Software Mentorship Principles

I’ve had some great mentors and some terrible mentors. I’ve been a good mentor and I’ve definitely been a bad mentor. Here are some principles that I’ve learned along the way:

Be intellectually humble

  • This one is probably so obvious that it doesn’t need to be said, but it cannot be left out.
  • Take your mentee seriously intellectually. Work hard to understand what his/her questions are and give good answers. The same question can have multiple meanings (think: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”). Don’t assume the one he/she has in mind is the simple/dumb one.
  • Admit when you’re wrong and when you don’t know things. And don’t be afraid to redirect your mentee to the person who would know.
  • Tell your mentee when he/she teaches you things. He/she almost certainly will. If you’ve been a mentor before and learned nothing, you were almost certainly a bad mentor.
  • Don’t use technical words you don’t know the meanings of: you’re going to look like an idiot when you’re asked and you can’t explain
  • Humility builds trust (more on that below) and respect, which will make your praise and feedback much more effective

Positively reinforce the good things your mentee does

  • Positive reinforcement is a robustly effective tool for making long-lasting changes to the behavior of others (i.e. for teaching them). It is a part of our shared lizard brain
  • Praise, when it’s sincere, and when it’s coming from someone that you respect/admire, is an incredibly powerful positive reinforcer for just about everyone
  • Your mentee will do good things. (Again, if you have had mentees and never thought they did anything good, you probably should not be a mentor.) When this happens, go out of your way to tell them. E.g. “I really liked how you threaded the data through this application. That was really complex and you made it look simple.” Or: “That’s an excellent question. I’d never thought of it that way. Let me think about it and get back to you.” Letting your mentee know that you learned something from him/her is another great way to do this. “TIL that you can call reduce on a Hash!”.
  • Do NOT damn your mentee with faint praise. This just makes you seem insincere. If you can only find inconsequential positive things to say, e.g. “good job not putting trailing whitespace here”, don’t say anything at all and don’t sign up to be a mentor until you can

Build trust

  • Be honest. Don’t say things you don’t believe. Don’t say something is good unless you really mean it. It’s almost impossible to maintain a lie over a long period of time. Don’t even try.
  • Explain yourself. Have good, clear reasons for your requests.
  • Avoid jargon at all costs. When not possible to avoid it, clearly explain/define your terms. Using words that another person will not understand is at best annoying and at worst self-aggrandizing. Both cut against trust.
  • Don’t insist on preferences you cannot justify. It makes it seem like either you don’t know what you’re doing, or you’re not being honest (“he doesn’t like my code but won’t just say it”). This is very hard, and makes mentorship a real challenge that many are not prepared for.
  • Don’t take credit for your mentee’s ideas. Be a good human. (I can’t believe I even have to say this.) Beyond just being a good person, though, you should go out of your way to broadcast your mentee’s good ideas every chance you get – with attribution. This will help give your mentee confidence, which he/she probably sorely lacks, as well as build trust between your mentee and the rest of your team. Did your mentee spot a tricky bug that everyone had been wondering about for months? Publically commend Mentee about it. Did someone just complement you when you raised a concern that you got from your mentee? “Thanks! Mentee pointed it out to me, I thought it was a great catch.” Etc. Do it in private conversations when your mentee cannot see, as well as publically where your mentee can. Again: every. chance. you. get.
  • Give your mentee chances to try and fail in low-stakes environments. E.g. Let them draft a technical design before you weigh in. Let them try to implement something their way – even if they will probably fail.
  • Do NOT take over a project from your mentee (“let me just do it”) before he/she finishes it. There are few things that more clearly communicate that you do not trust him/her to do the work.
  • Without trust, giving constructive feedback is basically impossible. Negative feedback from someone you trust is constructive: it makes you better. Negative feedback from someone you don’t is unsettling: it feels like an attack.

Give explicit constructive feedback

  • Your mentee will need to improve. He/she will do things badly. You need to make sure that your mentee’s areas of improvement are known to him/her.
  • Phrase criticism in the collective: “I don’t think we should hard code that data here”. “Let’s try to avoid writing our own implementation of map if at all possible.” Etc. The point is still clear, but feels less personal: you’re not going after him/her, just the idea. It’s deliberately anti-ad hominem.
  • Rephrase criticism as questions: “Do we definitely still hold the lock at this point, or could another process have pre-empted us?” “What if someone put db.collection.drop() in this input?” “Could we put the default data in the Redux store instead of the input component?” Etc. Same as above: this feels less personal than something like: “Your idea is terrible and will never work.”
  • If you have a lot of constructive feedback on a piece of work, write it down but deliver the feedback in person. This is incredibly important. A large amount of critical feedback can seem ad hominem just because of the volume. By delivering it in person (i.e. on a call) tone of voice can make it clear that it’s not and can substantially lessen the chances that it’s taken the wrong way.
  • Be explicit. Say things like, “I just wanted to give you a little bit of feedback…” or “I’d like to see you work on …”. This way there is zero confusion/ambiguity that you’re attempting to set expectations. Bonus points if you keep meeting notes and write it down (just make sure the doc is private).
  • Give the feedback in a 1-on-1 conversation, or in the least public way you possibly can.
  • Don’t rub it in. Only say it if you have to. If your mentee caused an incident and got grilled for two hours in an incident review by a dozen other engineers, you don’t have to bring it up again.
  • Do NOT surprise your mentee on a performance/peer review with negative feedback that you have not already told him/her and given him/her a chance to work on.