Becoming an Effective Mentor for Software Developers

As you increase your seniority, part of your impact and performance often includes mentoring and developing others. Or perhaps you see a need to help develop your team, so you’ll find opportunities and needs to mentor other software developers. Or perhaps you want to give back to the community. Whether you’ve had a good mentor in the past or not, you can ensure you’re entering the mentorship with the right approach.

Most importantly, as you’ll be putting time and effort into someone else’s growth over your own, you’ll want to ensure the mentorship remains effective.

In this post, we’ll cover the benefits of mentorship, different types of mentorships, how to make a mentorship effective, and, most importantly, how you can get started as an effective software engineer mentor.

If a developer finds an effective software engineer mentor, then they can look forward to improving both their technical and soft skills.

To begin, let’s define mentorship.

What Is Mentorship?

Mentorship helps people grow. Whether it’s helping them with soft skills or technical skills, it’s taking the time to work with others and help them improve their skills. Using your own experience and perspective, you can mentor others to boost their progression and maturity as software engineers.

So let’s look at some of the benefits for both mentor and mentee.

What’s in It for the Mentee?

If a developer finds an effective software engineer mentor, then they can look forward to improving both their technical and soft skills.

And you don’t have to be an expert in whatever new framework or libraries your mentee uses to help them. Your experience and ability to ask questions will help them even in technologies new to you.

Being a mentee allows them to build their network through you, potentially receive sponsorship, and eventually become a mentor themselves.

What’s in It for the Mentor?

Benefits exist for the mentor in this relationship as well. First, it can feel good to help others grow in their career or craft. You’ll be able to take pride in their success, knowing that you helped lay the foundation for it. Also, you’ll enhance your own technical and soft skills.

With technical skills, when you take the time to teach someone else, you learn the subject more deeply yourself.

And with soft skills, you’ll have an opportunity to improve your feedback, leadership, and communication.

Finally, mentorship is a two-way street. You’ll also learn from your mentor as long as you’re open to their ideas and feedback.

Now that we know a few of the benefits of mentorship, let’s explore what makes mentorship effective.

What Makes Mentorship Effective?

Let’s look at a few ways to make mentorship effective and valuable.

Communicate With Empathy

When you communicate with empathy, you’re not simply agreeing with others for the sake of agreement. Instead, you’re learning to communicate by taking both of your perspectives into account. It’s about listening to understand instead of listening to respond.

When listening with empathy, you’ll want to resist the urge to solve problems or share your advice right away. Instead, listen, ask clarifying questions, and help your mentee discover new perspectives.

Ask Questions

Speaking of questions, when providing guidance, ask questions that will help guide your mentee to discover a solution themselves. And remember that their solution may not match your ideal solution.

Give and Receive Feedback

One of the most valuable parts of mentorship is getting kind but honest feedback. This applies to both the software engineer mentor and the mentee. Giving feedback requires empathy and trust between you and your mentee. Ensure you’re giving feedback in a positive way.

Share Experiences, Not Advice

We can feel the need to share specific advice when we’re mentoring others. However, it’s best to let the mentee come up with the advice, or the solution, themselves.

So how do you share your expertise? By sharing your experiences.

Instead of telling your mentee how you would approach the problem, tell them about different situations that you experienced, the choices you made, and the results that occurred. And highlight any differences between this situation and others if relevant.

As you want to set a good example, also show vulnerability and mistakes. Share stories about when you made the wrong call or had problems with implementing a solution or debugging a problem.

Then your mentee will learn from your experience and not become reliant on your advice.

Set a Good Example

Of course, as a software engineer mentor, you want to set a good example. So whether it’s always working to have the right level of test coverage, sharing feedback, or asking good questions about the why of the work you’re doing, look for opportunities that can help guide your mentee.

Show Vulnerability

And as you want to set a good example, also show vulnerability and mistakes. Share stories about when you made the wrong call or had problems with implementing a solution or debugging a problem. This will show your mentee that it is, in fact, normal to make mistakes and struggle from time to time. And that it’s all part of the learning process.

Showing vulnerability also helps build trust between you and your mentee.

Types of Mentorships

Now that we’ve covered skills and ways to make mentorship effective, let’s look at two types of mentorships: technical and soft skills mentorship.

Technical Skills Mentorship

When mentoring on technical skills, you’ll have a few different approaches you can take based on the opportunity or the mentee’s skill level.

One common way to mentor technical skills involves pairing. Based on the mentee’s skill, you may find yourself directing/navigating more often. However, it’s still important to let your mentee drive when possible. And it’s OK to let them struggle a bit and think things through. Don’t always jump in with a solution, but let them work through it.

If you review pull requests, don’t always jump to correcting mistakes. If there’s an opportunity to have your mentee answer a question or dig into some readings on a particular library or API, then ask questions in the PR. Or ask questions about why they’re making a particular change to dig into their product abilities.

Asking questions will help them think more deeply about their changes and then they’ll be able to ask themselves those questions next time around.

Soft Skills Mentorship

With soft skills, look for opportunities to give your mentee feedback. And if they identify a need that they’d like to improve, don’t always give advice. Instead, encourage them to create their own development plan. If they build the solution, they’re more apt to follow it. If you jump in with plans or readings for them, then they won’t build up that self-sufficient ability to help themselves.

Getting Started

There are different ways to start a mentor/mentee relationship.

  1. Someone may ask you to be their mentor.
  2. You could see an opportunity to help someone.
  3. There may be an organized mentoring program either inside or outside of your current company.

With all of these, you want to make sure that both you and the mentee are open to the relationship. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure the mentee has goals or opportunities that you can help with.

Once you have a potential mentorship relationship in place, it’s time to establish expectations.

Establish Expectations

A software engineer mentor and mentee relationship should be beneficial on both sides. You don’t have to have a formal mentorship arrangement, but you do have to be clear with your intentions.

It isn’t the mentor’s job to solve the mentee’s problem or always have the answer. And it’s up to the mentee to initiate discussions and ask questions. The mentor won’t know what to focus on if the mentee does not express clear needs.

These expectations, and others that you and your mentee have, should be made clear. That way, your mentee knows that they own the relationship building and should prepare for discussions.

Reflect on Progress

As the relationship develops, reflect on the progress your mentee has made and where they still want to develop. Have they been using your time well? And growing through the process?

Also, reflect on the job you’re doing as a mentor. Consider when you’ve held back on sharing feedback and why. And ask yourself if you’ve been allowing your mentee to find solutions themselves or if you’ve been giving advice.

Consider how well you’ve been communicating and what should change to make further progress.

Next Steps

Strong, effective mentorship will advance and improve both the mentor and mentee. These relationships can last days or years. It all depends on what’s right for you both at the time.

As you grow your mentorship skills, consider the points above. But also figure out what works for you and your mentee. All relationships are different and require a variety of approaches.

This post was written by Sylvia Fronczak. Sylvia is a software developer that has worked in various industries with various software methodologies. She’s currently focused on design practices that the whole team can own, understand, and evolve over time.

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