Mentoring others and yourself

Mentoring is one of the things I enjoy the most doing. I don't consider myself the ultimate expert on things but I've definitely gone through enough things that had led me to become a mentor on different technical areas.

The reason I enjoy this process so much is because it allows me to relate with other great people, cultures and minds. Every interaction is full of joy, gratitude, knowledge and collaboration. It helps me understand how to interact with different people, how to work together with different cultures and it allows me to integrate more with the environment I live in. Everyday that goes by, either by being part of a program or in my daily actions, I try to give back to people more than what I've received in my life.

I believe, like me, many other people feel the same and/or are interested in this topic. Therefore, I'm writing this post with some of the experiences I've lived and the things I've learned so far by mentoring others.

Mentoring is more than just teaching

When you agree to be someone's mentor, you're agreeing to be this person's guide during a finite period of time. You're agreeing to do more than just teaching things. You're agreeing to live by example, to lead your mentees to whatever knowledge they are seeking, to trust your mentees' passion as they trust yours.

You cannot teach people to trust themselves if you don't trust yourself. You cannot help someone to become more secure if you are not secure enough yourself. Nonetheless, you also need to be careful on how much you think you know and how much you think your meentee doesn't know. One of the worst mistakes you can make as a mentor is to underestimate your mentee's knowledge. The more you think you know about this process, the less likely you'll succeed. You need to be alert, you need to listen as if you didn't know what to do. Everyday new day as a mentor brings new experiences that will make you think differently, embrace them.

Nevertheless, in order to succeed as a mentor, you need to first understand what your tasks are. It is extremely important for you to revisit these goals everyday and make sure you stand by them. Here's a list of questions which, although not exhaustive, I think is a good place to begin with:

  • What is it that you want to share?
  • How much time are you willing to dedicate?
  • How much time are you actually going to be able to dedicate?
  • How much are you willing to stop and listen to what your mentee has to say?
  • Are you ready to become part for someone's growth and let that person become part of yours?

Although the above questions may sound a bit philosophical, I believe they build the ground for a good start as a mentor. Understanding that you're not the only one who's going to teach something is mandatory and you, as a mentor, need to keep your mind open to this. These questions are valid regardless of the project you're mentoring on, they are the bases of what you will - or won't - do as a mentor.

Don't give your mentee fishes

This, obviously, comes from the proverb:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime

When there's lack of trust on one's knowledge, it is very likely that we'll wait and hope for someone to give us what we're looking for. As a mentor, depending on the time you've available, your patience, your dogs' urges to go for a walk, you'll be tempted to give the answer to get this over with. As the aforementioned proverb implies, this is not good at all and it'll work just once, so don't.

Giving the answer won't help neither you nor your mentee to grow. Your mentee won't learn how to find the answers he/she needs and you won't know how to teach your mentee to get to the answer without giving it up. Be smart, work on different ways that will lead your mentee to the answer. Teach your mentee how to ask the right questions and reply with more constructive questions that will "light the bulb" in your mentee's brain.

Avoid conversations like:

mentee: I think X is what I was looking for
mentor: Not exactly but you're almost there

Instead, look for more constructive answers that will bug your mentee's mind:

mentee: I think X is what I was looking for
mentor: If X is what you're looking for, could Y be sufficient as well? Have you thought about how X and Y may be related?

Teach your mentee how to switch perspective, how to think out of the box. Perspective is one of the most important things in emotional intelligence and you must lead your mentees towards a complete view of the problem in a way that they'll also learn the importance of this process for problem solving.

As hard as it can be, you need to be patient. Your mentees are smart, probably smarter than you, but they may not know it yet. Make sure your mentees know how smart they are at the end of the journey. Give your mentees the required tools to answer the questions they may find, because the more tools you teach them to use, the more independent they'll be at the end.

Agreeing feels nice, disagreeing feels better

One thing that many mentees find very difficult to do is to disagree with other people. There are several reasons for that to happen. Mentees may feel they don't know enough or that others with more experience are always right, which is far far far from being true. Mentees need to be told that disagreeing is good and good discussions are, most of the times, the source of great ideas and epiphanies.

Teaching mentees how to trust themselves is not enough to help them understand that disagreeing is usually better than agreeing. They also need to be taught how to disagree. It's not enough to say "I disagree". When you're teaching someone to disagree, you must let that person know that disagreeing is the first step towards an argument and that there's nothing bad about arguing.

I often challenge mentees when they agree with me on something. I'd ask them the reasons why they think I'm right and force them to think through possible different scenarios and whether what I'm saying is actually correct or not. It's really important to encourage mentees to think things through. The more they do this exercise, the easier it'll be for them to spot things in the future. Collaboration is not just about doing things together but about reviewing each others' work as well. I trust the team I work with on reviewing my work and providing feedback if something doesn't feel right. I want people to disagree with me and challenge me to think things through. I believe this is an important thing to learn that many communities with long time leaders lack of. Therefore, I believe this is a key thing to teach to your mentees.

Disagreeing is not just about discussing on someone's argument. It's also about communicating, humbly, one's opinions on that matter. I believe that what actually defines a community is not the group of people willing to work on a common goal but the ability of those people to communicate and discuss things that will then lead the work towards that goal. Two people can work on the same thing without even talking - it'd be hard, yes, but it's still possible. It's our duty, as mentors, to encourage mentees to communicate with the rest of the community regardless of its size and how scary it could be.

Co-mentoring is even better

Remember what we said about perspective? Perspective is one of the things that matters the most in our daily tasks. Depending on our perspective, things could go in many different ways. It's been said thousands of times that thinking out of the box is important and that changing perspective allows for a better and stronger personal growth.

If you enjoy mentoring other people like I do, you probably want to do it often and more importantly you always want to be there. Despite this being a great thing, you need to understand that mentees are not yours and that other people, with similar passions like yours and different perspective, may also help the mentee to grow. People with different experiences see the world in different ways and you want your mentee to know that. You want your mentee to learn from different people, you want your mentee to think out of the box and to do that, your mentee needs to change perspective.

I often encourage mentees to work on features with other experienced folks in the community that could guide them through different roads. This helps them to improve their communication skills, to improve their ability to work with distributed teams that may not be in the same TZ and it also helps them to learn from folks that may have different points of views.

Keep an eye on your mentee

Mentees need to be left alone as much as they need to be guided. Excessive hand-holding will hurt your mentee as much as excessive independence. Note that I'm not saying mentees shouldn't be proactive or do things by themselves. What I'm saying is that you need to be ready to provide guidance when it's required and you cannot know when your mentees need guidance if you're not keeping an eye on the things they are doing.

There's a huge difference between controlling mentees and keeping an eye on them. By keeping an eye on them you're just making sure you'll be ready to act when needed and you wont wait until it's too late to do so. You want your mentees to be proactive, to seek the answers to their questions, to experiment with different technologies and ideas. You just need to be there, just be there.

As part of the guidance I like to provide, I'm always looking forward to my mentees' patches. I encourage them to publish their work even if it's not ready yet. That helps them to share ideas that are still on the works and it helps me to see what path they're going down through. If there are things I don't agree with, I always try to understand why they think those things are a good idea and then provide any guidance needed if I still disagree.

Jerks are deprecated but still around

If you've read my 'Jerks are deprecated' post, I'm pretty sure you expected me to say something along those lines in this one. Despite my big wish to have jerks treated with some magical 'be-nice' cure, they are still around and you need to make sure your mentee knows how to interact with them as well.

For some people, one of the hardest things to do when it comes to become part of a community, team or work environment is to speak up. Unfortunately, jerks have no mercy. It doesn't matter whether you're a newbie, a young person making your way through this world or a very experienced person. For people afraid of speaking up, Jerks are probably the worst thing they have to face.

I believe jerks are like Trolls. The more you're 'afraid' of them the jerker they'll be. The more you feed them, the more they'll chase you. Therefore, the best way to interact jerks is not necessarily ignoring them - although that works - but treating them nicely.

Teach your mentee how to reply to jerks by keeping their reply in context, nice and direct, completely ignoring the fact that they're talking to a jerk. That's not going to change the fact that this person is a jerk but it'll help the mentee to understand that being nice is free and by replying nicely they'll feel good and still get their job done.

One thing that I also think is a great exercise is to talk at conferences. You'll never know who'll attend your talk and standing up in front of a diverse audience is not an easy task. By encouraging your mentees to talk at conferences, you're encouraging them to trust themselves and also be nice about it. You can guide your mentees through what talking in front of people means, you can give them some tips and tricks and you can also walk them through ways for sharing their knowledge with a nice and trustworthy attitude. Make sure they understand that many questions could be asked by many different people. There are nice ways to reply or even avoid jerk's questions without feeding the jerk.

Thanking is for free

This is a quote from a conversation between myself and an OPW applicant. I've nothing else to add here:

> flaper87 exploreshaifali: please, do keep digging. The more questions you ask, the clearer it will be for you :)
> exploreshaifali flaper87, sure :)
> exploreshaifali Thanks!!
> flaper87 exploreshaifali: thank *you* ;)
> exploreshaifali flaper87, thanking me for what?
> flaper87 exploreshaifali: for your time, interest and perseverance. I appreciate you willing to work on this and I thank you for that. I look forward to see you around long enough to do way more.

Come to the bright side

By mentoring someone, you're improving yourself as well. You'll learn how to interact with different people from different cultures. You'll understand that emotions matter more than people think and that people's past, present and future are important for this learning process. You'll learn that you can't teach things you don't believe yourself - these contradictions will come up and you'll have to admit failure. Furthermore, you'll learn that you're your mentee's mentee and that this learning process goes both ways. I've learned as much from my mentees as they have, I hope, learned from me.

Really, mentoring is one of the things I like the most. I enjoy good conversations, laughs and sharing. It's a very thankful - yes, thankful - job to do and it's also emotionally rewarding. If you haven't done it before, I encourage you to do so. Even if you may not think so, I'm sure you've many things to share. Just make sure you understand how critical this work is and how much responsibility you'll have in your hands.

Last but not least, I'd like to make sure you understand you don't need to be in an 'official' program to mentor people. By living as an example and helping others, you're already doing so. Nonetheless, volunteering for mentoring other people is both needed and nice. Don't hesitate to do so.

Hi. I’m Flavio Percoco (a.k.a flaper87), and I’m a Software Engineer at Red Hat, where I spend my days working on OpenStack, speaking at conferences. In my spare time I contribute to Rust, write, read, surf, travel, smoke my coffee and drink my pipe.