10-Nov-2013 by Allison McMillan

Read Time: Approx. 5 minutes

Mentorship from a n00b's perspective

Here are the slides and notes from my lightening talk at RubyConf 2013 in Miami.

While at RubyConf, I did my first lightning talk!!! I have to give a shoutout thanks to Jim for suggesting it in the first place and a bunch of the other Arlington Ruby folks for helping to encourage me and make sure I went through with it. I literally felt more and more nauseous as I wrote each letter of my name to give the talk. I walked up on stage and the room was packed! I took pictures of the empty room and posted them below to get a sense of the space and when I walked up on stage the only thing I was thinking was “What was I thinking?! Oh well, I’m here now so let’s do this!)

Here’s some more info on the talk that expands on the slides a bit.

I chose to talk about mentoring from a n00b’s perspective. I’ve been learning how to code for a little over a year now. Since I started, there have been a lot of people who have been really incredibly helpful. They constantly gave up their time to help answer questions, provide guidance, and give encouragement… and I’m grateful for each of these people but some were easier to learn from than others and that’s ok. Mentoring is hard. It’s difficult for the mentee and it’s difficult for the mentor. Here are some of my tips to being a more effective mentor.

1. Understand that at the beginning, I don’t know what to ask and everything sounds like a foreign language.
When I first started learning and people would say “what questions do you have?” or “how can I help?” I would just tell them I was fine because I didn’t know what to ask. I just went through the tutorials and kinda understood what was going on. And then, when I sometimes did ask a question, the answer often included words or acronyms that I didn’t understand. And so I really appreciated when people encouraged me to be unabashedly curious and to ask any and all questions that popped into my mind and even interrupt them if I didn’t understand a word they used.

2. Don’t go down the rabbit hole
In groups of beginners, I often see someone ask a question and the person explaining wants to give a full explanation. Therefore, they will answer the question, explain how it relates to all of these other things, and give additional articles and books to read if they want to know more. This seems really helpful in terms of laying out the complete picture but at some point the person who asked the question is completely lost and generally feel like they’re never going to be able to understand all this coding stuff. So make sure you’re checking in, not going too far unless the person asks additional questions, and let them know that they’ll get to the point where they’ll be able to answer these questions for others.

3. Understand if you’re not understood.
This one is really challenging. There are times when I ask a question and someone tries to explain the answer to me. They could try explaining it in 15 different ways using all sorts of examples and I just won’t understand but then another person will walk up, give an explanation, and it will just click! Don’t take this personally. It’s okay to ask others how they would explain a concept if you see the person just isn’t understanding you and it’s important to recognize that people learn in different ways and understand different teachers.

4. The answer to the dreaded “what should I read?” question
In forums, groups and on IRC, I see this all the time. Someone asks “what should I read to learn more?” and they get a flood of responses… books, authors, titles, blogs, everything… but no direction. They leave with a long list of things to look up but without any guidance on why to read certain books or when. So, give direction. Suggest a title but also provide information on why they should read the book, where they should be in their learning process when they read it and what sorts of information they should be hoping to glean from that book.

5. Don’t put your fingers on my keyboard
This one may be the most challenging for experienced developers. I know that it is painful when you have to say each letter, symbol, and space that a person needs to enter into the terminal. It’s easy to say, “let me just type in a few commands to move us through this piece” or when you encounter an error to want to just grab the computer to quickly research what the solution might be but if you have the patience to tell the person learning what to type or what to search, they’ll learn a lot more.

6. Help celebrate the small stuff and motivate to do the big stuff
When I first started learning (and even still), everything that I did was so exciting!! But I assumed that my little celebrations would be silly and miniscule accomplishments compared to the more experienced developers. It was both exciting and eye-opening when they helped me celebrate the small things making sure I realized that those small things weren’t so small. I mean, how many times have you celebrated when you got different error message? If no one tells you that is worth celebration, a n00b would never think it’s worth celebrating. And then motivate to do larger things. My local group helped push and encourage me to do a talk at a local meetup and to do this lightning talk. I would have never even considered either thing if they hadn’t suggested it to me.

This is a talk that I intend to expand upon and present in the future again to the local Ruby groups here in DC. I’m not sure when exactly that will be, but I’ll be sure to post on the blog when it happens. Thanks #rubyconf for all the support when I was up there on stage!

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