Mentor word cloud

Follow a mentor to grow – become a mentor to succeed

If you see anyone that has done much with their life they usually have a plan.  And they usually have one or more people they can use to “phone a friend” in a pinch.  I can list a great many of these people that have helped me move along in my world.  Some directly.  Most indirectly. But having someone to follow and coach you is very powerful.

What is a mentor

A mentor is a person or friend who guides a less experienced person by building trust and modeling positive behaviors. An effective mentor understands that his or her role is to be dependable, engaged, authentic, and tuned into the needs of the mentee (yes, that’s a word).

In my first real job, where i was hired to do software development full time not just as one of many non-technical responsibilities, I worked with a guy that was a fire fighter AND a perl developer. He had built his own forum in perl and was busy porting that system to another system.  But no doubt about it, perl was his thing. He would tell you that rather than learn a new language he wanted to be perfect at perl.  At this time we were doing AJAX and Web 2.0 sites but neither of those names existed.  .NET was just starting up.  I was in ASP, ColdFusion, and SQL Server.  JavaScript was not quite yet popular.  IE was broken.

This outlook on technology wasn’t a positive approach and I didn’t look to him to teach me in that way.  But he did teach me quite a lot about all the things that sat on the periphery of the systems I would build going forward.  At that time I had no idea that there was a role for DBA, and a role for web developer, and a role for IT.  See, in that job I was responsible for the membership website.  Not just the writing of code, but from the DNS to the database and everything in between.  This firefighter was my mentor in that he made sure I didn’t focus on just writing code.  He taught me to always look at and try to understand the bigger picture.  The code is one small part in a very big system.

I had various other jobs and eventually landed in an ecommerce company. I learned about security, payment gateways, and various other commerce concepts there.  But my mentor at this company was more in a business role. He taught me business concepts. How to manage people. How to run the business. How to build a business.

This immediately led me to work at one of our biggest competitors. This was a real jump. In this company everyone was smarter than me and all were mentors in their own right. Some directly. Others in directly. At this company I learned that I wanted to be “the architect”.  Little did I know that that term seems to carry some dirt with it!  More on that later. But it was definitely here that I learned I wanted to be the guy that constantly learned how to do new things and see how those new things applied to my current things.  I wanted to be the guy that everyone came to with questions.

The next company was an even bigger commerce company. This for me was the real game changer. I met Jeffrey Palermo. He was virtually consulting with us and making our team better. Watching him, however briefly, pushed me to be better. He had no idea that he was the guy I was going to follow. Eventually I left my summer job to find something closer to home.  And I continued to repeat the pattern of finding someone inspiring to learn from, getting better and better, through examples around me

I continue to do this even today. Find someone better than me. Learn from them. Follow in their path.

Should I only have one mentor

Like all things in our industry, there is no one answer. Look to someone for positive and negative examples. As you learn from others your ability to filter people by what they can provide your career will get very good. I don’t mean for you to walk around filtering people entirely based on what they can provide you. But do learn quickly what you can learn from someone else. If they have nothing to teach you, that is ok. Teach them instead.

Eventually you will find people in your circles that really stand out. Mentors that themselves continue to evolve. Perhaps mentors that you can’t catch. Mentors that themselves are constantly pivoting. The more of these you can locate the better as it just continues to benefit your personal growth.

You can have as many people to look to as you can find. But eventually you might find the one true mentor. That one person that gets you. That you can go to with your questions and always get an honest and respectful assessment of your position. This mentor is the most valuable. And may eventually become a friend as well.

Why should I follow an example

The best reason I can give to you to always have someone to set your sights on as an example of how you could improve is the article we recently wrote about minding the gap between your title and your skills.  I see all to often that someone has been paid a certain amount, and therefore had to be given a certain title to justify the pay, which led that person to believing that they were that title.  However, when it was time to find the next item in their portfolio they found that their capabilities didn’t quite line up with the requirements of the position.

This is hard! A better approach is to always ensure that you are awesome in your required abilities. And that you are always looking to add tools to the tool box. Always set your target for something bigger. Never settle with where you are at. Grow your career with a plan

Having one or many mentors around you is an easy way to travel along your plan. Set goals. Find a mentor that has achieved your goal. Work closely with them until you achieve it too. Set a new goal. Find a new mentor if need be. Continuously work in this manner.

Why should I be a mentor

To master a topic:  The one thing I can tell you about learning, anything, is to teach it. Students retain 30% of what they are being taught.  Teachers retain 90% of what they teach.  You will take one of two approaches when teaching someone else.

  1. You will learn your topic inside and out. You will learn the edge cases. You will prepare a lesson plan. You may put together a slide deck. You will know your topic. And then you will deliver your topic and find out what you don’t know and just how much you don’t know.
  2. You will just deliver your topic. And then you will find out what you don’t know and just how much you don’t know.

But with either approach you will learn. Having someone you mentor gives you a continuous student. Which makes you a continuous teacher. Which means you learn.

To give back to the community: If you used a mentor to build a path and walk down it to where you are now,   why would you not give back to up and comers in the same way? Giving back to the community is a great way to learn. And a great way to continue to grow your career through servant leadership. The audience that you mentor may contain the next opportunity for a goal on your career path.

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Andrew Siemer

Chief Architect at Clear Measure. Farmer at Friendly Pastures. Software consultant at Siemer for Hire. Random dude at AndrewSiemer.com. Author of 3 books published by Packt Publishing. Self publishing author of two books in progress at LeanPub. All around programmer dude.