Managers should adopt a technical mentor

You may not have the time to read or the money to burn on analysts' reports, but adopting a technical mentor can help you keep your skills fresh. Here are the pros and cons of making the move.

With technology constantly changing, it’s hard to keep your knowledge base updated when you’re in a management position and are preoccupied with budget and personnel issues. But you might try picking up a technology mentor to help you keep up to date. A good mentor is usually a senior developer who still has his or her hand in the thick of all things technical.

Last year, I met an IT manager (a COBOL coder turned IT manager) at a technology networking meeting, and he found adopting a mentor to be a great way to stay current on real-world implementation of emerging technology. He much preferred having a mentor to the alternative: subscribing to a barrage of trade publications or overly academic (and costly) analysts reports—many of which he never got around to reading anyway.

What are the advantages of adopting a technical mentor?
A technical mentor can provide:
  • A realistic snapshot of the technology and its challenges.
  • A one-on-one relationship in which you can ask detailed questions without feeling like a dummy.
  • An opportunity to keep using your programming skills.
  • A chance to explain your management philosophy.

What are the potential pitfalls of a mentor relationship?
Adopting a technical mentor includes some challenges, including:
  • You may not feel comfortable “fraternizing” with your direct reports. If so, find a tech mentor outside your company or perhaps join a users' group.
  • You may fall into a micromanagement trap with your mentor.
  • You might take up too much of your mentor’s time.


Hiring the COBOL guy
Hiring a programmer from the COBOL days can bring a valuable asset to your shop, both in terms of hands-on development and numerous intangibles. A veteran can bring experience, meticulousness, and the ability to mentor younger colleagues.

If you decide to enter into a mentor relationship, make sure that you can dedicate the time to it. As a manager, you may be “officially” done with cranking out boatloads of code. However, your development chops don’t have to get rusty.

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