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A practical guide to mentoring (and being mentored)

A practical guide to mentoring (and being mentored)

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in more than two decades of coding is to embrace a teaching culture, and one of the wonderful things about our world is that there are opportunities to learn all around us. Whether it’s inline comments, documentation, viewing the source code, tutorials, or tapping a colleague on the shoulder, there’s no shortage of industry knowledge at our fingertips to pick up the basics and continue building on them.

The best way to find these information sources is to be inquisitive — to be open to constant learning, and believe that everyone, you included, has something to teach. Humbling yourself to the ideas of others and gaining the confidence to bestow your own wisdom is part of a community of care and growth.

The critical role of collaboration in mentoring

The key to an intentional culture of mentoring is healthy collaboration and an approach that mimics the philosophy behind the scientific method. Humility is a central component because people are self-defeating when they feel out of place. While this is also true of societal exclusion, emphasizing the critical work of inclusion, equity, and diversity, many industries, especially technology operate on a system of levels that are heavily rooted in a misguided sense of competitive meritocracy. Because of this, pupils struggle to effectively pair with more senior peers, feeling like imposters. When mentors ask what they can learn from their mentees directly, they are encouraged with a sense that they are equal, and a cycle of nurturing growth is created for everyone.

One of the core components of psychological safety is similarity in personality, which points us back to the importance of a diverse workforce, and availability of mentors and mentees who have things in common.

One of the benefits of seeking mentorship on Polywork is that you can explore a prospective mentor’s or mentee’s badges to determine if you’d get along well. One of the core components of psychological safety is similarity in personality, which points us back to the importance of a diverse workforce, and availability of mentors and mentees who have things in common.

Build structure and provide ongoing support

Like information, students also need structure and support. In software, we write algorithms to turn input into useful data for our machines and users, and it takes many people to determine how to thoughtfully and responsibly interpret and use it. When we don’t nurture the management of that information, it can mislead, create toxicity, and marginalize. The same is true in our educational environments. Mentoring without sponsorship, advocacy, and reinforcement not only leaves people behind, but it can create and uphold harm and oppression. Each student is unique — ask questions of others, and of yourself, to determine what goals there are, and how best to work toward them for each individual equitably. There is no one right way to learn.

There is no one right way to learn.

When I wrote my first programming tutorial in 2019, I quickly realized that my many years of experience were a mental skyscraper of context I needed to distill into what I was teaching. This scaffolding became a part of a structure for instructing others to build what I had and, more importantly, to construct their own understanding to turn their ideas into applications, too. I also realized that an important component was missing from my tutorial — human interaction. Students couldn’t realistically ask me questions, and I was unable to offer any guidance beyond what I could feasibly write into the tutorial on my own. Tutorials are great, and the people who write them do a great service to a community of learning, but mentees need more than how-to’s, they need guides, steps and care, often just someone to bounce ideas off of.

Mentoring on Polywork can bridge a gap that the tutorial community creates without the necessity of an entire institution creating the structure. A self-learner can find teachers that suit their needs, and together they can create the right support system to succeed.

Manage energy responsibly

Learning and teaching takes energy. Oftentimes, especially in software today, we are taught to “move fast and break things”. We focus on hurriedly making things work in the minimum viable way to efficiently use business resources. If you’ve ever heard of —or experienced— “tech burnout”, you know that this type of environment is not sustainable. It is extremely detrimental to education. When guiding others, every action must have methodical, peaceful intention. The focus must be on cultivating a positive outcome to properly care for everyone’s energy and inclusive benefit. When mentoring is approached like disruption and chaos in the name of competitive innovation, the cost is human. I’ve witnessed and experienced these dire trade-offs, and the recovery time alone can drive people from industries.

Polywork aims to protect the boundaries and energy of each user by offering a system that asks for opportunity to connect, rather than a slew of entitled expectations and feelings of abandonment. Connecting mentors to mentees on Polywork is a positive experience that is an important part of a community of growth.