If you’re considering a formal or informal mentoring arrangement with a junior developer, you may want to know what’s in it for you. While most of the benefits of mentoring are intangible, they can increase your worth to your current employer and to future employers, as well. At the very least, when you choose to mentor someone, you build a working relationship that could last well beyond the mentoring period.

The benefits extend to the person you mentor and to your organization, as well. Dwindling training budgets often mean that a junior developer’s only resources for skill advancement will be a mentor and a good reference book or two. This makes mentoring increasingly significant, perhaps even essential, for the growth of staff members and the success of important projects.

My own experience as a mentor has paid off in a variety of ways. Here’s a look at how one mentoring relationship turned out and a list of some of the key benefits you can expect when you take on an understudy.

Adopting a protege
At my previous job, a new vice president placed me as a team leader responsible for technical communication and front-end Web development for a departmental intranet. I was able to choose another team member to work alongside me. The possible team members were highly skilled production support staff with no professional Web development skills. I needed someone who could pick up where my skills left off. In this case, I needed a graphic designer. I chose to mentor a woman whom I knew to be artistically adept and experienced in creating marketing collateral.

It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my tenure in management. When I was again promoted and given more staff members, we became responsible for the entire corporate Web presence, and I had a dedicated graphic designer/Web developer whose talent pleasantly surpassed my expectations. And while this sense of achievement belonged foremost to her, I felt proud of myself for my instincts about her potential and for guiding her through developing the basic skills until they could gather their own momentum. And in my case, mentoring meant not only that I transferred some of my own knowledge, but that I plotted the path for the understudy to move forward independently to learn things I didn’t know.

Big payoffs
Here’s what you can gain by mentoring:

  • A clarification of your own skills, tools, and values: To teach someone about development, you have to examine what you know yourself. You have the opportunity to look at these skills through new eyes and to figure out both what you know and what you don’t. To mentor someone well, chances are, you’ll have to learn something new yourself, whether that’s how to build tables properly or the tenets of extreme programming.
  • The ability to transfer your development style to another developer,who (ideally) will develop applications similarly: You’ll be able to read his or her code more easily, you can make sure code documentation exists in the proper format, and you can thus ensure a more consistent product.
  • The ability to transfer business-specific knowledge, if you’re the only one who knows it: After all, you could win the lottery tomorrow.
  • The satisfaction of knowing you’re preparing the company for future needs: Again, this comes in handy if you are planning to leave the company but want to ensure that your project continues on its course.
  • The possibility of developing a long-term ally and association: You remember the teacher or professor who gave a little extra to stretch your synapses, don’t you? Mentor well, and your understudy will be your comrade for years to come, whether in this job or after you move on, in a networking capacity.
  • The ability to tailor the transfer of information to the most pressing need: You can bring inexperienced staff up to par in specific areas, languages (or their particular components), and development methodologies, customizing their knowledge to the application requirements. This is especially useful if the project is large and has a quick deadline. When you shorten the learning curve, your team is more likely to meet project deadlines.
  • The possibility of learning things from the understudy: The teacher usually learns from the student. If your understudy is a recent graduate, you could gain access to the latest skills coming out of the computer science departments of universities. Whatever the understudy’s background, you stand to absorb some of whatever his or her unique development strengths are: a shortcut here or there that saves 30 lines of code, a more efficient method of completing tasks, a style of negotiating you hadn’t considered, or a nifty new third-party development tool you haven’t worked with before. But remember, you have to be open to these new learning opportunities. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that because you are the mentor, you actually know everything.
  • The chance to develop a reputation as a leader: Being a mentor can put you in the spotlight. When promotion time comes, you will have a visible track record of working with and developing others.

Take advantage of the mentoring odyssey
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if your company has a formal or informal system of mentoring in place or whether you focus on transferring technological or “soft” skills. By choosing to mentor another developer, you are sure to augment his or her chances of success, promote a more positive team-like atmosphere, and know that you’re contributing to a common mission. That’s worth a lot. And it’s a commitment that will surely be recognized and rewarded by your employer.

Do you gain by giving?

Have you ever mentored anyone professionally? What suggestions do you have for others trying to develop a successful mentoring relationship? Send us an e-mail with your experiences and suggestions or post a comment below.