I recently had the opportunity to share my perspective on this topic through a Girl Geek Dinners panel hosted at Shopify Plus in Waterloo. I figured now’s a good time to write down some of those thoughts, while the conversation and questions are fresh in my head. I’ve categorized my scattered ramblings under some of the questions that were asked, and cribbed a bit from some of what I remember the other panelists sharing.
On finding a mentor…
Several years ago now, I made a career transition from a senior developer role into product management. When I did so, I was at a company where I knew the technology inside-out. I knew the architectural warts, the way the APIs worked, how the two distinct parts of the system sort of (but not really) interacted with each other, and could probably rattle off half a dozen RFC IDs for frequently requested features or defect reports.
When I switched over to product, once I got comfortable, I started being able to use my technical history with the company to push back on some of the directions coming from senior leadership, helping identify ways customers could use existing features to address their needs, or even ask the right questions (knowing the guts of the system) to steer customer conversations in a direction that could result in a simpler solution.
One of the VPs in the organization started noticing the value I was bringing to the table, and started finding ways to take advantage of it. That naturally led to me being in a position where I had the opportunity to ask him a lot of questions, and ask for (and sometimes receive, unasked for) a lot of feedback on my work. Things eventually got to the point where I outright asked him, “I realize I’ve been treating you as a mentor, and never asked if you were ok with it. Are you?”
Find someone that you’re interested in learning from, and make yourself useful to them.
You have people that you are learning from all the time, whether it’s formally called a mentorship or not. Build relationships with people you admire or have skills you want to learn — not to take advantage of your friends, but because, in my experience, it ultimately forms deeper and more meaningful relationships. This doesn’t have to be a hierarchical/experience level thing either. I have a half-dozen relationships with peers that I regularly reach out to for advice. One former teammate has become an expert in security, privacy & compliance, and I frequently reach out to him for input on these sorts of topics (as well as a lot of other things).
I have HR friends who I know I can go to for “Is this weird? This feels weird. How should I handle it?” types of questions. I have one friend who is a wizard with words, and she frequently helps me get to the essence of what I’m trying to communicate by asking me all kinds of good questions.
I currently work with none of these people, but we rely on each other for all sorts of personal and professional advice. I consider them all part of my “personal board of directors” as outlined in this HBR article. Like any relationship, no one person can or should be relied on to satisfy all of one person’s needs. Build a strong network.
What’s the right ‘fit’?
When you’re establishing a specific and focused mentorship partnership, ask yourself, “do we have things in common that we can build on together?” In 2017, I participated in a Women in Tech mentorship program facilitated by Communitech. They kicked off the year with a matching session. We’d all previously filled out a plum.io profile, and they gave us name tags with our biggest strengths highlighted on them. We were told to find someone with similar strengths to pair up with. Why? Your best mentorship match is going to be someone with a similar personality. The mentor is someone who has found ways to take advantage of their strengths throughout their career, and they can help a more junior person do the same. It’s not about ‘fixing’ weaknesses. Play to your strengths.
How can you get advice on problems related to trade secrets?
This question kind of stumped me, until I remembered the rubber duck debugging concept from my coding days. There can be times when you’re in a situation at work where you’ve got a problem that is very specific to something in development within the company, and you just can’t talk about it outside the company walls. Maybe you’re the only person in your field at that company. Maybe you’re the most senior person in your field at the company. Neither of those things mean that you don’t have someone in the company who can help you through the problem. Sometimes, the act of explaining your problem in enough detail for someone else to understand it can be enough to help you figure out what you need to do. All that person has to do is listen.
What if I don’t know anyone?
Are you a newbie at your workplace? Feeling kind of alone? Find someone who is always hanging around the kitchen or the coffee machine. Ask them to show you how to use something (even if you already know how to use it). That person might not be the right mentor for you, but they’re probably pretty social, and probably know almost everyone at the company. Ask, “Do you know who I could talk to, to learn about X?”
