Tech & Work

You're never too old to have a mentor

Sure, you're an experienced developer, but that doesn't mean you still can't learn a few new tricks. Learn how to find a mentor who can help you expand your expertise and upgrade your skills.


With your level of experience, you may have considered becoming someone’s mentor and sharing some of what you’ve learned over the years. But have you thought about finding someone to mentor you? Whether you’re at the top of your game or your skills are beginning to lag behind industry standards, having a mentor can deliver significant benefits.

As Web Editor Lamont Adams noted in an article on egoless programming, “No matter how much karate you know, someone else will always know more.” Maybe it’s time to look for that karate master who can be your mentor.

Finding the right mentor
Critical to any mentoring arrangement is the ability of the mentor and the understudy to respect one another and find a compatible approach for the exchange of knowledge. But how do you find this person?

You can seek out a mentor within your immediate development team or from an entirely different discipline. A mentor can be someone from another department who can teach you all you need to know about that business unit so that you can build future applications more tailored to its needs. A mentor can be another developer knowledgeable in a language unfamiliar to you. A mentor can even be that energetic and seemingly smug recent graduate whose innovative techniques are challenging the status quo. Whomever you hook up with, the key is being open to your mentor’s expertise and allowing it to enhance your strengths and help you overcome your weaknesses as a developer.

Approaching a potential mentor
If your company already has a formal mentoring system in place, setting up a relationship may be as simple as pairing up with a volunteer on the list with the skills you are hoping to acquire. You might want to take some time to establish a comfortable working relationship with someone before asking that person to invest time in your career enhancement. And when you do approach a potential teacher, be sure to offer some compelling reasons for why he or she should help you out, such as a higher likelihood of your meeting specific project deadlines or a chance for that person to showcase his or her leadership skills.

Remember, too, that the relationship you establish need not be overly formal. It may be as simple as saying something like, “I’ve been interested in learning about databases [or whatever] for some time. Would you mind if I looked over some of your work on this project occasionally?” Because you are learning, be sure to explain that you may be asking some very basic questions. You might also ask whether you can try your hand at something and have that person review and comment on your work.

I think you’ll probably find that people like to talk about their work if you take a sincere interest in it. If you show that you are serious about learning, you may be surprised at how eager people are to help you. If you find someone willing and able to work with you, and you feel you can work with this person, I would say that you just found yourself a mentor.

Some reasons for seeking a mentor
People need a mentor for a variety of reasons. Here are some you may not have considered.

The programming skills in demand at your organization are changing
If your company has determined that new development should be conducted in one particular language, you may see a shortage of developers in that area. Your job security can be heightened if you take the initiative to make that leap. Otherwise, you might end up facing a dwindling set of responsibilities or handling only application maintenance.

The programming skills in demand in the marketplace are changing
Right now, if you’re not skilled in object-oriented design, you may need to consider updating your development skill set just to remain viable in the marketplace.

Your skill set needs updating with new techniques and methods
If you’ve been doing the same thing for years, you may need to learn some new ways of doing things. This is where younger developers can be a great resource. They may have a lot to learn, but the learning can go both ways.

Training budgets are tight these days
Finding someone who has the skills you need to master may be the only way you can acquire training. Companies that have committed to moving to newer development platforms despite thin training budgets will need to provide some mechanism for developers to upgrade their skills. If you work for a company like that, your only option may be to grab onto the bootstraps of a guru who can help you get up to speed. That, and some excellent resource material, can take you pretty far.

You're the new kid on the block
If you’re new to a company, it may help to find a developer who has intimate knowledge of the projects you’re likely to be assigned to. Working with someone who designed the shell or knows the business logic inside and out can reduce your learning curve. And you can find out plenty about the corporate culture at the same time.

The learning never stops
Of course, learning is a lifelong process—and the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know. The hardest part about having a mentor may be making sure you’re open to learning from a coworker, especially if he or she works for you. However, the acquisition of new technical and business skills is an important and an ongoing process in keeping your career healthy. A good mentor can help take you where you want to go.

Do you think you need a mentor?
You are nearly an expert in your field. Do you feel you could approach someone to mentor you? Could you work with a mentor who’s younger than you? Send us an e-mail with your thoughts and comments or post a comment below.

 

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