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How to mentor developers

Mentoring is a great technique for accelerated learning, but it’s underused within the industry.

Daniel Irvine · Sep 18, 2017 · mentoring teams career

Mentoring is the practice of assisting people with their learning and career growth over a long period of time.

Although it’s a well-established practice, it’s not so common in the tech industry. In the majority of places that I’ve worked, mentoring was either underused or non-existent. That’s a shame because mentoring can be crucial to levelling-up as a software developer.

Why is mentoring important?

The prevailing attitude for professional software developers seems to be that you go to college and study for three years, and come out the other side knowing everything there is to know about building software. Many people effectively stop learning once they land their first job.

I say ‘stop learning’ but of course most developers are learning each day, perhaps via StackOverflow or blog posts like this one. Unfortunately this is not deliberate learning. Deliberate learning means working towards a specific goal, and that goal is generally much larger in scope than the scattergun approach that you adopt when working through your daily tasks.

While incidental learning is still learning, you’ll ‘level up’ at a very slow pace compared to deliberate learning. That’s why we have the old adage, “_they might have 10 years’ experience, but it’s just 1 year repeated 10 times._”

Mentoring is so important because it enables deliberate learning: it stops people falling into the ‘repeated year’ trap.

What makes a good mentor?

All you need to be a mentor is a skillset that someone else wants to learn. Most mentors are not mentoring full-time: they have their own jobs and mentoring is something they do in their spare hours, because they want to help others, and they almost always do it for free. It shouldn’t take up much of your time—no more than a couple of hours each week.

It’s not the job of a mentor to teach, although you might end up doing a little bit of that. Your role is to guide.

So while there’s an element of teaching to mentorship, the skills a mentor needs are different to those of a teacher. You need to be an attentive listener, and you need to have enough practical experience to be able to give your mentee the right advice at the right time.

Guided learning

Unlike other professions, mentoring software developers requires more than just giving advice. You’ll need to assign practice coding projects from which the mentee can learn. It might also mean asking your mentee to read books, write blog posts or learn how to use new tools.

At the beginning of the process, both mentor and mentee work out what the long-term goals are, and map out steps to get there.

For example, let’s say the goal is to become proficient in object-oriented design. In order to achieve that goal, you could do the following:

That being said, not all mentees will have the luxury of having spare time to work on side projects. For these developers, another option is to help guide the work they do for their employer, by reviewing their code on a regular basis and being ready to provide advice or suggestions if they ask for it. You could also try building up a relationship with their manager or team lead so that you have an opportunity to influence what your mentee might be working on next.

Reviewing work

A regular planning meeting is essential to make sure the mentee is on track: perhaps once or twice a month, or once a week if you can manage it. It could be as simple as a 30 minute phone call.

A mentor should review work and give feedback. You want to check that each piece of work demonstrates that something has been learnt, and that their skills are improving. I’m not saying that their work needs to be perfect: particularly when reviewing code, it’s not the mentors job to insist on any level of quality.

A team lead or manager should be reviewing code to ensure it meets the right standard. But the mentor’s role is different. You’re looking to see what progress the mentee is making towards their goal, and to figure out what the next assignment should be.

You should also be happy to leave assignments unfinished or of substandard quality if you think the mentee will learn more by switching to a new assignment.

Enable your mentee

A mentor should be an advocate for their mentees. This is a very important duty. Over time you will form a close bond with your mentee: you’ll have a very keen awareness of their abilities, their strengths and their weaknesses. You will be the first one to know when they are levelling up with their technical skills. This makes you perfectly placed to suggest them for job openings and new opportunities.

You should use your personal network and your own social standing to help your mentee step up in their career. This is sometimes called sponsorship. Take every opportunity to speak up for them. This can require very little effort on your part, but can have a powerful positive impact on your mentee.

Build an ecosystem of skill

Rock-solid development teams are rarely made up entirely of senior developers. Instead there’s a gradation of skill levels between individuals, and this gradation helps with the social dynamic of the team. An ecosystem forms that makes it simple and almost natural to find mentor-mentee pairings.

Anyone who has ever had a great mentor knows the value in having one. Mentors are not just for junior programmers, they are for everyone. So why not encourage everyone on your team to find a mentor? Even mentors need mentors!

This is one of the core ideas from within the software craft community, which talks about the notion of ‘life-long learning’. They rely on each other to teach and to help individuals level up.

Implicit mentoring

You don’t need to have a badge saying ‘mentor’ in order to be one. You can make a conscious choice to be someone’s mentor without having to give it an explicit name. This is a useful trick if your company has no history of formal mentorship and you’d like to start doing it.

You could start with a new hire who’s fresh out of college. Ask politely if you can help review some of their work, and enquire what technical designs they’ve come up with recently. You could try lending them a book that has helped you in the past. This is enough to get the ball rolling. With any luck, they’ll be receptive and appreciate your guidance.

The best teacher is practice

Hopefully I’ve given you the confidence to get started. There’s so much to learn about mentoring that you really just need to dive in and make course corrections as you go along. It should be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.