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Whether you’re a seasoned developer or just starting your tech career journey, there’s always something new to learn.
Getting a mentor is a great way to fast forward your personal development, but becoming a mentor yourself can improve your own technical and core skills too!
When I started out as a web developer teaching myself HTML and CSS, when I got stuck, I stayed stuck. When my layout wasn’t coming together, or a piece of functionality wasn’t working as expected, I had no idea where to look for help and nobody to ask. I needed a mentor, someone who wouldn’t judge me, or talk down to me when I asked ‘stupid questions’. Someone who would point me in the right direction, tell me that it wasn’t impossible, that I would work it out, that I belonged.
That’s why I got into mentoring; I wanted to be the person that I wish I’d had. I didn’t want anyone else entering the industry to experience the loneliness and uncertainty that I did.
But when mentoring, I discovered something wonderful. Sure, I was helping my fellow developers, but I also saw a positive change in myself. I learned new things and developed myself as much as I was helping my mentees to develop. Mentoring has changed my life. I wouldn’t have my current job, or the confidence to do the public speaking and writing that developer advocates do if I’d not first been a mentor.
So, as any good mentor does, I wanted to share what I’ve learned with you so that you can start making a difference too. I’m going to lay out why anyone can become a mentor, before sharing some of the ways it will benefit you, with some tips for getting it right along the way.
Who can become a mentor?
Everyone can mentor. It’s not just for the seniors, or even the middleweights. You can mentor, and by doing so, you can make becoming a developer more achievable for everyone else.
I understand the fear of getting started – the little voice in your head that tells you that you shouldn’t teach because you don’t know enough, or there’s someone else who knows more than you, or you might make a mistake. At first, I was reluctant for these reasons. But here’s the thing, no one expects you to know everything. In fact, admitting that you don’t know something is one of the most powerful things you can do as a mentor. Our industry needs more of us to talk about not knowing, and about asking for help.
For those of you who are concerned about being too junior to mentor, you do have experience that is worth sharing. You’ve been through the application process, and you’ve done the interviews and the tech test. There’s a lot you can pass on to someone who is just starting on the first rung of their career ladder, be it advice or even just moral support.
Now we’ve established that you can be a mentor, here are some of the ways that it can benefit you!
1. Teaching others will cement your own knowledge
I’m sure you’ve heard that teaching a subject helps you to get a better grip on that subject yourself. Mentoring someone else is a great way to find and fill in the gaps in your own knowledge. You can't get away with being a little fuzzy on a topic when you have a student. They’ll ask for clarification, and you'll have to sort out your own confusion, then you can both learn together. By the time you’ve explained a particular subject to a handful of different students – each with their own set of problems, plans, and questions – your knowledge will be encyclopedic! When you next have a problem, the answer will be at your fingertips, and not at the end of a forage through stack overflow.
I heard a brilliant quote at a Lead Dev conference from Clare Sudbery, who said that ‘deep-held knowledge is worth nothing if it can’t be communicated.’ If you feel like you know your subject inside out, but you can’t explain it to a junior developer or someone that you’re managing, then that’s a problem. The evidence of true mastery of a concept is the ability to explain it in simple terms to someone less experienced than you.
Making your knowledge accessible will help you become a better developer and a better colleague. It’s common for developers to suffer from ‘assumed knowledge syndrome’. We use phrases like ‘clearly’, or ‘simply’ or even worse, we resort to the cop-out: ‘Because it’s best practice’. This can be alienating to those who don’t have the same level of understanding as you and are trying to learn. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard conference speakers use words like ‘obviously’ when giving a technical talk. I’ve wanted to scream, ‘It’s not that obvious to me, why don’t you spell it out?!’ And yet, I have made the mistake of telling my students ‘CSS is easy’. Luckily, some of them have had the confidence to call me out.
When dealing with students or fellow developers, it helps to ‘assume zero knowledge and infinite intelligence’ (Sir Gustav Nossal). Stop saying, ‘I can’t believe you don’t know that’, and start saying, ‘This is so great, you’re going to love this, let me show you!’ There’s a great XKCD comic on exactly this.
