Mentors aren’t easy to find, especially in the world of tech, where fierce competition, big egos and full schedules can leave little time for senior technologists to nurture the next generation.
Even so, there are a variety of paths towards building healthy, long-lasting mentor/mentee relationships.
Take the case of Danelle Au, who earned a Master’s degree in electrical engineering at Berkeley and has worked as a senior product manager for companies such as Cisco and Palo Alto Networks. Au is now CMO at Blue Hexagon, a Silicon Valley-based deep learningstartup focused on protecting organizations from cyber-threats.
“What I found to be tremendously helpful was having a sense of the type of mentor that I wanted,” she said. “I believe more in organic-type relationships, and in order to have a good relationship with a mentor, you have to have some things in common.”
Many times, she explained, younger tech workers are aggressive in looking for mentors… but not the right mentors. Therefore, the relationship can feel very forced.
“Find somebody who clicks with you, someone with similar beliefs and a similar background, so you can find out what they did in their career,” she said. “If you’re meeting them once a month or once a quarter, it has to be someone you believe in and someone that you respect.”
Mentor for the Long Haul
John Sprunger, a senior architect at West Monroe Partners’ technology practice, leads the company’s development efforts on the iOS, Android, and Windows platforms, as well as efforts in emerging technologies (including conversational interfaces such as chatbots and virtual assistants, wearables, and AR/VR).
His first mentor was a family member, an uncle who worked as an electronic data interchange (EDI) architect, who helped Sprunger figure out the layout of the enterprise architecture industry. Together, they hashed out potential roles for Sprunger’s future career, including consulting and freelance positions.
After 13 years at West Monroe, Sprunger says his relationship with his career advocate, who serves as a mentor and also a performance manager, has helped him set goals and improve his performance. This advocate has also served as a constant source of professional advice and advice for personal growth.
“When you’re young, software developers can have a narrow focus and learning new programming languages and new frameworks and keeping up with hot technologies,” Sprunger said. “He encouraged me to gain a broader skill set, getting deeper into architecture, becoming a team leader, getting into development operations, and broadening my horizons.”
Having a more open relationship with your mentor, where you can talk about anything and get that hard feedback, is really important for a successful mentor/mentee relationship. “This is a similar approach I take with the people I’m mentoring now,” Sprunger said.
Broaden Your Horizons
Peter Tsai, a senior technology analyst at Spiceworks, notes that, in addition to university alumni networks or larger companies that have a formal mentoring program, there are online resources such as professional communities that cater towards specific fields of work, or even social media sites to connect with a potential mentor.
“Thanks to online communities, instant messaging, and video conferencing, mentors and mentees can communicate in real time, even if they are geographically distant,” Tsai explained. “This opens up the pool of potential mentors available to up-and-coming tech workers.”
However, Tsai cautioned, once you take the initial steps to interact with a potential mentor, you should know the pros and cons of having a more experienced person guide you.
“Before establishing a formal relationship, you should ask: ‘Do I enjoy being around this person? Do I think the advice they give is beneficial, or detrimental to my career? Can I imagine myself being like this person in 5 years?’” he said.
Anyone who is lucky enough to find a mentor should always remember that this arrangement is a two-way street. “The mentee wants guidance in their career, and the mentor wants the satisfaction of knowing they’re helping the next generation,” he said. “Mentees should remember in all relationships to both give and take, making sure to understand mentors’ goals as well.”
Listen and Execute
Sagi Gidali, the co-founder and chief product officer at secure network access specialist Perimeter 81, said that, when he was building his first company, SaferVPN (recently acquired by J2 Global), he had access to Google’s campus in Tel Aviv, where he was able to gain insight and experience from company executives on a regular basis.
“We used Google as mentors,” he said. “We participated in a program called LaunchPad, and this is where we met different mentors for marketing and development, and how to create a startup. Six years after, we sold the company, and we’re onto our second venture, and now we’re helping others in their entrepreneurial efforts.”
Because a startup’s economic situation is very stressful in the beginning, having trusted advisors who you can turn to for advice “helps you hit your milestones” faster.
“To have the ability to listen and learn and execute is so important. We learn from people who are better than us, and it’s helped us think about new ways of solving problems and new solutions,” Gidali said. “It was a hugely important to us at the beginning and along the way to be able to ask their opinion, or to find a third party who can see the whole picture and light your way.”
He advises young tech entrepreneurs who are seeking to build mentor/mentee relationships to get active. For instance, sign up for all the local startup and Meetup events relevant to your field. Being a part of the local ecosystem is critical.
Gidali believes the help he received has opened his eyes to the importance of giving back to the community, which is why Perimeter 81 started hosting delegations about startups in their office. “We assist in anything that we can,” he explained. “It’s like karma—if you get something you should give back.”
Craig Basford, a senior vice president of product at Absorb, a learning management software company, didn’t have experience in the tech world, but his cousin helped him get a foot in the door at Absorb when the company was a young startup.
Given the company was small at the time, he was able to have direct access to the co-founders, who provided a lot of guidance and feedback that helped him grow: “I was in a little over my head, so I knew that if I just kept my head down, there was a pretty high risk of me doing the wrong thing—you can only get away with that for so long.”
That didn’t mean he was automatically offered any mentoring, however—Basford said he would try something first on his own, then go to them asking for feedback on final product as well as advice and guidance on areas he was struggling with.
“They really responded to that, and I got attention and help that others didn’t as a result,” he said. “I was showing them I was putting the work in proactively before engaging them. It showed them I was serious.”
He thinks the approach also made his mentors feel more invested, and Basford’s focus on demonstrating personal improvement was also a key method of establishing a healthy mentor/mentee relationship: “If we’re being honest, most people don’t have dozens of hours a week to mentor people—they’re carving that time out for you.”