Recently, I wrote about my success building a career on relationships and networking, and about my definition of networking: finding ways to help others.
Sometimes because I spend a lot of time trying to help other people, I end up playing the role of mentor. More typically, however, I'm the one looking for guidance.
I think there is a lot of misinformation on the internet about what mentorship should look like and how one should go about finding their mentors.
Maybe that's unfair, but when I was first entering tech, I felt like most of the information I found on the subject was misleading at best.
These days, I don't really struggle with finding mentorship from those more experienced than me, in fact, I've been reasonably successful building a podcast around my efforts to do that, interviewing a fair number of my heroes:
Honestly, I've found that finding mentors is mostly about legwork. Before I explain what I mean by that, I'd like to dispell some of the things I thought about mentorship when I started in tech.
Primarily, I'd like to challenge the notion that mentorship is a formal relationship. This is something that I think people are more open about these days, but when I was looking for my first guides into the tech industry, I felt I needed to find someone willing to spend hours with me each month to receive effective mentorship.
One of the most valuable mentors I have meets with me on an irregular basis for coffee. We probably chat for a few hours every two or three months. In those hours, we talk about Star Wars and coffee as much as we talk about our professional lives, and we talk about his professional life as much as mine (even though he is the CEO of a YC company you've heard of).
You'd think that in our relationship, I'd have no significant value to offer on the ideas he is chasing. Ironically, he is probably getting quite a bit of value from hearing my (ignorant) thoughts on his projects, if only because I'm not invested in them.
This relationship is informal in most ways, and we've never really talked about the idea of "mentorship" in any formal capacity.
Another person I've had the good fortune to be challenged by, both synchronously and asynchronously, has nothing resembling a formal relationship with me.
The first time I ever listened to a programming podcast, it was one hosted by Avdi Grimm. I'd say that Avdi has always been a central figure in my journey as a developer, only recently as something that I could describe as a mentor.
Even before I met Avdi, I was being mentored asynchronously by him, in the form of his courses and blogs. Now, I've had the opportunity to ask for Avdi's professional guidance once or twice. He recently gave me some excellent advice about dealing with my responsibility and privilege when I'm pontificating on the internet (which he dove into on a blog post).
I'm sure there are people out there who have incredibly fruitful mentorship relationships that are formal and carry some amount of routine, but the best guidance I've been given has been informal and in the form of friendship.
Secondly, I'm going to challenge the idea that finding a mentor has to be time-consuming.
When I first searched for a mentor, I spent an excessive amount of time trying to determine who I should ask for advice. That was completely unnecessary. Instead of searching for someone that I thought would be a good mentor to convince, I should have been going to the people who were already offering their time.
Right now, there is an awesome service called CodingCoach that Emma Wedekind (who gave me advice when I was first starting my podcast) has been working on. CodingCoach will pair you up with people who are looking to share their knowledge.
Alternatively, I am part of an organization called Ask-a-Dev that hosts events in dozens of cities. The organizers are people who want to provide mentorship and openly volunteer their time to anyone who wants to be present. If this organization has a meetup in your city, it's probably the fastest way to find a tech mentor.
If all else fails, you can just ask a handful of the people you look up to on Twitter or DEV. That's how I reach out to pretty much everyone that I interview on my podcast. It's been pretty effective so far.
Finally, I want to challenge the idea that mentorship is a one-way relationship.
In my opinion, if your mentor has nothing to gain from mentoring you, you're probably seeking out the wrong kind of mentor anyway.
A really solid mentor will be humble enough and wise enough to realize that your knowledge and experience differs from their own, which can make for useful insight.
In all of my relationships with the people I'd describe as mentors, there is some give and take. Generally, the more experienced person is going to be giving advice and guiding the less experienced person, but that doesn't mean there aren't opportunities to help your mentor.
Keeping an eye out for those opportunities can help create a healthy mentorship relationship.
If a person who is guiding you doesn't expect or ask for some thoughts in return, you might want to reconsider taking their advice.
Even Mr. Miyagi had things to learn from that snot-nosed punk Daniel.
If you can accept the stuff I've said so far, you might realize that finding mentors isn't nearly as intimidating as most people make it out to be.
You don't need to ask someone to commit to an hour every week, you don't need to sell someone on your potential, and you don't need to go looking for some wise sage with nothing to learn from you.
