Outsourcing

How IT consultants can become mentors

Spending time coaching a client's employee can benefit all parties involved. Chip Camden explains the four steps that IT consultants should follow to become a mentor.

 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

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About

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 b...

10 comments
JoeRJr
JoeRJr

Excellent ideas, from one and all, Chip and Vitreketren especially. HOWEVER, be VERY cautious, very careful, as many clients management will take advantage of you, both as a consultant and as a mentor -- many times unloading extra mentor related or not work on you, and then expecting it to be completed manifold times before you will be paid, etc. Mentoring as a great idea for helping others, as you and others will learn, strike friendships and advance each others needs, especially educational. But Mentoring and Being Taken Advantage Of need to be carefully separated, and the latter avoided.

reisen55
reisen55

About 20 years ago the concept of an OFFICE CHAMPION came to light and I endorse the idea of having an office employee chosen to be able to solve some of the more normal issues involved of day to day problems. The hidden IF is the internal workings of your client, and a few of mine are just so nice and soooo brain dead on computers that I have to be on-site or remote to manage them. Getting on-board with the concept is the big issue, and I have tried everything with one of them and they just do not bite. So, I visit and invoice. So it goes.

lastchip
lastchip

When your protege develops and leaves to become IT head at some other place, who's he/she going to come to for consultancy help? Big :-) Edited; TR doesn't like character maps!

Vitreketren
Vitreketren

Even though I've been in the Army for some time (working as a Computer Tech) I've found many people to help mentor along the way. I've found that the advice that I give out along the way has helped my 'customers' fix many of the problems that they would have earlier called me, allowing me to work on further development projects or just get to other 'customers' problems quicker. When I've worked with units in the Army I usually find one or two people in a unit that are more technically advanced and allow them to solve the problems within their own unit. It makes issues easier to deal with when I only need to talk to a few more knowledgeable people about the issue, rather than having to work with people that are clueless about their computers (an experence that I'm sure makes many people quiver in disgust). I'm usually the only 'IT' guy in my unit so while I've got coworkers that work on many other electrical systems, I'm the only person fully qualified to come up with solutions. With this in mind, I've gotten good at mentoring my fellow coworkers to reduce my own workload. I really enjoyed this article and think that many IT presonnel should read it, as I've found that in this feild we often lack the fortitude to share our knowledge, affraid that we may work our way out of a job. But if you're in a situation where you're fealing overworked and/or understaffed, you'll realize sometimes its good to pass some of your knowledge down to your users.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... and needs to be presented that way. In fact, it's a better investment for your client than paying you to do all the work. "Teach a man to fish" and all that.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

So many companies concentrate on cutting immediate costs that they end up spending more money in the long run. You've given one good example here.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, it's easy to fear that you'll groom someone to take your place, but in my experience there's always some new challenge for someone who knows their stuff. And there's no better way to learn something inside out than to teach someone else.

GeneS
GeneS

Once again, you've hit the nail on the head. It has always been appreciated by my clients. You create an in-house ally during the process and, seeing as there is always more work to do, it has never had a negative impact on my bottom line. Talk about good advertising - everyone comes out ahead!

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