Two years ago I didn’t even know what a mentor was at all. Not that mentoring happens very often back home. And when it does, it is rarely labelled. I first heard the word and had my first mentoring experience at my first Grace Hopper Conference where I attended a session of speed mentoring in which I got valuable advice on the start of my masters and my experience abroad.
Soon after I came back home a great opportunity appeared: becoming a mentor for “Learn IT, Girl” to teach a girl a new programming language. At first, I doubted I was qualified to do it. I was still a student and I had no professional experience besides a couple of internships. But I had nothing to lose, so I applied and started a journey that I still continue today, running the second edition of “Learn IT, Girl”. That experience taught me more than I could teach myself, and motivated me to go on.
Later came another great opportunity: mentoring at Google Summer of Code for the Systers PowerUp project. I again doubted I could do it since even though I had Android experience, I had only done Open Source for some months. When I sent my concerns to the mailing list, all I got in reply was the application link 🙂 The experience was doubly amazing: guiding someone through coding and contributing to an app with social impact.
Both experiences made me grow fast as a technical mentor, making me learn by doing and discovering things that, as always, I wish I had known before.
Tasks should be short
Creating big tasks may look like a good idea as it defines what to do for a longer period of time, especially when the mentee seems to know how to address it. However, there will always be things to improve, especially in the beginning, from code style to working methodology. Addressing these as soon as possible when a short task is finished will avoid making the mentee feel frustrated when having to rework on something big.
Regular meetings are important
Most online mentoring programs recommend weekly meetings. However, this sometimes seems as a waste of time to either the mentor or the mentee. Why not just let the mentee email the mentor when they have a doubt rather than schedule something that might not be needed? My experience is that as human beings, we tend to think our questions are stupid. We don’t dare to send that email and instead spend hours figuring out something we could have asked in minutes. This is where weekly meetings help review the current state of things and create an open environment for all sorts of seemingly stupid questions, making everything run much more smoothly.
Video meetings are essential. Emails are not enough.
The amount of information that can be transmitted in an email is not even close to what can be said during a video meeting. When meeting in person is not possible, video meetings are the greatest tool to explain things clearly and quickly. In online mentoring programs they are also the best way to get to know each other better and trust each other more, making communication much more fluid.
Sometimes it’s necessary to be strict(ish)
As a mentor, I never wanted to be strict and stablish hard deadlines. I trusted my mentees would be responsible and set their own when it best worked for them. However, this was not always true. Not because they were not responsible, but because other things came along the way. As humans, we tend to perform better when we feel we have a responsibility towards others. Therefore, setting a deadline is a great way to tell your mentees what you exactly expect from them, so they can easily assess if they are meeting it. The same goes with code. It isn’t bad to set a bar on which code style and structure is expected. Even if it takes some time for the mentee to get used to, it will help them learn better practices on the long run.
A mentor needs to be available
Weekly meetings are great, but a lot can happen in seven days. Mentees will have tons of questions, especially in the beginning, and those may block them for a while. As a mentor, it is great to open some informal communication channel, such as Facebook or Hangouts chats to reply to quick questions and unblock mentees. However, this is a two-way street. Mentees should also be concise in their questions to allow quicker answers.