Many consulting gigs develop into long-term engagements. Over the course of several years, you see a lot of your clients' employees come and go. Often, they're quite intelligent but a little green at the outset — or, at least, inexperienced in the specific technologies you're using. Since your client has engaged you for your ostensible expertise in those areas, it's natural for you to gravitate towards the role of mentor for these promising individuals.
Benefits of becoming a mentor
But why would you want to be an employee's mentor? Aren't you just going to make yourself expendable by passing on your talents to your client's employees? I don't think so, unless you're charging more than your services are worth.
If you can train an employee to do what you're doing, either: (a) the task is something so mundane that it shouldn't be "consulting" or (b) the employee is brilliant enough that they'll want more money too. It usually ends up being a combination of the two. You're glad that you don't have to do the same thing for the rest of your life and that you can move on to more interesting problems. The employee is thankful to learn new skills and increase their own worth. The client is grateful that you've helped them become more self-reliant, and they'll certainly give you more opportunities to do that. In the best cases, you create a colleague who doesn't supplant you, but rather teams up with you to form a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.
Four steps to becoming a mentor
In order to pull this off, there are four steps that you should follow:
- Make sure your client is on board and is willing to commit some of your billable hours for mentoring. The value proposition is pretty clear (as outlined in the previous section). Your prospective protégé must also be willing to learn from you. If they think they're already the über-Haxxor, and you're just an obsolete fat cat consultant, you're not going to get very far.
- Work out the logistics. If you visit your client's offices regularly, you can do pair development or make yourself readily available for questions and discussions. Working remotely as I do, I spend much less time engaged with others face to face. While working remotely is often a benefit, it certainly makes it more difficult (though not impossible) to mentor budding techies. I encourage them to send me questions by e-mail first, and then I try to craft a thought-provoking response. Often, that's enough to turn the light bulb on over their heads. If not, we schedule a phone call and/or a shared desktop session to work through it together.
- Focus on the person rather than the problem. While it's important to reach a solution to whatever problem you're working on, it's even more important that your protégé learn something more from it than the idea that you're an awesome technical god. Try to let them solve at least part of the problem for themselves. Ask questions that you think will lead them in the right direction. Provide supporting information that they might not know how to find, but don't jump to the conclusion. Let your protégé fail and then ask more questions that will help them understand why they failed and suggest another approach. If the problem turns out to be completely beyond their comprehension, then after you provide a solution, go back over it with them until they understand why you solved it that way. The goal is: If a similar problem presents itself in the future, they'll be able to handle it on their own.
- Be humble. It's tempting to create a wizardry ranking system in your mind, with you at the top and the employee somewhere near the bottom — that's rarely the case. There's a lot you don't know. Your protégé, however inexperienced, will often know something you don't — or have insights that never would have occurred to you. Be willing to learn from them, and give them credit when their skills outshine yours. If that begins to happen frequently, you've done your job as a mentor.
Additional TechRepublic resources about mentoring
- Adopt yourself an IT protege
- Seven species of mentors
- The luxury of a mentor
- How to set up a formal mentoring program
- Reap the benefits of mentoring other developers
- Top 10 ways IT managers can support knowledge transfer
- 3 mistakes to avoid when mentoring an employee
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.