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Search online for IT consulting mentors

The isolation caused by telecommuting, combined with the immediate availability of the wisdom of hundreds of experts through their blogs and other social media, make it more practical for independent consultants to have many mentors. Chip Camden says that he's had luck finding great IT consulting resources through social networking sites.

 The biggest threat to the long-term development of an independent consultant's career may be the potential for becoming too isolated from one's peers. Last week I wrote about how consultants can become mentors to their clients' employees. But consultants need mentoring, too. Yes, even if you're considered an expert in your field, there's always a lot more that you can learn. If you don't keep learning, you'll stagnate. And one of the most effective ways to learn is to converse with someone who knows some of the things that you don't.

In the traditional office workplace, it's natural to gravitate towards those who can provide insights into what you're working on. As an independent consultant, though, that approach can feel more awkward. After all, they hired you for your expertise -- not for you to reap their expertise, right? In fact, it's not a zero-sum game. One of the best investments your client can make is to share their wisdom with you, because you should be able to combine that with your own unique knowledge and experience to produce something greater than either of you could have created independently.

One of my mentors is Ken Lidster, who is Chairman of the Board for one of my clients. I've known him for 25 years now, but I could still learn much from him about design and programming. He and I have hammered out the design of several programming language features together over the years, both when working for Synergex and when we served together on the ANSI DIBOL committee. We would often do lunch to brainstorm, and get into an almost trance-like state in our discussions. He was regularly over my head, but I like to think that I provided some benefit by asking pertinent questions. Sometimes on our way back from lunch, we'd continue our discussion in the elevator -- then we'd suddenly become aware that the other people in the elevator were wondering what planet we were from. Good times.

But that was back in the days when I visited their offices daily. Now that I work remotely, Ken and I correspond occasionally via e-mail -- but he has also reduced his role at Synergex, nominally retiring. Reluctantly, I needed to find mentors elsewhere.

You might think I would try to network with other consultants in my local area, but that approach hasn't worked for me because most of them aren't in the same specialty. Besides, I don't want to take time away from work to be mentored -- I want my mentoring to be integrated with my work.

Here's where social media has benefits beyond sharing the funniest YouTube videos or joining in the mob fury of a Digg bury brigade. I subscribe to more than 50 feeds (several of them right here on TechRepublic) from developers and consultants that I find insightful and relevant to the work I'm doing. I participate in discussions on their sites and occasionally develop friendships that carry on into private correspondence. One side effect of this approach is that many of my mentors are now younger than I am, a fact that is less alarming than I would have imagined. But I learn something new almost every day from at least one of them, which is what being mentored is all about, after all.

The traditional mentor-protégé relationship is a one-on-one, somewhat intensive learning experience. But the isolation caused by telecommuting, combined with the immediate availability of the wisdom of hundreds of experts through their blogs and other social media, make it more practical for independent consultants to have many mentors -- micro-mentors, if you will. I still consider Ken a mentor, and I soak up as much as I can any time we're together. If you're lucky enough to be able to get face time with a mentor, definitely do that. But don't ignore the knowledge and experience that's available to you online.

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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
IT.Consultant
IT.Consultant

once I moved into healthcare consulting was my former manager at my first client. That was over 2 years ago and to this day, we still keep in contact. Like me, he began his career in healthcare as a consultant for many years before working as a government employee for 20 years. He retired just after my contract ended. He was not only a beacon of insight and guidance, but also a source of inspiration. To this day, he still speaks highly of and refers me whenever he can. Since then I have found another mentors, though none could ever replace him. One thing I have found is that you really can't have a surplus of mentors. Most mentors I have had specialize in a few areas and sometimes, you can take bits and pieces of what they share with you and make it your own. The best ones never force their opinions on you and are the ones from whom you learn just by being around them. But they also leave you something to weigh and consider so that you can make decisions for yourself.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

I feel like a noob now, but good stuff!

apotheon
apotheon

The link to SOB with the word "friendships" gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Something you didn't explicitly mention -- the kind of relationships you're talking about are often two-way. In fact, you're obviously a more competent general-purpose software developer than me, and I feel like I'm getting the better end of the deal on the "mentoring" aspect of our friendship.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I had one mentor who had the attitude "my way or the highway" -- it didn't take long for us to part ways.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's only a question of where you look to find someone who knows more about a certain area than you do. And it's not just a two-dimensional scale either. As apotheon pointed out, we all have our areas of expertise and our areas of ignorance.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I think it's definitely a two-way street. You've introduced me to lots of things I never explored before.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

.., you could probably mentor a lot of people already. and given your attitude about it, I'm sure you'll find some takers someday.

IT.Consultant
IT.Consultant

I'll be type of mentor tomorrow that I want today. I think that I'm mature for my age, but still have a lot more room to grow. Someday, someone somewhere will find some of the sum of my experiences somewhat worthwhile.

apotheon
apotheon

One of the best warm fuzzies I get is hearing that I've helped someone understand or experience (in a good way) something he or she hasn't before. Another is learning something new, myself.