2. Mentoring reignites your passion for learning
There are always new things to learn as a developer, from new frameworks and tools to new libraries. It’s easy to feel jaded, or anxious about keeping up.
Working with someone more junior than you can reignite your passion for learning. Their positivity and keenness to learn is contagious. We should all be excited about learning. We should encourage asking questions and looking for answers. Shaming people for asking questions encourages toxic perfectionism, and is one of the things that makes the tech industry so noninclusive.
If your mentee gets stuck, try and imagine how they’re feeling, and why they’re reacting the way they are. Having empathy and understanding is not only an important part of teaching, but also being a good colleague or manager. Consider whether you are making your student feel stupid or overwhelmed. Try slowing down, and asking them how they’re doing. If they don’t know something, asking for help is better than spending hours struggling on their own.
Remember, when we stop worrying about not knowing things, we have more mental energy to start learning things. If you can help your mentees to feel enthusiastic about the learning process, you’ll find yourself feeling more excited about your own learning too!
3. Teaching improves your confidence
Teaching will not only boost your knowledge, but also your confidence. Having a student tell you that you helped them to finally grasp a topic, or that you’re their inspiration for wanting to learn, is a huge confidence boost. Hopefully, that will push you to try new and more daunting things.
I heard a lovely description from the wonderful people at Codenewbie, who say that mentees should ‘Celebrate your student to the point of exhaustion!‘ You can become their one-person cheer squad, encouraging them to try new things, meet new people, and apply for that job or promotion. You can help them to get past their own impostor syndrome, and feel like they belong in this industry.
How many times have you told a friend to ask for a raise or to take a break, and then not done the same for yourself? Through being an advocate for others, you will learn to advocate for yourself too! You can only dish out so much excellent advice before you start taking it yourself.
4. Working with diverse groups expands your understanding
By mentoring a range of folks, especially those from underrepresented groups in tech, and from different backgrounds to yourself, you can't help but increase your own understanding of cognitive diversity. Everyone has different life experience, viewpoints, and ways of tackling problems, and we don't all process information in the same way. Mentoring helps you to understand this, which is the first, most important step towards creating inclusive working environments and building accessible products and services.
I'd like to share a moment that taught me to step out of my own little bubble. I was working with a student on a website that she was making for an organization called Sistah Space, a domestic abuse service running meetups for women who maybe aren’t able to leave the house or spend time with other women that often. My student was adding finishing touches to the website, including a giant purple button that followed you down the page, with a CTA of 'leave site' and a link to the YouTube homepage. I was confused, and asked her why she was purposefully trying to make her users leave the site. She patiently explained that it was for women who might have a controlling or abusive partner; if they don't want that partner to know that they've been using the site, they can quickly navigate away if the partner tries to look at their screen.
I was dumbfounded by my own lack of understanding of how different people might use a website. It highlighted to me how little we know about the people who use our websites and their individual needs, and that we might be creating potential harm from our lack of understanding.
It’s easy to think that nothing is more important than building the next feature or using the hottest new tech. User testing and contextual research can feel like a painful pause in productivity, but finding out who wants your product and how they might use it is just as important as how you make it. There are too many examples of tech built by undiverse teams being not only unusable but sometimes even harmful, from inaccessible websites to automatic hand dryers that only turn on for White hands, to seat belts that cause a higher risk to women in car crashes.
By working on your own understanding of cognitive diversity, and encouraging people from minority groups into the tech industry, you can improve your ability to problem solve and create more valuable products and services.
The more people you mentor, the more you’ll learn that everyone has different experiences, with their own unique challenges to overcome before they can put their foot on the first rung of the tech career ladder. Some people might need a little encouragement, while for others, even the first rung is out of reach. It is up to us, the folks already a few rungs above, to reach down and give them a hand. Not only is this the right thing to do, but you can grow in the process, cementing your own knowledge, reigniting your excitement for learning, building your confidence, and gaining a deeper understanding of other folks in the industry.