The importance of mentoring in engineering leadership — part 1
Throughout my career, I’ve come to appreciate the incredible impact that mentoring can have on professional growth. The guidance, support, and wisdom experienced mentors shared were pivotal in my journey, especially in engineering management. Giving mentorship has also been a key in my career growth to give to and learn from others.
In this series of posts, pulling from my personal experience, I’d like to share the benefits of mentoring.
Mentoring or coaching?
First, let’s clarify the difference between mentoring and coaching since they often get used interchangeably.
Mentoring is a structured and ongoing relationship in which a mentor with expertise and experience in a specific domain voluntarily shares their knowledge, insights, and wisdom with a mentee. For example, in engineering leadership, mentorship could target strategies around career growth.
On the other hand, coaching is typically more focused, structured, and goal-oriented, emphasizing skill improvement and performance enhancement. For example, in engineering leadership, coaching could target the preparation for a conference talk.
Mentoring and coaching are both essential and can be complementary — in the following articles, the focus will be on mentoring.
Early Career Mentorship
When I started working as a software developer, I was lucky enough to meet somebody in the company I was working at — who wasn’t working directly with me but had been at the company for a few years. He was able to share with me his wisdom on navigating the workplace and developing the soft skills necessary for effective collaboration. This wasn’t a formal mentorship relationship (e.g., I didn’t ask him, “Hey, do you want to be my mentor?”), but it developed over casual coffee chats in the office's kitchen. I could effectively discuss issues around collaborating with my peers and influencing my boss and other stakeholders.
For example, once I asked my mentor, “Hey, I’m not sure why X doesn’t understand I need more time to implement this feature properly”. He brought up examples from his past experiences when he had the same challenge, and he shared with me, “I broke down the things I had to do, and I explained in detail the tradeoffs of doing or not doing something in a certain way..”. This was insightful advice that I was able to apply. A month later, I was able to share my learnings with my mentor, “I took inspiration from what you told me, and I was able to have X acknowledging I needed three additional days to work on the most critical piece I felt we couldn’t compromise on. Focusing on a specific part and explaining the pros and cons of my suggested approach was key. Thank you for your suggestion!”
Benefiting from somebody’s advice and experience, I learned and found solutions to my personal challenges. This is at the core of receiving mentorship.
Another thing to highlight is that I had complete trust in my first mentor since his advice seemed very pertinent to me.
Getting mentored as a new engineering manager
Becoming a manager was a significant milestone in my career; it opened up a new chapter of growth. When I switched from individual contributor to engineering manager, I changed my profession but didn’t have structured training for this new role.
I was getting advice and tips from my manager, but I needed more. This is where I leveraged mentorship opportunities available at the company I was at. This was more of a structured approach compared with the one described above. I had 30 minutes booked with my mentor every two weeks.
One of my first questions to my new mentor (a Director of Engineering) was, “I have the feeling I don’t get stuff done, and what I do is just talk to people and reply to Slack messages. Is it normal? Sometimes, at the end of a workday, I can’t summarize what I did.”
She smiled and said, “Yes, it’s normal. I had the same feeling when I became a manager. You need to get used to measuring what you do in a less quantifiable way than when you write code. You probably chatted with one of your reports — let’s say you just built rapport with them; it was a casual chat. If you keep doing this, you will see the results in a few months, having built trust with your team.”
Having somebody who has done this job for a while and reassured me was an incredible help in understanding the new role.
Another thing worth noticing was that, in some circumstances, I wasn’t fully comprehending the advice I was receiving. However, looking back after months or years, I was able to connect the dots around those recommendations.
For example, the Director of Engineering often said, “You want to create psychological safety in your team and enable your team to speak openly..”. I didn’t know what “psychological safety” was back then, but after a few years, I learned through books and experiences how valuable that suggestion was. I learned how ensuring people can express their opinions safely strengthens your team.
Finally, one crucial thing I did in each session was carefully listening and taking notes after each session.
Drawing from these experiences, it becomes evident that mentorship is not just a supportive element but a transformative force in one’s career. With this in mind, let’s summarize some key insights:
Variety in Mentorship: Mentorship doesn’t adhere to a one-size-fits-all model. It can be structured or informal, but regardless of its form, it holds significant value in professional development.
The Role of Trust: Trust is pivotal in a mentoring relationship. The depth of benefit you derive from mentorship mainly depends on the trust you share with your mentor.
Embracing the Learning Curve: Not all advice or insights from a mentor will be immediately evident or applicable. Sometimes, the value of these lessons is realized retrospectively as your experience grows.
Valuing the Mentor’s Experience: Remember, your mentor has navigated similar paths and faced analogous challenges. