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Mentorship programs benefit everybody.

When a new engineer begins their journey on a team, they have a lot to learn in terms of technical skills and domain knowledge. During this phase, they need to ask many questions to get a better understanding of things around them. Effective mentorship programs can help, providing them with answers to their questions and speeding up their transition to becoming confident and productive members of the team.

I was a mentee early in my career and have since worked as a mentor multiple times. During these roles, I have seen and experienced things from both perspectives. In this article, I will share my thoughts and experiences around why mentorship matters, and advice for how to become an effective mentor yourself.

Why mentorship programs?

You might be wondering why we need mentorship programs. I have heard many arguments against it, such as not wanting to reserve an extra employee capacity for somebody acting as a mentor; believing a new person can pick things up ‘just like that’; or thinking it is better to have new starters working on projects than sending them through a mentorship program.

But trust me – these programs are a great investment. We need them to ensure new engineers succeed, which benefits organizations in the long term. Here are some of the key reasons why.

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1. Challenges of a new role

Working in a new company or team is challenging. There is a lot to learn and even the simplest task may feel like a big hurdle. And oftentimes, new joiners won’t know whom to approach for help. Having an effective and enthusiastic mentor can alleviate a lot of pain and take the burden off new folks.

I experienced this scenario early in my career. I was fresh out of college working for a startup on the iOS platform. Before that, I’d never worked in either a startup or on the iOS platform, and was confused about what I should have been doing. Fortunately, my company assigned a mentor for my first couple of months. Working with them made all the difference. They taught me the technical and soft skills I needed to succeed in the organization, and those learnings also helped me become a better mentor in the future.

2. Been there, done that

A mentor is someone who has worked on the team for quite some time. They already know potential problems and ways to get around them. Drawing on their experience and technical expertise, they can give mentees pointers and answers to most of their questions – as well as others they wouldn’t have known to ask. Even if the mentor doesn’t have a direct answer to something, they will know possible ways to find it, or know which person or team to approach for help.

3. Two-way learnings

Usually, people treat mentorship as a one-way street where only the newcomer gets to learn from a more experienced engineer. But that’s not true. If the mentee is on track to develop technical expertise that the mentor lacks, this can benefit the mentor too. For example, if the new recruit works on a specialized project on their own, by the end of it, they will be more knowledgeable in that field and can prepare to transfer that knowledge to the rest of the team – exchanging roles from mentee to mentor.

Mentorship programs are also a great way for mentors to develop their communication and leadership skills. Continuous feedback during the process will help them to develop their ability to articulate their thoughts, share feedback, and build effective relationships.

How to be an effective mentor

When thinking about effective mentorship, there are a few key elements we need to keep in mind. Each individual program should be tailored depending on many factors including the mentee’s position, their career goals, and the organization’s expectations of them. But there are a number of universal key factors to consider when building your mentorship roadmap.

1. Training

An official training program is a must-have for someone starting a new role. Training can be built with both technical and domain knowledge in mind. Technical knowledge is something related to programming language, tech stack, internal tools, etc. Domain knowledge is only available inside the organization thus mentee might need more time to explore and absorb it.

As a part of the mentorship, you should build a program that will give new joiners access to well-organized documentation and resources that will let them become familiar with the internal codebase and protocols. For example, at a previous company, we had great onboarding documentation for the iOS team that we kept constantly improving with feedback from senior engineers and mentees.

2. Motivation

It’s important to keep mentees motivated so that they will be excited about their job and feel that their work is valued. Motivation can come through career growth, domain expertise, and increased recognition among teammates.

When I worked as a mentor, I was generous about giving recognition when a mentee did a good job and it proved to be an important psychological factor in letting them know that their work matters and is valued within the organization.

It is also vital that the work they have been assigned sparks their interest. Everybody is eager for challenging problems. If you consistently give them repetitive and easy problems, they will sense that there is no learning opportunity and rapidly lose interest. Make sure you assign them a good mix of tasks that will fit their current skills as well as challenge them to explore areas outside of their current expertise.

3. Support

Mentors should guide and support the mentee in the right direction throughout the mentorship program to make sure they stay on track. Support can be provided in terms of pointing them to the right documentation, answering technical questions, or helping them extend their network within the organization such as building relationships with cross-functional teams.

If something goes wrong or they get stuck, you can steer them in the correct direction with the right advice and feedback to make sure they complete their work within a given timeline and with the expected level of quality.

4. Identifying objectives

It’s not surprising that many mentorship programs fail due to a lack of clear objectives. This is because if there are no goals, there is no way to measure success or failure. Before the mentorship begins, you should have goals ready to give you an idea about what you want to achieve by the end of the process. When you set goals, make sure they are objective, time-bound, and relevant to the mentee's job so that they can be fairly utilized for final evaluation. Examples of objectives could be leading a project, building the feature, fixing bugs, or even communicating effectively with cross-functional teams.

5. Flexibility

Successful mentorship plans should balance goals and flexibility. During the mentorship, a lot of things might not go as planned. Maybe the project mentee worked on was blocked on external requirements, priorities changed, something else showed up in addition to the original plan. If any of these things happen, the plan should be flexible enough to be able to readjust in terms of original goals.

6. Feedback and iteration

Both mentors and mentees should get timely feedback about their behavior and performance. It’s important to share this feedback regularly, and start early so that any problems can be worked out before they get worse.

Feedback from mentees can also be used to build better mentorship programs in the future, and help to identify best practices for mentorship plans which are apt for specific positions and levels.

Summary

Mentorship programs benefit everybody. They are a great way to foster two-way learning, as new folks get an opportunity to learn important things from the team, and established engineers get an opportunity to improve communication and leadership skills. As a mentor, you get to enjoy that sense of fulfillment when you know your knowledge has helped someone grow in their career. It’s a rewarding experience to be able to mentor and teach others. After all, knowledge sharing is one of our greatest tools. Try to remember: everyone is good at something different. As a mentor, it’s your role – and privilege – to recognize someone’s area of strength and interest, and help them to develop it.

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