When it comes to finding mentorship, it's not unlike building a friendship. You simply need to reach out to someone and ask for a few moments of their time on a problem you're facing.
I've done this with my podcast. I wouldn't have had even half of the incredible guests I've had if Kent C. Dodds hadn't been willing to spend a half-hour helping me to find my first ten guests.
I've also done it with technical and career problems. Asking for advice on a situation someone else has been in can be as simple as a Twitter DM about your question.
However, it would probably be good to include some caveats here:
Don't ask for a significant time investment if you're not providing some similar value. This is rude and presumptuous. It's harmless and innocent to ask a question that will take ten minutes to answer, but asking someone to solve a bug for you could potentially be asking someone for hours of their time.
If someone doesn't have time for you, don't take it personally. Some of the people you'd love advice from don't have time to answer every question they get. They have families, hobbies, and obligations outside of answering Twitter DMs.
Find a way to be useful in return to people who help you. It could be as small as sharing the project they are working on with your network or submitting a PR to their Open Source project. If they are a freelancer, you might be able to direct work their way. Relationships are all about give and take. If you only take, you're not fair to your mentors.
When you're looking to create a long term relationship with a mentor, reciprocating is key. while many people try to mentor their junior peers out of charity, it is time-consuming. It's always going to be appreciated if you can make that time more valuable for the people who are sharing it with you.
This is part of what I meant when I said finding mentors was about legwork. Finding opportunities to do the legwork for your mentors is a huge part of building a network of mentors.
When I say a network of mentors, I'm talking about surrounding yourself with people who can build you up.
That takes significant legwork.
It's not always wise to invest deeply in building a single relationship with one mentor; things could change. That person might not have the time or energy to guide you in the future.
Instead, you can find many mentors who are your peers and senior to you by putting yourself in the spaces those people occupy.
I'm going to share a list of ways I've put in "legwork" to build an extensive network of mentors:
- Volunteer at a conference
- Start a podcast (duh)
- Write blog posts featuring other people's work
- Engage with someone frequently on social media
- Contribute to Open Source (do the grunt work)
- Refer people to freelance opportunities and jobs you know about
- Help others find candidates for their job openings
The thing about these tasks is that they are reasonably menial and don't require a ton of knowledge or experience to do in the first place, but they are helpful.
I've met some fantastic people by speaking and volunteering at conferences. In some cases, I've just been a CFP reviewer; in others, I've taken on the responsibility of fundraising.
Neither of those tasks require a ton of knowledge, but they are critical when it comes to hosting a good conference.
You can even volunteer to do something like hand out T-shirts or something. The odds are good that you'll have the opportunity to get to know a few organizers and speakers. Those people tend to make great mentors as they're already volunteering their time to build a better tech community.
My podcast has introduced me to more awesome mentors than I can name (not just the people I've interviewed)!
Doing this kind of legwork, which isn't glorious or cool, will help you to start your relationship with mentors from a place of usefulness.
Once you've found a few people who are willing to get coffee from time to time, answer your DMs, or do a video call now and again, you've found your network of mentors.
At this point, maintaining those relationships is all about good communication and follow-through. When you get good advice, try to apply it and report back, let your mentors know they are helping you. Of course, keep looking for opportunities to return the favor.
If you've got a network of peers and informal mentors who can offer you advice and guidance, you've got the added benefit of not over-taxing a single mentor with your questions and problems. You can disperse those over several people and get multiple opinions. You might also find that you get along with some people better than others.
Approaching from mentorship from this angle is transforms the relationship from formal to informal.
A considerable benefit of shifting your perspective on mentorship from a formal one to an informal one is that there is no pressure to extract value from a mentor at every turn. Instead, you have the freedom to ask for your mentor's guidance when you need it and provide value in return when you see the opportunity.
There is no pressure on you to force these relationships. You can treat like any other relationship with a peer or friend.
Eventually, if you're growing the relationship in the right way, your mentors might even become your friends.
In my experience, this is a much healthier and productive way to go about finding and receiving mentorship than trying to force another person into providing some kind of formal mentorship. I also think your odds of building a long-lasting relationship is much higher if you approach your potential mentors with an offer of friendship instead of asking to "pick their brain."
You can also follow me on Twitter, where I make silly memes and talk about being a developer.