As a LaunchCode Company Relations Manager, I get the pleasure of speaking with some of Portland and Vancouver’s finest engineers, developers and managers daily. They consistently share their career stories with me and often highlight critical turning points. Time and time again, a theme emerges, pointing back to on-the-job mentorship.
Mentorship has always been a cornerstone of technical teams. LaunchCode’s apprenticeships are one way to create those opportunities. Let these five experienced engineers tell you about how mentorship played out in their early careers and how they seek to foster it on their teams today.
Mentorship has always been a cornerstone of technical teams. LaunchCode’s apprenticeships are one way to create those opportunities.
In an industry booming with change and striving to continually be on the cutting edge, no two workplaces can possibly be the same. As result, engineers and developers have relied on a culture of information sharing. Travis Hoffman, Principal Technical Lead at Catalyte, noted that, “A great mentorship relationship benefits the mentor as much as it benefits the protege. My technical skills and satisfaction increase when I watch their successes and provide fresh perspective.” Addie Beseda, Software Engineer spoke directly to the increased importance of connecting with others when you are part of a demographic typically marginalized in tech: “There’s a lot that women are experiencing that I can step in and say ‘This is normal, it’s not you, and here’s how I have learned to cope with it.’”
Each of the interviewees told me either about a specific mentor who helped further their career success or a formal mentorship program they were a part of. Larry Moiola, Senior QA Engineer, spoke about a developer from another team who took time to appreciate the QA work he was doing and thanked him for catching his errors. It created an environment where the two could continually help each other improve, despite very different levels of experience.
“That confidence building kept me in a career that some other people use as a stepping stone.” - Larry
For Todd Larsen, Software Engineer, mentorship came in the form of paired programming. He says that the approach was much more, “Here’s what I do. Why don’t you try it out?” It resulted in tips, not only about his code, but his entire development environment that would make him more efficient and effective. (Maximizing your dev environment came up in almost every conversation!) Travis said that he benefited greatly from the tighter feedback loop that mentorship provided. It helped him to get out of his head and keep moving forward on his projects.
To this day, Todd also recalls how non-judgmental his mentor was. There was never a hint of “How could you not know this?”. Rather, the tone always stayed in the arena of, "Let-me-catch-you-up.” Addie concurred, acknowledging that new developers are still figuring out which questions to ask and how often they should ask them.Taking a stance of “we don't handhold” feels a bit un-measurable to new talent. That is why it becomes important to provide examples of what handholding does or does not look like on your team.
“Consider the time lost when you are looking for the ‘perfect’ candidate. What if I had put all that time into supporting the ramp up of someone who is also putting in all that time?” - Todd
We also spoke about how critical mentors can be while one is building business acumen and learning to navigate office politics in a new industry. Jesse Cooke, Senior Software Engineer shared that the most critical things he learned at the start of his career included:
• How to think like a senior programmer,
• How to give consideration to the customer, and
• How to refrain from an unnecessary show.
“New developers are often trying to figure out how to not come off like a jerk and getting down on themselves,” Travis said. Mentorship is a great way to avoid that kind of shame spiral, but it takes having someone who genuinely wants to help you be successful to do it. As Addie pointed out, we are all told to not compare ourselves to those around us, but it’s hard not to look around when you need yardstick for your own success. As mentors and managers clearly articulate the level of performance they are expecting, the more new developers can focus on meeting expectations, instead of spending time wondering if they are.
“I was given the opportunity, but when I needed it, someone was there to be the experienced ear.” - Jesse
The topic of competition also came up quite a bit in our conversations, mostly around the importance of mid and senior level folks needing to curb their edginess. Some of the most tragic environments they work in involved at least one person who was “all doom and gloom” or was secretive or protective of their work. While the motivation for this behavior varied from case to case, it was typically related to not feeling assured about their future success in the organization.
“Most technologists know that we always need to be learning new things. [My mentor] didn’t try force his agenda or specific things on me.” - Travis
It seems that mentorship is best facilitated when both participants are interested. Expectations and needs should also be clearly translated from manager to mentor, or from recruiting to dev teams. A few engineers referred to times when either a mentee or a mentor was unclear about whether or not they should be giving or taking feedback. Frustration levels also increased when either party was unsure about how much time should be dedicated to professional development. Participants of successful mentorships should:
• Discuss the best ways they both learn and teach.
• Name the purpose and the goals of mentorship within their organization and make sure they are both bought in.
• Put their feedback meetings on calendars and name them accordingly.
• Talk to their manager about how much time should be dedicated.
• Identify clear mile markers for weekly progress.
• Overtly discuss when and how questions should be asked.
(Incidentally, LaunchCode company partners have access to our best practices guide for working with apprentices. Let us share what we have learned with you!)
One thing was radically clear across all my conversations: those who are not in a direct mentor role can help contribute just as much by creating a work environment that fosters growth. Here are a few tips from our mentors to their colleagues:
• Make yourself available for developmental conversations with all your colleagues - and ask for input on your projects, when the time is right. Allowing others to see the pace of your work and an appropriate level of collaboration is helpful for those new-to-tech.
• Speak of missteps as iterations and opportunities to learn, rather than failures.
• Own your mistakes or bugs, regardless of your level of experience. This also means using troubleshooting opportunities to find out “what went wrong” rather than “who messed up.”
• Cultivate an environment where it is safe to ask questions. If there are no “stupid questions,” then there is room to grow.
• Make a team habit of offering compliments and congratulations in addition to constructive criticisms.
Ultimately, mentorship is about helping people’s best work come through, as quickly as it can. If each of us can make room for even an hour a week to support someone else in overcoming a hurdle, the impact is exponential. It’s to the benefit of your team, company, product and you!
By Kari Fass
LaunchCode Company Relations Manager