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Mentors and Software Engineering

When working at my first development job, my team leader became my mentor.  Not in a formal sense - this company didn't have one of those established mentor programs that I'm reading a lot about these days - but he just took me under his wing.  He was a 'pragmatic programmer' and I learned more from him in two years than I ever learned at school, or in any other job.

Since then, the companies I've worked for have had cultures that discourage this sort of relationship among developers.  By this I mean that senior developers have had an insane amount of work to do, so it would have disadvantaged them professionally to waste precious time talking to junior developers. 

I've been doing this for twelve years, so I'm actually a "senior" developer right now, but I know older, crustier coders who are absolutely fantastic at their craft.  If I could work in a mentor/mentee relationship I know that I could hone my craft at twice the rate I do now with much less effort.

Two questions:
(1) Anybody else have experiences like this they'd like to share?
(2) Do most companies discourage this as a waste of time?

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

(1) Two jobs ago, I worked under one of those insanely busy senior developers in a big corp.  I did learn a lot from her when we did get a chance to work together and I remember wishing we could do it more.  One job ago, I worked at a tiny shop under the founder/lead developer.  We both learned quite a lot from one another.  Having been there and done that, I don't think I could go back to an environment where mentoring was discouraged.

(2) I don't know what most companies do, but those that discourage mentoring are shooting themselves in the foot.  Sadly, I think most companies tend to like shooting themselves in the foot.

Sam Gray
Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Mentoring is a fantastic tool to help create developers.  We did it at the last place I worked, where it was part of the job description for us senior developers.

I would highly recommend it!

Gerald Brandt
Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Mentoring is one of the most ideal ways to utilize and leverage the skills and experience of senior staff who have the entire ball of wax (code and business) locked away in their brain.  Alas, directors are too shortsighted to leverage their Sr. staff's wisdom in that way.  Instead, they are worked the hardest, and given the hardest tasks with shortest deadlines.  This perpetuates their distance from the rest of the rank amateurs.  I feel a seasoned veteran is worth several mid level people.  This is especially true as the business domain knowledge becomes increasingly complex.  Veterans shuld not be doing front line support, they should be disemminating their knowledge.  Of course, that's a conflict of interest of self-preservation, so maybe they prefer that.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Mentoring is something that is either within a person's scope or it isn't.  Its very difficult to train into someone.  So I wouldn't assume that just because an individual is highly experienced that they would be capable of mentoring someone else.

I can understand that in some situations creating a mentoring relationship artificially would be counter productive with the more experienced worker hampered or derailed by unstructured demands of the junior worker.

Yesterday I was talking to someone that has just walked into a demoralised and previously ill-run development and IT  department as a new Tech. Director and who found that they bombarded him with questions left and right because for once they had someone that listened.  I suggested that he set up surgeries during the day, perhaps an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon.  At those times they could hit him with whatever was on their mind or blocking them if it didn't fit a regular meeting.

I also said that they should have their questions written down before seeing him in the 'surgery', that way they could help clarify what the real problem was before hitting him with it.

Mentoring for the mentor is just as important, it helps seeing the wood and the trees at the same time.

Simon Lucy
Thursday, January 09, 2003

Sounds like the new tech director needs "office hours" like a college professor.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

I've never come across a company that explicitly discouraged mentoring.  However, I'm sure that unhealthy cultures can make mentoring impractical.

If all the senior people were insanely busy, I'd recommend just worming in as much time as you can with them.  Any time spent with a senior developer is better than no time at all.

Brent P. Newhall
Tuesday, January 14, 2003

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