Mentoring is the ability to give advise or train someone, often times, who is less knowledgeable in a particular field. This is pretty much common place in tech companies. There you usually have senior developers who, besides being a technical stronghold, use their time and skill to bestow their knowledge and enhance the skills of the less qualified developers.
Mentoring has become quite a rite of passage where nowadays, you are looked upon to be a mentor, regardless of the position in your company. Most companies never state this as a prerequisite to getting a job, but it is well hidden by the all too familiar requirement of being “a team player”.
A mentor doesn’t specifically have to be someone who has a ton of experience or a strong grasp over as many fields as possible. You can become a mentor by being the developer who recently delved into a specific section of code that not everyone is aware of or by taking ownership over a certain concept.
While it may seem like mentoring is a win-win situation, where both sides benefit, the reality is quite the contrary.
Why Mentors Are Rare
Mentoring is not a teachable trait, and it is very rarely something that can be inspired in people. You either have it or you don’t. Some people may want to become mentors or state they are, but they lack the minute details of what it means. If you do not know how to approach different people or you don’t possess the ability to pass knowledge down in a constructive manner, being a mentor is not something you should consider. For these reasons, people who other people consider as mentors are few and far apart. That is why, in part, most organizations try to distill in their workers the spirit of mentorship.
Don’t give companies too much credit though. While it may seem like companies are working to spread mentoring around to help drive workers in a professional way, there is another aspect to look at. When you have only one person which holds information about a specific feature, which is sometimes referred to as “heroes”, you are at a risk of a substantial loss of knowledge when that person leaves. With mentorship, instead of having one person who holds crucial data about the product that everyone leans on, you can spread that knowledge around. Creating a more stable foundation in case of an earthquake.
What drives people to become mentors
No one is truly altruistic, but in our day to day lives, we tend to want to help others around us. Some more than others, but the general principle is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. The same thing applies in our jobs, where we are confronted with daily opportunities to abide by that saying. Most people who see themselves as mentors, look at their fellow colleagues and see in them a past version of themselves. Meaning, they see themselves when they were less skilled and less capable and remember how they yearned for some guidance. Some of them where actually mentored by someone, lighting the fuse that ignited their will to become a mentor. But some just realize they want to be that person who helps people evolve and advance professionally. Mentors actually enjoy seeing their surrounding becoming better at what they’re doing and in part, support a healthy working environment where people aren’t only defined by their specific position. This satisfaction is a key part in why people become mentors, but it is also the Achilles heal that can bring them down.
A Perfect World
In a perfect world, mentors would be the most popular people in their group, receiving the highest salaries and getting the respect they deserve. But as far as company culture goes, it’s survival of the fittest. In today’s world, you are measured only by your proficiency and efficiency. This leads to constant power struggles where people are fighting to advance their career and level up in the company’s job ladder. Due to this and in combination with inner politics, mentors are usually the ones holding the short stick. Mentors are nurturing the people around them, but are not necessarily being taken care of professionally. Because of this, certain situations can arise where mentors are basically digging their own way out of the company. Take this scenario as an example:
Consider a team of developers, where one of them is a senior. Let’s say that the senior developer is a mentor to the other less experienced ones and over time, allows them to become more knowledgeable and proficient. At some point, they will want to advance in their careers, while the senior is glued to his/her status. Looking at things from a financial standpoint, their boss will have an option between keeping the more expensive senior developer, or promoting a developer who will cost less money and have the same level of knowledge. If you were their boss, what would you do?
On A Personal Note
The reason behind writing this article comes from my fair share of moments where being a mentor to the people around me, backfired. Now you could say that I was surrounded by crummy people or that I may have done something to antagonize them, but the reality couldn’t be more opposite.
The backdrop behind this lies in the fact that I was relatively new at the company I started working at, but I had already received significant praise and responsibility others did not. This obviously shone a light on me, making others aware of my situation and infusing them with doubt about their standing in the company and their career. While not being a senior developer, I was one of the few native developers around, and I took more interest in training and building the people around me than other people did. This was not common in my workplace and increased the size of the target on my back.
In one case, I was helping a fellow colleague who got stuck on a certain issue he couldn’t fix. He called me over one morning asking for help and proceeded to tell me how he has approached almost everyone in our team and division to help him out, but they all failed to solve his issue. Let’s leave behind the fact of how he decided to make note of everyone he talked to and how I’m the last one in the pecking order. Cut to fifteen minutes later, his problem is solved, and I am investing time in explaining to him why the problem occurred and how to overcome it in the future. While I am sitting there helping him out, his team has their morning routine of discussing what they are doing. I stay and I hear how the developer mentions everyone who has tried to help him, but he decides to leave me out.
Coincidence? I think not.
Don’t forget the fact, that I am still sitting there, solving his issues. I confronted him a day later about it and he offered in return a lame excuse. He said he didn’t think about it, saying he was preoccupied in naming all the people who tried to help him out and couldn’t focus on who actually did help him. This might seem like a small incident that I’m fussing way too much about, but this person always failed to mention me when giving credit, while still giving credit to other people. If at first I thought this was a one off incident, as time progressed, there were more instances where people either failed to give me credit or took ownership of things that I did.
A year later there came an opportunity to apply for a team leader position in our group. Subsequently, I was running up against him.
Who do you think got picked?
In failing to recognize my abilities and mentioning me to superiors, he essentially blocked off my career path, while advancing his. There were numerous occasions where I had my superiors say to me that they have not seen me do something. Whether it be leading people around me or promoting soft social skills. But in truth, those stuff happened, but were not communicated upwards by the people with whom I had done so. Now, I believe the developer thought of all this and deliberately acted this way. Since he had his goals set on showing how he is progressing professionally to allow him to become the better candidate for the team leader position.
I cannot emphasize in words how much this hurts, both emotionally and spiritually. You are putting yourself out there, with the will and conviction of helping others, for reasons that are far from egotistical, but you are constantly reminded of the bad character in humans. You begin to have doubts about your co workers and how your daily interaction with them is just a facade. As much as it is horrible to undergo all of this, I haven’t given up on mentoring people. I still feel immense satisfaction from teaching people and watching them grow. You could say I’m a sucker for helping people, but I would rather have it this way, than acting like everyone else.