How To Properly Mentor a Junior Developer
October 3, 2016
“How do you properly mentor a junior developer?” is a question that many developers have asked themselves before. You might be in a position where you mentor someone or where you have been mentored in the past. That might have happened knowingly or unknowingly. In any case, I bet you have an opinion about the topic, so let’s analyze whether your protégé would agree.
Normally we would ask “what does it mean to be a good mentor?” It is our natural way of trying to answer this question, but I want to do this differently here. Why? Because I feel there has been a lot written about the topic on how to become a good mentor with all kinds of advice, but they all share one common mistake: they only show one perspective – what the mentor sees and experiences without ever looking at the receiving end of a mentor-mentee relationship. I want to change this today by shedding light on the receiving end of a mentor-mentee relationship by showing examples of very common mistakes and how the receiving person experiences these situations.
To do that, we first have to find common ground; so take a minute to think about the mentors you have had in your past. Think about people that guided you, gave you advice, helped you in your career or your personal life.
Did you think of a few names? Great! Next, think about what made them special? What was the first thing that came to your mind when you thought about this person? What distinguished this person from all the others?
Was it their advice to you in tricky situations or their way of helping you out? Whatever it is, I am sure if I started collecting answers by asking around, I would get a unique set of answers. So that was easy, right? We were able to find an example of a good mentor! However, what about an example for a mentor that might not have been top notch?
Are you able to come up with a good definition of a bad mentor? I could not find a satisfying definition of a bad mentor, so I tried asking Google and ended up with the same result. Why is this so hard? After all, Googling for great examples of mentorships gives you quite a few good results.
Our problem is that we have a very subjective image of what a great mentor is, but we cannot find the same thing for the opposite, right? Moreover, this is where I think both our problem and our solution lies buried. To define a great mentor, we first need to define what a bad mentor is. So let’s try to define both things through a series of examples of really bad mentoring.
To do that, let me introduce two fictional characters to you: Wally and Asok from the Dilbert universe. They are going to help me establish what a bad mentor is and guide us towards good mentorship 😉
To the left you will see Wally, he is the head of the engineering department and the most experienced and best developer the company has to offer. To the right you will see Asok, he just joined our imaginary company as an intern and he is super eager to start.
Now as Wally is the head of the engineering department, he will be mentoring Asok throughout the next few examples and help him with his infinite knowledge and his helpful actions to become a better engineer. Naturally, the two hit it off pretty well; things were going smoothly, and it seems as if Wally for the first time is a real help to Asok until things start to go horribly wrong.
5 Things to Avoid if you mentor a junior developer
1. Don’t Neglect The Relationship
Clearly, Wally did not plan to leave Asok alone for such a long time, but he got sent off on a long business trip. That makes it harder for Asok to talk to Wally while he’s gone, as the two will no longer be in the same office building. Great Communication is the key to a success mentor – mentee relationship, interrupting or disturbing the communication between a mentor and his mentee at such an early stage can destroy such a relationship.
So what happened here is that Wally, sure enough, has his set of problems he has to deal with and declines to have contact with Asok while he is on his business trip. This breaks, or at least pauses, his mentoring relationship with Asok.
Solution: Wally could offer to stay in contact with Asok regularly and offer remote support where it is possible for him through other means like Email, Slack, [insert your favorite messenger here].
2. Admit If You Have A Mismatch
DILBERT © 2005 Scott Adams. Used By permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.
Now, due to Wally’s absence, Asok is assigned a new mentor – I introduce to you Tex. Tex might be a bit much for poor Asok here, but not only that – Tex is clearly not qualified to be a mentor as the two don’t share common moral and Tex doesn’t seem to have any respect towards Asok whatsoever. You need a foundation to build upon and they certainly don’t have that, so they are clearly a mismatch for each other.
It is something that happens more often than you think it would, and it can be a tough thing to recognize. Mismatches do not have to be the end of all things; you can still help your mentee.
Solution: Admit mismatch early and help your mentee by finding him/her another mentor. It isn’t your fault; sometimes you just don’t share the same common moral.
3. Don’t Break Confidentiality
Wally is home earlier, and they can keep up their mentor-mentee relationship from here on out. Asok told Wally in private about all that has happened while he was gone and how bad his time with Tex was. What Wally could not grasp is that Asok told that to him in confidence so when Wally told the rest of the office it embarrassed Asok and created tension between him and other employees.
This is clearly a break of confidentiality. Being a mentor means providing a safe space in which your mentee should be able to tell you things freely. Sharing that with others clearly breaks confidentiality.
Solution: Provide a safe zone and treat things that have been spoken in private as confidential.
4. Don’t Force Anyone to Be A Carbon Copy Of Yourself
DILBERT © 2013 Scott Adams. Used By permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.
Wally again messed up, and now it is time to make Asok’s mentorship a top priority before he quits over all that has happened to him: The CEO takes over as Asok’s mentor.
Some CEOs see themselves as the greatest and believe all problems would be solved if we would be just like them… So naturally, he wants to make Asok a carbon copy of himself. Asok on the other hand rightfully doesn’t like that and would rather not end up like his CEO. Don’t forget, you’re dealing with people here, which are diverse, with different skill sets, different strengths and weaknesses. Help them to develop their unique characteristics instead of forcing them into your thinking. You might end up learning from them as they learn from you.
Solution: Don’t create a carbon copy of yourself. Your job as a mentor is to help and guide and not to impose yourself too much through control and micromanagement.
5. Make Room For Mistakes On Both Sides
To err is human. Both sides will eventually make mistakes so it is best to resolve the issue and communicate clearly that it is not a big deal. You will both become stronger through this process and most likely it will help you to better trust each other and establish a mentor-mentee relationship even if the error isn’t significant.
These were the “5 Ways To Fails As A Mentor” which should give us a pretty good picture of what a bad mentor looks like. How does that translate now into a great mentor?
What could you do better?
These were the “5 Ways To Fails As A Mentor” which give us a pretty good picture of what a bad mentor looks like. How does that translate into a great mentor?
- Set Expectations And Goals
- Set expectations for both sides and clearly communicate them
- Give feedback regularly and ask for feedback on how you are doing
- Celebrate their achievements
- Give Your Mentee The Benefit Of Working With You Directly
- What’s easy for you, might be not easy for them
- Offer to include them wherever possible (meetings, calls, on site)
- Don’t restrict your teachings to just the technology side of things; understanding technology probably comes easiest to them and they will need more focus on growing the soft skills
- Establish A Safe Zone For Your Mentee
- Provide positive reinforcement
- Stay open minded and put office politics aside
- Go the extra mile when helping them
- Lead By Example
- Give more than they ask for; asking for something is not always easy
- Follow through on your promises
Do it! But do it right!
Hold on to these points when you approach your next opportunity to mentor a junior developer and I guarantee you, you and your mentee will not only benefit from each other, but you also might end up stronger yourself. After all, don’t forget to approach each mentorship differently. You are dealing with people that are as diverse as it gets, and a good mentor-mentee relationship is mutually beneficial. You are in it to help and learn from each other and form the next generation.
Take your chances and don’t get scared if it does not work out as you expected it, but most importantly, do it!
Don’t take it from me, take it from the mentor of all mentors, Yoda.
Mentoring is a skill like any other skill; it needs practice and a good portion of self-criticism.