Three Things You Must Do When Mentoring Software Engineers

Mentoring other software engineers is one of my favorite parts of my job.

Every software engineer ought to have an unbiased mentor to go to for career questions. Early in your career, you’re always the one asking questions. As you gain experience, you’ll be called on by other engineers.

So what do you do? I’ve talked with a few software jedis and padawans in my years as a software developer. Here are three things that mentors must do to ensure their mentees are successful.

Backwards-speak, optional is.

#1 Listen

Talking to a mentee is not a time to show off your knowledge. Before you can help your mentee, you must listen to them.

I remember talking with a highly experienced software engineer. I sat down and he started writing down a detailed a career plan, and went on a long, random tangent about how “buying a house is the best investment” that involved the engineer begging the bank to not take his house away. All the while, I didn’t say a single word.

He never asked me what I wanted out of my career. Suffice to say, I did not go to him for career advice again.

If you want to be good mentor, you have to listen. You have to understand what the mentee is looking for. Sometimes they want advice. Sometimes they need help making a decision. Sometimes they know what they must do, and they just want to feel sure about their direction.

Maybe not like Kylo Ren, considering what happened to his mentors…

#2 Don’t directly tell the mentee the answer

Your first instinct might be to directly answer your mentee’s questions. Don’t immediately tell them an answer. The goal here is to lead the mentee to an answer by teaching them how to solve problems on their own.

One pitfall is that the first answer you think is often not the answer that solves their problem. Or even worse, the problem that the mentee thinks they have is not the problem they actually have.

Some time ago, a mentee (let’s call her Leia) came to me for productivity tips. Leia thought she was slacking off in the past month and needed to compensate. When I asked her more, she admitted she was afraid she wasn’t making enough progress at her new job. When we drilled deeper, I discovered Leia was making sufficient progress, but she felt she had nothing to show her manager yet. Therefore, Leia felt she wasn’t living up to her self-imposed, unreasonable expectations, and she felt she was a bad person. Once Leia said this out loud, she realized what was wrong.

At the start of our conversation, Leia didn’t realize that she didn’t need productivity tips. Talking through her thought process was what she needed to get to the answer–to see she was not a bad person, and she was already making good progress at her new job.

#3 Ask Questions

Usually, younger folks come to a more experienced engineer with a question. Sometimes, the questioner must become the questionee.

Asking good questions is interesting art. Each query should let the mentee answer in their own words and talk through their thought process, step by step. It’s a conversation, not an interrogation.

One time, a mentee (let’s call him Anakin) had a tricky situation with his manager. I had an idea about what I would do in that situation, but I wanted to ask for some more details first.

“What should I do?” Anakin asked.

“What have you tried so far?” I replied.

“Well… nothing,” Anakin whined. “I don’t know what to do.”

“What are some things you could try?” I asked.

Eventually, Anakin came up with a number of options for resolving the situation. He picked one and improved his relationship with his manager. I didn’t tell Anakin a single thing. As we met over the next 6 months, Anakin had fewer and fewer questions for me, and he didn’t have to wait for our next conversation to solve his career problems.

In other words, the best mentors teach you how to solve problems without consulting an mentor at all.

If you want to become a mentor, just wait. When the teacher is ready, the student appears.

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