Why we can't Have Proper Mentorship

This article really made me jump out of my seat. The topic of mentoring isn’t covered properly in our industry, and after having some experience in mentoring and being a mentee – both in software and elsewhere – I believe it has to do with the fact that our approach is deeply flawed to begin with.

Over the years I had about 6 mentors (or coaches, if you will), and have myself mentored about 10 people. Only once did it end in something completely unintended or dramatic, and when I was the mentee only once did it not do something good. Two of my mentors have left me worse off than where they started - one was a legitimate asshole (these people do exist, I was lucky to only have one as mentor) yet the apprenticeship proved very useful for me later. And on the level of craft there was a lot of stuff which was superbly useful. The other mentor was just unfit to lead people in this manner, and this happens too. It seems this is something our industry is overprotective for, but in my case what would have worked much better were to simply not give this person the task of mentorship – they were (and still are) excellent at their other tasks. In creativity, in execution, in precision and perseverance - just not in training.

Let’s look at how mentoring used to work in crafts, and still works in other industries (other than software) - at least to a large extend. When you would join a workshop you would become an apprentice, and there would be a more senior craftsperson assigned to mentor you. Often it would be the shop owner, sometimes it would be someone akin to today’s middle manager. In a design firm it could be one of the art directors, or a senior designer you would be “assigned” to. Most often they would be the person picking projects you would work on and would be able to pick projects which would be good for you to build up skill. Could those be the bad, boring, slog projects - could it be abuse? Of course it could, because there are risks in all things. But the mentor – a good mentor – would have to The mentor must continuously work on instilling good taste and proficiency in the mentee. This is not possible to achieve in a matrix organisation.

Multiple desires (or should I say - fashions) of our industry are extremely at odds with providing good mentorship.

For the sake of being constructive, let’s list the points: things I have observed which make mentorships succeed. For both participants:

The software engineering world should reconsider its attempts to build its own, “hands off” approach to mentoring and rediscover the way mentorship really works. Then we might succeed.