Mentoring for the junior mentor

Mentoring is an incredibly generous gift. I was lucky enough to be involved in a wonderful mentoring partnership at Clearleft (mentored by Jeremy), which was invaluable. Now I'm looking for a mentor in Sydney, I've been thinking about this a lot. In this post I’m going to share my views on what makes a successful mentorship based on my experiences as a mentee. I should probably point out that I have never been a mentor.

Mentorship is vital

Our industry is made up of self learners. Formal education is lagging behind and classrooms are fading out. Whether you're a novice or an expert, it's impossible to design and build for the web today without learning. Mentorship is vital in this industry. 

What is mentoring? Is it coaching? Offering guidance? Providing advice? All of the above? Whether it's mentoring on a day to day basis or far less frequently, I'd say it's up to the mentoring partnership to decide what's involved. If you're looking for a mentor you should ask yourself what you want from it. I think it's important to establish what mentoring means at the start, so that expectations and efforts can live up to whatever is decided.

So you want to be a mentor?

If you're thinking of becoming a mentor or even a new starter buddy I think you should ask yourself what you want to gain from it.

Here's a thing: Being a mentor or a buddy can help one progress their own career. I've noticed that companies often encourage seniors to mentor juniors and therefore give them recognition and rewards for that, which is great. Mentoring is vital in this industry. I'm extremely grateful for my mentor at Clearleft, so I hope he gained as much as I did from the experience. However, I feel that this is an important point. If the main motive for being a mentor is to get praise, recognition or a promotion at work, I worry about this.

We've all done it. We commit to an extra-curricular task to help develop ourselves and then project work takes over. We get busy and then that blog post or conference talk proposal goes to the back of the pile. Perhaps not seen again for a few months. So, what if you sign up for mentoring and this happens? You have the best intentions or it seems like a great idea, but two months later, when the mentee joins, things have changed. Can you ignore somebody for a while? If you’re on the receiving end of it, it’s potentially quite damaging.

When you’re a mentor, your success is partly measured by the success of the mentee. It’s vital that there is some motivation to see someone else learn and develop before your own personal gains. The promotion or recognition at work is only going to happen if the mentoring partnership is successful. And for the mentoring partnership to be successful, you should want to help someone else learn. You’ll feel pride in their achievements.  You’ll also need to be prepared to learn yourself and perhaps even feel like a beginner again.

Here’s the advice I’d give to anyone thinking of mentoring a junior developer in the workplace:

Learn from each other

Even the most experienced mentors will learn something new each time. This is because people come in many different and unpredictable shapes, so mentoring relationships mirror this.  Don’t let this hold you back. Know what you don’t know and learn from each other. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to the approaches that can be taken to this. I think they can vary depending on the people doing it; their abilities, their preferred ways of learning, whether they meet up face to face or online, etc.

Find the right level of challenge

I've worked with lots of very experienced and talented people and have been struck by imposter syndrome several times. I know I'm not alone with this—it happens to us all.

Junior developers should have enough support to work on challenging projects to develop new skills, but also do enough work that can be completed with minimal or no support to build up their confidence. Recognise their strengths and allow them to use them. Give them work which requires the use of their more developed skills, as well the skills they are developing.

Reach out

Let's be honest, coding is hard. Sometimes my code doesn’t work and I feel like I should run away and train to be a diving instructor instead. Then I realise the bug I’ve been stuck on for ages was caused by a missing character, or I’ve been refreshing the wrong page; and then I feel like an idiot (face palm). Then again, sometimes my code works and it’s the best feeling in the world; I could literally run outside and hug someone.

Sound familiar? Remember these feelings? Maybe you still get them. Either way, you might recognise it when someone else goes through it. If they are having coding woes then reach out: “Hey, this can be frustrating and over-whelming, right? I’ve been there! Let’s break this challenge down and work on it together. When are you free?”

Meet with intent

Do code reviews and have regular 1:1s. Give both parties some time to prepare for it. Rather than saying “Let’s chat about this code sometime” or rocking up at someone’s desk unannounced, check their calendar and book it in. Or make it clear that they can access your calendar to book a time and place. Eventually it becomes a habit to meet up and a mentorship/friendship kind of relationship begins to form.

Offer feedback and ask for feedback

This is so important. It’s a good reason to meet up. Junior developers need to know if they are offering value and progressing. If they see a commit which has changed most of their code before shipping, they should know why so they can do it better next time.

It's a two way thing, though, right? The mentee should also provide feedback to the mentor. Is the approach right? Does the mentee enjoy learning like this? How can the mentor improve? How about reverse mentoring? What can a junior developer teach a senior developer? More than you might think.

You can offer more than you think

I discovered codebar in Brighton when I started out as a junior developer. codebar is place for under-represented groups in tech to learn coding for free.

I initially attended codebar as a student to work on my Javascript skills. A few months later, they were short of coaches, so I nervously started teaching HTML and CSS to beginners. It amazed me, that I, a junior developer at the time, could teach anyone anything. 

Last year, four women I helped at codebar went on to get their first jobs in the industry as junior developers. Sure I only taught them HTML, so it was only a small part of their learning journey, but I was amazed that I was able to.

So I'd like to remind you that you don't have to be an expert to do this. You just need to be open minded, want to help others and be willing learn yourself.