Mentorship: Wants vs. Needs

Mentors generally have the best of intentions. They want to help, they want to teach, they want to give back to the community oftentimes because they received assistance and mentorship to reach the level they are at. But sometimes, what a mentee needs doesn’t quite match up with what a mentor wants to give. In conversations about mentorship, I feel this piece isn’t frequently addressed. There are plenty of conversations about mentorship and plenty of common topics that are discussed. I always hear about how to find a mentor or mentee, how to have a successful relationship, and i’ve written/spoken about these subjects in the past here and here.

One of the most important aspects to consider in both personal and professional mentorship is do the learning styles of the two people match up? I have different mentors for different subjects. I have some people I talk to about being a woman in tech or about work/life balance, etc. and I have other mentors that meet with me more frequently to cover technical skills. For me, I consider these technical mentors to be both personal people I meet with and more experienced developers I work with every day. Thinking about learning styles is important for both. People learn and teach differently. When establishing a relationship with a personal mentor, make sure you’re working with someone who understands how you think and make sure you understand how they explain things or walk through code with you.

Companies with a focus on team health and personal growth have good intentions and look for senior developers that have a vested interest in mentoring in order to grow their less experienced developers. Less experienced developers look for teams and team members they can learn from. When looking for opportunities, talking to senior developers about how they mentor is incredibly important but even better is when you can pair or ask a technical question to see how they explain a concept and whether they use language and an approach you can understand. One of the most important questions to ask when pairing or interviewing at a company is “can you repeat that?” or “can you explain that in a different way?” Those questions reveal mountains of information about how they might interact with an individual on a regular basis, and how much one can expect to learn from a person or team while working there.

Additionally, for companies who feel mentorship is an important team value, consider including your least experienced developers in interviews, and not just in the culture-fit interview portion. Involve them in pairing session or in one of the technical interviews. It will show candidates that you are serious about mentorship and the growth of the whole team, and will ensure that you hire someone that your less experienced developers learn from effectively. While this likely isn’t the case for everything related to hiring, when it comes to mentorship on a team, It’s not about what the senior developer or company wants, it’s about what the less experienced developers need.

A learn/teach mismatch can be extremely frustrating and emotionally taxing. A mentor might get frustrated explaining the same concept over and over again, while a mentee (especially one who’s new to the field) might think they don’t belong in tech or just can’t understand. This same experience can be true in the context of work. A more senior developer might think the members of their team aren’t growing or aren’t learning. They may get frustrated if they’re re-explaining concepts. Less experienced developers feel stunted in their growth, feel bad about asking the same question more than once, and feel themselves like they aren’t meeting their potential. The broad implications of this are, at best, general dissatisfaction and, at worst, a lack of desire to play the role of either mentor or mentee in the future.
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