Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Importance of a Mentor

Mentors are an awfully important part of one's growth in any aspect of your life: personal, professional, community.  I've been lucky to have a number of solid mentors during different phases of my life, some of whom I didn't realize were performing that role until years later as I looked back in reflection.

I strongly believe a good mentor is a critical part of your success in your professional life.  A good mentor acts as a calm, wise advisor who can help you unmask some of your weaknesses, then help you discover a roadmap to fill those gaps.  All of this can happen on many levels: communications, technical, business sense, etc.

A good mentor's an invaluable asset when you're in over your head with something, or in a situation where you're having problems finding the way out.  A mentor's been there, done that, and has the scars to prove it.  Because they're not right in the middle of your problem, and because they've likely experienced similar messes before, a mentor can help you discover new options which you weren't able to see.  Sometimes it's as simple as pointing out to you that you can call clunky sections of code written by your team mates "technical debt" instead of "badly written poo." The latter gets someone's hackles up; the former acknowledges that success was achieved, but with a less-than-optimal piece of code which needs refactoring in order to move forward.

Looking back I realize my best mentors never spoon fed me.  I remember vividly one Sergeant during my time flying on big radar planes:  "You're not a teapot that I'm going to pour knowledge in to.  You need to do the work."  That man's words (and some other choice ones when I screwed up) have stuck with me for a long time.

One of the reasons I joined Quick Solutions was to work under and be mentored by Brian; however, he moved on to a great job, leaving me with some thinking work to do regarding how to find a new mentor.  I'm at a spot on the relatively flat hierarchy at Quick where there's nobody above me suitable a technical mentor.  Sales and business development?  Covered in spades.  Someone to help me further my technical growth and vision?  Not so much.

It's taken me a bit of time to work through thinking this out, but I've come to realize that I need to morph my concept of mentoring.  I need a fundamental shift to something akin to distributed mentoring.  Heck, splitting work into distributed components works great for software, why not for mentoring?

Not surprisingly, my short list of technical mentors is made up from the groups I'm closely tied to and passionate about: peers at Quick Solutions and peers in the regional developer community.  I'm blessed with being in the middle of two groups where I'm not even close to being the smartest guy in the room.  I'm blessed with being in the middle of two groups whose excitement, passion, and vastly differing viewpoints lift me up when I'm stuck in a funk.

I don't want to specifically list out the folks I consider as mentors (you may not return my calls or IMs anymore), but I wanted to write about the mentor shift I'd come around to. 

It may work, it may not.  I'll re-evaluate where I'm at in four to six months and let you know.


Anonymous said...

Jim, your insight on mentors is thoughtful and always relevant.

I'll second Jim's thoughts and urge you to find a mentor for whatever part of your life - technical, personal, career, whatever. I perform my best when I have a mentor to lean on. Many times these people don't even know they mentor me. I just watch and learn, asking questions along the way.

I've always allowed the influence of mentors affect my life in some profound ways. Even my wife comments on my insecurities when I don't have a mentor who believes in me and helps me get inspiration. It's a noticeable difference.

Jon Kruger said...

But "badly written poo" is so much more fun to say than "technical debt"!


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