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How to make the most out of a mentoring relationship

Tips from our developer advocates on how and why to find a mentor.

How to make the most out of a mentoring relationship
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Whether or not you have a formal or more casual mentor in your life, the benefits of a trusted confidant reach far beyond increased engagement and sense of belonging (which, is convincing on its own—we know!). According to our 2021 State of the Octoverse Report, when a commitment to mentorship is combined with friendly and timely code reviews, teams see a 46% boost in productivity in open source projects and 16% in companies.

But how do you go about finding a mentor and making the most out of the relationship? We asked two of our developer advocates, Michelle Mannering and Damian Brady, to share advice and tips for how to find the right mentors, the right questions to ask, and how to best leverage the relationship.

How have you benefited personally from having mentors?

Michelle: There’s a saying that the only “legitimate” way to time travel is having mentors. We can learn from our mentors’ experiences and try to apply those to our own situations. Mentors aren’t gods that have all the answers, but they are invaluable colleagues who are fantastic for bouncing around ideas and asking for advice. Most of the time I will come up with my own answer, but only after my mentors helped me get that far in the first place.

Mentors also validate ideas and help me work on pathways and direction. My mentors have provided so much valuable advice and feedback and I wouldn’t be here today without them. Not only are they great for guiding me, but they also champion me and help me celebrate my wins.

Damian: Every mentor I’ve had has helped me find the things I’m good at and enjoy. Focusing on that combination has meant I’m more likely to put in the work, and they’ve encouraged and guided me towards decisions that lead to success.

Where and how do you go about identifying a mentor? What advice would you give to those early in their career who may not have an intuitive place to go for mentorship?

Michelle: There’s not really a point in time where I went, “I need a mentor right now.” I would organically ask peers, colleagues, bosses, for advice. Sometimes these would be one–off conversations, and other times it would be coffee chats, dinner, or ongoing conversations.

I think people need to approach mentoring in a way that is open, and beneficial for both people involved. Start by asking people for things that don’t require a lot of their time. For example, most of the people who you’d want to mentor are stretched for time. So instead of asking for advice on X, ask that person if they have some good resources/links pointing to advice on X. That doesn’t waste their time, and usually they’ll be able to share with you content they have already created. This is beneficial to everyone.

Damian: I never sought out a formal mentor. Instead, I looked to people who were doing what I wanted to be doing. I realized I enjoyed public speaking, so I spent time with people who were good at it to learn what they did. Speaking to someone you respect at a distance can be intimidating, but they’re also just people. In general, people want you to succeed.

One mentor of mine became aware that a book series was looking for a co-author. Knowing it was in a specialty I was trying to grow into, he asked me if I’d be interested, then vouched for me to the other authors.

At the time, a book was a little out of my comfort zone, but when we spoke about it my mentor explained that while the book was unlikely to earn money, it was a great way to get my name in front of the right people. His advice was exactly right. That book led me to a Microsoft MVP award, and helped break me into public speaking.

How is mentorship different in an open source community vs. within a company? What kind of expectations are good to set early on?

Michelle: I think people need to remember that when working in a community, the person you are going to isn’t usually being paid for being in that community. This means their time is more valuable, and they are probably stretched for time as they have their own (usually) full-time jobs to worry about.

Always be mindful of people’s time, and asking specific questions instead of vague statements. Mentors can better help you when you ask specific questions tied to an outcome.

Questions like, “How do I have a good career?” is a super vague question. Something more like, “What tips can you give me on things to look for when I’m searching for an open source community to be a part of?” is way more specific and actionable.

When did you start becoming a mentor yourself?

Michelle: I don’t think there was a specific time I became a mentor. I just started sharing my knowledge with those around me. People would send me DMs asking for advice and I would give them what I could. I don’t think there’s a point in time where you go, “I want to be a mentor.” It kind of just happens as a natural progression.

Damian: My career took me into public speaking and developer advocacy and I realized how much I enjoy sharing the things I learn. Dev advocacy is usually “one-to-many” where you’re trying to help as many people as possible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to generalize.

While I don’t think I’ve ever formally called myself a “mentor,” I love helping people one-on-one where you can really focus on what’s important to that person.

How should you structure your mentorship to get the most out of your mentor? And what tips do you have to get the most out of a mentorship?

Michelle: I always ask for specific advice. “Hey, I’m having trouble with X, can you please give me some advice” or “I want to get from my current level to the next level, how can I do that?”, is how I get the most of my mentoring relationships. I think it’s also good to keep in mind that mentors aren’t beacons of truth or knowledge. As a mentee I need to take on all the advice of my mentors and make my own decisions.

On the flip side, as a mentor, it’s important to remember not to get annoyed, upset, or angry, if a mentee doesn’t take your advice. Everyone has their own unique situations and what worked for you might not work for them. We only need to remember to pass on our own knowledge and experience and trust them to make the decisions that’s best/right for them.

Damian: A mentor-mentee relationship doesn’t need to be a formal arrangement. It can just be two people at different stages in their careers having a regular catch-up. I think it’s important that it’s regular. Whether that be weekly, monthly, or longer, having a regular cadence means there’s continuity and the ability to get the most out of each meeting.

To get the most out of a mentor, it’s important you’re clear about what you want. Do you want to know what to learn next, do you need career advice, or do you just want support as you’re going through difficult periods?

Similarly, as a mentor it’s important to know how you can best provide help. That might be sharing your view on technologies to lean towards, encouraging or discouraging courses of action, or even connecting your mentee with someone else if you’re not who they need!

Takeaways

A mentor doesn’t need to be a formal arrangement, but in order to make the most out of a relationship:

  • Meet or communicate on a regular basis whether in person or virtually.
  • Come with specific topics, challenges, or questions you may need help with. General questions or topics won’t be as effective as more relevant projects or experiences you want to cover.
  • Be curious, be open, and be ready to be challenged so that you can grow as a developer.

For more data around the benefits of mentoring in either the open source communities or within your company, read through the Sustainable Communities section of the 2021 State of the Octoverse Report.

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