And as for a more like formal mentorship program at a company, what are some of the benefits or pros and cons of that and if somebody is 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 can work on side projects, so code that never really gets touched. You could do a project there. Con wise, I don't think I've really come across any. I mean, sometimes it could be like 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 like balance with that. But I think just start small. Don't make it a big deal. Maybe just even send out a Slack or a Discord question of, hey, I need help with this. Does anyone have an hour a week to help me? It could really like blossom into a really cool mentorship. 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 in 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 here's a question here from the audience. So actually, the first one is more of a shout out, and I would 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 get those warm and fuzzies from your mentorship experience? Oh, absolutely. I think my first mentor I've ever had, fresh out of 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 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 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 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 the 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? Like, is there anything that you want to work on? Or should we take a pause? 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 a really great, great advice. And so this next question is about, you know, mentoring without telling them kind of that point in your talk there. Do you think that getting a mentor without telling them may raise your mentors 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 understand. That's that I think I think what this question is getting at is if you do have an informal mentorship relationship, at what point do you think 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 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 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? It's like kind of a lot like an awkward conversation. 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 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. So that makes a lot of sense. So I think we have time for one more question. And I'm going to kind of just take a look. And I think that it's it's kind of an important question. I'm going to skip to this one. As a mentor, sometimes I find myself questioning if the mentees really have something else to learn from me or if you know, at what point do you think it's a good time to part ways? Or does or do you need to do that? Yeah, definitely. I think evaluating what the mentorship or the mentor goals are and the mentee goals are. And if you've hit that goal, like you won, like, like, you have learned what you needed to learn. And you can grow and evolve and get another mentor and take it to the next level. So leaving a mentor is never a sad thing. If anything, it should be an exciting thing, because you've reached like the maximum limit of what you can learn from each other, and be able to go and find another one. I think I think that's super powerful. I think if even with if your if your goals change to so say, like, I am a react engineer, and I'm only doing react, and all of a sudden I get a new job, and I'm only rails. And so I need to find another mentor to help me with that. And so depending on what your goals are, and what the mentor the mentee goals are should really kind of shift on who you're with and what you're learning, I think. Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. And also, you know, the your mentor is going to change over time to like, they're going to have their own career trajectory and their own expertise changes and things that they're learning. And so I love how you described that as kind of like, it's a win, right? It when it's time to move on. It's like graduating from a program, you know, it's not a sad ending. It's a beginning of something new. So yeah, it's really, it's really great to hear those examples as well. So I think we may have time for one one quick one. Okay, no, I'm out of time. So thank you so much for being here, Erin, and for your great talk. Super appreciate you having you here. Of course. Thank you.
21 min
09 Mar, 2023

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