Finding Mentors

It was December of 2010 when I went to my first conference ever. It was called iDev, and it was focussed on developers who created iOS apps. It was excellent, but one of my favourite parts was on the second day of the conference when everyone at the event (about 100 people) was asked to announce their “needs and wants” – with the hope the rest of the attendees were able to help. Some asked for beta testers, some asked for marketing advice.

When it came my turn I asked for something a bit different. And of course, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I nervously held up the microphone and said “Hi, I’m Sam. I’ve just finished high school, I’ve turned 18 today, and I’ve shipped a few apps to the app store. What I’m looking for is work experience - from anyone, anywhere.”

I would say this is the moment my career changed for the better. Out of that announcement alone, I had several positive  conversations with those in the industry. I had two conversations that led to work experience, but I had many more that led to finding some career mentors. I didn’t ask for mentors, I kept it casual, and this, I believe, was the trick to it. The people I consider mentors probably don’t even know they’re my mentor. If anything, I’d consider them all friends now. And I’d say they feel similar.

The thing with finding mentors is you probably shouldn’t ask someone formally to be your mentor. From my experience on the other side, it actually sounds really taxing. It sounds like work and it sounds like commitment - something a lot of busy people don’t feel like they have time for. But a one off email or coffee every now and then isn’t taxing, if anything it is quite pleasurable. So reach out to them now, on social media, over email, LinkedIn, whatever… just keep it casual and say something like “Hey there X, I was wondering if we could grab a coffee this week or next. I see you’ve been doing Y and I’m keen to chat about your experience doing it - as I think I’m in a similar situation now.” Short, to the point and a clear ask. It’s important people know what you want from them and why it can’t be anyone else.

Personally, I’ve found having mentors, or elders, in the tech community, really important to talk to for guidance throughout my career. This could be as simple as DM on Twitter from time to time or whole lunches discussing certain topics. From High School, to University, to my first two years of a software engineering job, they’ve proved super valuable for just sounding things out and discussing my feelings and struggles.

Once you have your meeting with someone you’d consider a mentor, it’s important to keep the conversation casual and ask them first about their experience, and before you know it, a nugget of advice might just fall out. If not, begin to explain your issue and see if they have any good ideas. But I stress, often just hearing out past stories can be a really good way to learn what you need and apply it to your own life.

The thing here is people make big progress forward in revolutions, not incremental steps, and a single interesting conversation with a mentor can spark that revolution where you see the world in a way you hadn’t before. I once went to a mentor with the issue of  finding  time for a side project, I explained I was working full time and couldn’t find any solid time to write some code for an app I was working on. He explained that he found time for a side project when he committed to working on it for 30 minutes each day before heading to work - by the end of the week, that was about two to three hours on the project, and after a few weeks, something was ready to be shipped. It was a single bit of advice, seemingly obvious to me now, that really affected me. Now, it’s the way I work, attacking non-work related work about 30-90 minutes at a time, every day. Including this very blog!

So you now have a mentor, and they’ve given you some advice. Great. Don’t stop. You need multiple mentors. From diverse backgrounds. This might seem a bit obvious, but one person’s opinion will always be that. You should always seek more (at least two to five) to get a balanced opinion. With that, I will talk you through who my mentors are, and what I’ve achieved with them.

The first is a Senior Software Engineer. This person has spiritual beliefs which cause him to choose not to put his career first in his life, but is still passionate about self improvement and software craftsmanship. However, it’s not the most important thing. I really enjoy that perspective. I often chat with him while at work, and I catch up with him while in his home city of Christchurch, New Zealand. He’s helped me through tricky conversations with my boss, difficult peers, and hard to interpret feedback.

The next one is a business founder and software engineer. This person probably gets feedback along the lines of more business than people focused, perhaps a bit of Steve Jobs type, but he does get results. His business is growing and very successful, winning many awards around the country and abroad. He’s helped me understand Software companies, marketing to developers, growth strategies, sensible investment and much more about business. With, of course, the examples and business to back it up.

The third is another business founder and software engineer. This person has a few more years on the rest of my mentors, and a few successful businesses under his belt. This man taught me above all else, sensibility and pragmatism. In a world of Silicon Valley, insane valuations and investments, this person has time and time again built products people want, built them well, sold them well and moved onto the next thing. It’s good to have such a down to earth, grounded person to chat to.

The final person worth mentioning, and perhaps a newer mentor for me, is an ex-lead developer at a local software company, and now consulting CTO/lead developer. He grew a company from very small to a company of around fifty engineers, and he mentored each and every one one of them through onboarding, training and progression throughout their career at the company. He has a bunch of insights in terms of career progression which I’ve asked about, and he also blogs about from time to time. He is also a expert in the Ruby programming language, which I’ve leaned on him from time to time for.

While I don’t think my mentors are the most diverse perhaps in gender or role set ever, I do think they complement me, and each other, well and have helped me a lot so far.

Naturally, with all this help, I feel obliged to pay it back in some way. While I don’t think you need to or should pay mentors (with the exception of Career Coaches) paying it back in any way you can is the right thing to do. Obviously, start simple, buy the coffee/lunch you’re having. Then, if they need help with beta testing their latest app or software, get in there and help them out. Do a bit of marketing for them, retweet them or tell your friends. Be friendly, and it won’t go unnoticed.

Finally, maybe it’s time you pay it forward too, you might get asked to mentor someone in High school or university/college with their work. Do you think it’ll help? Of course it will. Go meet with them, have a free coffee and talk about your life. This industry and this society is about paying it forward - so please, I beg you, take part.

The points to remember are:

  • When asking, keep it casual

  • Be a friend

  • Epiphanies will happen in leaps, not steps

  • Be thankful and pay it back

  • Pay it forward.

The following blogs are lessons learned from mentors and from other experiences. This is me paying it forward. I hope you enjoy it.

This post is part of my Junior Developer Diaries series. You can read other posts and join the mailing list here -