The other thing I’ve used to my advantage at new workplaces is being a morning person. Turn the lights on, start the pot of coffee, go back to your desk, and wait for someone else to show up. Head to the coffee machine when they do, and start asking questions to learn something about them and get to know them. The small group that trickles in, in the morning, is the perfect opportunity to get to know people well. Again, maybe none of these people is the right fit for you as a mentor, but they can help you get to know other people, potentially leading to the right fit.
The night before the mentorship panel, I was at another event, catching up with one of my mentors, and supporting him as he was speaking partially on behalf of an organization we co-founded. He was speaking about engagement, and he said that one way to uncover what motivates a person is to just ask questions. He described daily dinner conversations with his kids: “How was your day?” “Good.” “How do you know it was good?”
“Do your questions ever scare people?”
Someone in the audience asked, “Do your questions ever scare people?” I laughed, he spotted it from the stage, walked over to me, and stuck the microphone in my face. “Yes,” I said.
Speaking of fear and discomfort, someone you can turn to for advice is one thing. Someone who knows how to take advantage of your skills and can advocate for stretch assignments and projects that will help in your career development is quite another.
A sponsor is that person who speaks up for you when you’re not in the room and advocates for stretch assignments.
A few years ago, that same person from my previous two stories put my name on the speaker list at a customer conference in Stuttgart, Germany. The topic was the agile transformation process that we’d been through as a development organization. This process started while I was a developer, progressed through times I stood in as my team’s scrum master, all the way up to the time that I was a product owner, at times managing product backlogs for up to 4 scrum teams (yikes! don’t do this). The goal of the session was to share our learnings with our customers and encourage them to adopt more agile and lean processes, even as embedded systems developers for safety critical systems.
Was the prospect of standing up in front of a room full of European automotive engineers a little terrifying? You bet. What did he do to make it feel safer? He put his name down as co-presenter. I put together the story, prepped the content, practiced with other co-workers (remember — make yourself useful), and he promised to do the intro & conclusion, while I was set to deliver the meat of the content.
I got to our session room in plenty of time to set things up, make sure the tech was working, watch the audience trickle in, chat with a couple of the customers that I knew fairly well… and wonder where my co-presenter was. Given that I’d prepped all of the content, I knew that I could deliver it solo if I had to, but I admit I was starting to have a mild freak out. A minute or so before the session was supposed to start, the facilitator asked what I wanted to do. I told her I’d start on time regardless of if he showed. About 30 seconds to go time, I heard his voice in the hallway. The huge wave of relief made me settle down in a way that likely wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t pushed it to the last second. The way he tells this story, it was totally intentional. I’m not convinced he didn’t just lose track of time!
On being a Mentor…
Ever feel like you’re only in a position to learn from others, and there’s no way someone else would find value in learning from you? I mentioned Communitech’s women in tech mentorship program earlier. The criteria for mentors said something like “ 8–10 years of experience in your career.” I remember reading that and doing a double-take. I was right on the upper limit. I talked to a few trusted friends, telling them I was considering signing up, but wasn’t sure whether I should do it as mentor or mentee. All 3 of them replied immediately with something to the effect of “OF COURSE you should sign up as a mentor.” Huh.
I did — and over the course of the year, I learned how to ask questions to help my mentee work through the challenges she was facing. I also learned a lot about the things that she’s passionate about, gaining insight into a field that partially overlaps with mine.
This January, I signed up as a mentor for the Technovation Challenge. I worked with a team of girls in grade 6, as they went through the process of identifying a problem in their community, learning how to code in MIT App Inventor, building paper prototypes and doing user testing, developing an app, making MVP-types of tradeoffs, and preparing a pitch and demo video. Seeing these girls develop their skills, while working through a real and important problem was SO cool and SO enriching.
Each of the panelists in the session at Shopify were asked about their experiences in being a mentor, and all of us had similar answers. Sara Stairs said that it’s a way for her to give back; to help others grow and develop. Shelly Deitner said, “It gives you a chance to look back on your own path and see how far you’ve come.”
Shelly’s comment made me realize that the thing I’m most grateful that I’ve learned through being a mentor is realizing just how much I have to give. Speaking of gratitude (and maintaining relationships), I’ve got a couple of lunches I need to go schedule!