Mentors are your bridge between college and the real world. They’re the technology veterans who’ll introduce you to the way work gets done in a business, who’ll serve as your guide to the realities of office politics, and will give you advice on everything from improving your coding skills to handling an intractable boss.
Eli Bronner, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Lua, a mobile enterprise-communication solution, puts it simply: “Mentors are hugely valuable.” Yet many new graduates hesitate to develop the relationships from which a mentorship can grow.
They hesitate because they make a false assumption: that professionals don’t want to be bothered by kids who need advice about breaking into the field. But the truth is, many professionals—even highly placed ones—are more than willing to share their time and experience with students and new graduates who approach them in the right way.
“Think about it psychologically,” Bronner said. “Mentors like doing this because helping someone pushes the part of the brain that makes them feel good.”
Many appreciate the feeling that they’re “giving back,” added Bronner’s colleague Michael DeFranco, Lua’s founder and CEO: “I feel called to help because I was once at that stage, too.”
It’s On You
That’s not to say you’ll never run into people who’ll brush you off. The main point is that plenty of tech professionals are open to the idea of helping out. But here’s another reality: The onus is on you to reach out and make the connection.
Mentorships don’t just happen. Like any relationship, they have to be built over time. Your starting point is to identify the people who can most likely help because you share common interests in technology, business, career paths and even areas outside of tech.
But where do you find them? Your school’s alumni network is an obvious place to begin, along with meetups and professional conferences. Read industry websites and blogs to get an idea of the people who are pursuing paths that interest you. At the same time, don’t forget the resources right in front of you, such as your school’s faculty. “Reach out to your professors and ask them if they can provide some pointers,” suggested Engin Kirda, co-founder and chief architect of security-platform provider Lastline. “Computer science professors like being in touch with good students.”
Of course, social media offers options, too, but here you should tread cautiously. While social networks such as Twitter can give you a good idea about someone’s background and activities, reaching out through those channels isn’t the best way to make initial contact, according to Kirda: “I get a lot of requests via social media and I find them suspicious… Send an email. Try to connect to someone face to face.”
“Take it upon yourself to engage. I believe most will reach back,” Bronner added. At this stage, he noted, “You’re not asking for a job. You’re asking for advice. You’re asking for five or 10 minutes of their time.”
Developing the Relationship
That brings up an important point. When you first reach out, focus on a question or two, not a commitment. “Don’t ask ‘will you be my mentor?’ That might scare people off,” Kirda observed.
Use your initial contact to ask someone for coffee or a phone call so you can get his or her thoughts on a technology or the industry as a whole. If that conversation goes well, ask if he or she wouldn’t mind hearing from you again; if the answer is “yes,” stay in touch on a regular basis.
As DeFranco noted, that means putting a priority on the relationship and acting professionally. If you schedule a meeting, be on time. If the person emails you, respond right away. “Pay attention to the relationship,” DeFranco said. “Be professional and courteous. Foster the relationship.”
Also, don’t forget that successful relationships work both ways. Building a connection requires more than you asking questions about your career concerns. Look for ways to help out your prospective mentor, either by volunteering to do some research, sharing articles that may be of interest, or acting as a sounding board when he or she needs one.
“Remember, there’s always something you can do,” said Bronner. “Be sure to ask if you can do something.” The ideal relationship has a regular cadence to it, he believes, with a meeting taking place perhaps every five to seven weeks and including plenty of give and take. Along the way, demonstrate how the relationship is helping you. When your mentor offers advice, follow it and report on your results, or explain why you didn’t think it was the proper course.
In addition, keep mentors abreast of your progress at work. That reinforces the idea that they’re providing you with real value, and helps them see the relationship as a good use of their time.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
Of course, relationships begin when you first make contact with someone. Probably you’ll do that in one of two ways: You’ll be introduced through a connection in your network, or you’ll reach out cold. Not everyone you email or call will respond, but Bronner thinks it’s important to be persistent. “It’s a win-win situation,” he said. “Either they’ll says yes, or they’ll have respect for you just because you asked.”
A willingness to reach out to strangers is especially important if you’re pursuing an entrepreneur’s path, DeFranco observed: “If you’re not willing to do that, building your business will be tough… People who connect have the willpower to keep going.”