As someone who works in the tech industry in Silicon Valley, I am surrounded by success stories. I work closely with exceptionally talented individuals every day. As such, I also have a lot of role models to look up to. When I come across someone I admire, and have an opportunity to work with them, I never shy away from asking them about their journey and how they got to where they are.
However, navigating my own career has oftentimes felt extremely overwhelming. In my 8 years of experience as a full stack software engineer striving to become a people manager, I’m always thrown off by one-off and conflicting, albeit well-meaning advice given by people in the industry. Some say “work smart, not hard”, while others say “work hard, not smart”. Some say “delegate”, while others say “end-to-end ownership”. All of these are correct, but only in the appropriate context.
It takes several conversations with someone experienced and trustworthy to really get into all your growth areas. While supportive managers can definitely help you navigate your career, in my experience working with my managers has been more towards the interest of the team or org you are a part of. I have had some wonderful managers in my career who have been fully supportive of my growth, but what has really helped me is working with mentors.
By being intentional in seeking out and working with several mentors, I’ve gained so much perspective of things beyond my career path, and even gotten insight into my own blind spots. In my career I have also mentored several individuals, and have learnt a lot from those interactions as well.
I’ve broken down what it is like to find and work with a mentor- both from the mentee and mentor points of view, into the following key aspects in the hope that this will give you reasons to either find a mentor or become one, and how it could be truly beneficial to your career.
As with any other relationship, the quality of a mentor-mentee relationship is riding on it’s fit. I find it easiest to work with someone, and even naturally gravitate towards people who’s work I admire, and recognize strengths or a skill set that I would like to hone myself. But at the same time, it works best when this person reciprocates with information, being open and honest, and wants to tell you more about their growth journey. Eventually, your mentor must have your back and operate from the standpoint of wanting things that are good for your growth.
This is probably an extrapolation of the previous point, but deserves a space of its own. Conversations with your mentor need to feel safe, and feel like a judgement free zone. Irrespective of whether your mentor works within the same organization as yourself, or if you’ve developed a recent working relationship with someone who works at another organization, you need to feel comfortable to let them point out your growth areas without taking things personally. As a mentor, you have to understand that someone is placing this kind of faith in you in exchange for honest and unbiased opinions. It is an implicit contract to abide by.
The goal is your growth. There is nothing wrong with explicitly setting your goals at the onset of the mentor-mentee relationship. It can look like “I would like to improve my project management and people skills” or “I would like to get promoted to the next level”. As a mentor I find it easier to give advice and focus my narratives on a set goal. As a mentee I’m looking for someone that can tell me about their own journeys in achieving goals similar to what I have for myself, to be able to visualize some parallels and draw my own conclusions. Goals don’t have to be super specific, but there needs to be enough information in order to be able to set a direction.
I define insider as someone who works in the same organization as you do, and preferably has tread the same path of growth as yourself. There is often a “way of things” at your workplace that you would benefit from knowing. It takes me back to my observation about how people will give you one-off conflicting advice on what they think you should be doing. But someone who is invested in your growth will really give you constructive feedback. If you’re a mentor to someone, your mentee will benefit from the same.
I once worked closely with a mentor within my organization who, because of the nature of our work, would sometimes be present in the same meetings or larger circles as me, and from our interactions over the course of a few months had become familiar with the work I do. As a result, they would give me great feedback like “I like your highlight of ABC in presentation and you should continue doing more of that” or “Make sure to pay close attention to the presenters in XYZ meeting series, since it will impact the work you will do next quarter”.
Just as it is important to know how to navigate within your own organization, it is wise to have exchange of ideas with someone you trust outside as well. Like I pointed out previously, sometimes there is a “way of things” within your organization, and if you get too caught up in it you’ll probably lose out on different perspectives and other equally-right ways of doing things. Having that source of perspectives from the outside will also help you come up with creative solutions to issues you may be trying to solve day-to-day.
While I do admit to putting in a lot of work into steering my career in the direction I wanted, and trying to have control over it at all times, a huge part of having that insight and awareness is attributed to the mentors I’ve had. I thoroughly enjoy giving back in the form of my own time spent mentoring younger engineers. Oh, I get by with a little help from my mentor. Thanks for reading!