Why Finding a Community Mentor is Useful
A mentor in a tech community is useful because they’ve walked your path, hit the same obstacles as you’re about to run into, and they have the tools to overcome them. They know what it’s like to start out in the community, and they understand a good portion of your upcoming challenges because they’ve been there. You don’t need to struggle to overcome every single obstacle yourself or without guidance. Asking for help is an underrated strength.
However, it’s not all about you either. Mentoring is a two-way relationship; people who mentor others usually gain insights about themselves along the way. Many people, especially those that have been in their chosen industry for a while, want to grow themselves and mentoring others is an excellent way for them to do that. Some aspiring mentors know that they’ve forgotten how far they’ve come and want to lift others up using their platform. All community mentors want to help; you just have to ask.
They Can Introduce You to Others
Community mentors are likely to have a platform. That can take many forms from social media, conference circuit knowledge and attendance, or knowing a substantial range of influential people that they can introduce you to. Ultimately, it boils down to this: they know people in the community you’re moving into / are in, and they’re willing and indeed want to, introduce you to them. Community mentors are authentic people who want to give you a seat at the table. It would be rude not to sit down.
They Can Open up Opportunities
Community Mentors can open up numerous doors for you. They can introduce you to people as we’ve discussed, but there are lots of other ways that they can help too. For example:
Co-present with them at an influential conference
Review pre-recorded video of you giving an upcoming talk and providing feedback
Review content you want to publish and give you advice and reassurance
Introduce you to work opportunities that you didn’t know existed
Collaborate on projects to raise your profile
This is probably not the end of this list!
One Mentor is Never Enough
There’s a notion that you have one mentor, and that’s enough, which isn’t the case. You can have as many mentors as you have the time to give. A mentor-mentee relationship is a precious one, and it needs time and cultivating, the same as any relationship. However, mentors are not limited to one, so think broad. You might benefit from a mentor for your career, one for public speaking and one for a technology you’re learning (for example).
Community Mentoring (yes, it’s a thing!)
One final point here, while I was chatting to Sirisha about this (then draft) blog, she came up with a couple of phrases that, for me, summarises what you’re looking for here – Community Mentoring / Herd Mentoring. Don’t limit yourself – take all the help and advice offered to you (if you want to). The communities exist to help us all learn from each other. Sirisha and I know each other through the Java community, we don’t live in the same country, and we’ve never met, but such is the power of tech communities and desire to help others. I hope to rectify the ‘never met’ part in the future!
How to Find a Community Mentor
Finding a mentor can be a daunting task, so here are some ideas for where you can start looking. Many communities have some kind of meeting place. Often it’s Slack or similar. Get yourself on there, introduce yourself and see if they have a community for this purpose, they might well do. This is a really common route for finding a community mentor.
If such a group inside a community doesn’t (yet) exist, ask if you can create one. Be clear in terms of what you are looking for, including the kind of mentoring you want and time commitment. You can also try before you buy. That is to say, have a chat with them before you enter into a mentor-mentee relationship (in my view, no money should change hands). Any mentor-mentee relationship is one built on mutual trust and respect, it needs to be on a solid grounding, and you both need to know what you’re signing up for.
If you know the person you want to be mentored by, do your homework and see if they’re open to having a mentee. If you don’t know them directly, see if you have a contact in common who can do an introduction, the world is a surprisingly small place when you need it to be.
Here are some resources that might be useful for both Java and .Net from Khalid and myself:
My understanding, at least for the Java world, is that your local Java User Group is usually the best place to start these conversations.
Having a Productive Mentor/Mentee Interaction
When operating in a mentee/mentor relationship, everyone involved wants to see progress. For all participants to get the best out of each correspondence, each interaction must have a focused and actionable next-step.
While there may be casual elements between individuals (jokes, anecdotes, and shared experiences), everyone involved must understand it is a professional relationship. To help keep everyone involved in meetings/conversations going, all parties should think about the following questions:
What’s the purpose of the interaction?
What’s the ultimate goal?
What impediments are blocking progress?
What’s the mentor’s responsibility, and what’s the mentee’s responsibility?
When the current interaction is complete, what’s the next step?
Answering these questions can determine the type of interaction required. Whether the exchange should be a face to face, video call, or email can be determined by answering the questions listed above. In general, come to every interaction with a topic, a duration, and a take-away. It will give all parties a better feeling about the exchange and help everyone look forward to the next one.
While goals are essential to track progress, they should be used as guides and not life-or-death marks to achieve. There will be times when a mentee/mentor relationship achieves its goals, surpasses everyone’s expectations, or utterly fails. Regardless of the outcome, each individual should take it as an opportunity to reflect, learn, and carry that knowledge forward.
Careers are rollercoaster rides, punctuated by highs and lows. A mentor can help a mentee have more successes, be supportive in times of struggle, and reinforce the idea that it’s a long journey ahead. A mentee can be honest with their mentor(s) and provide feedback, as mentioned in earlier sections.
There are some anti-patterns for finding a mentor too, don’t fall into these traps!
You Thinking They’ll be Too Busy
You are worthy of their time (if they’ve offered it), irrespective of whatever point you are in your journey. Mentors that are too busy or don’t have the schedule gaps will let you know in advance, so you know where you stand. Never assume that they’re too busy for you because they’re jet-setting all over the world (in time), and you’re writing HelloWorld. They started writing HelloWorld too.
You Not Bringing Your A-game
The mentor-mentee relationship is a special one. Bring your A-game each and every time. If you can’t be present because of your circumstances, let them know and re-group. They will understand.
Them Not Bringing Their A-game
If you’re not getting what you need from a mentor, then there is no shame in politely letting them know that it’s not working for you and walking away. It’s better to do that than continue in a relationship that isn’t benefiting you and over time could even be toxic.
Thinking You’re Too Inexperienced to be a Mentor
You have valuable experience. It may not be in the sphere that you’re moving into, but if you have the experience that matches a mentee’s requirements, do explore becoming a mentor. As long as you’re honest and transparent about what that experience is, how you’ve applied it, and are comfortable saying I don’t know, then do consider being a mentor. Sometimes we all need some help, reassurance and support.
Community mentors are phenomenal springboards to opportunities that you probably didn’t know existed, and they want to help you. Not everyone in a community wants to be a mentor, but if you don’t ask, you won’t find! Community mentoring others is an incredibly powerful way of learning more about yourself and helping to give those that are earlier in their journey a seat at your table. Give it a go!
Special thanks to Khalid for reviewing, and contributing to, this blog.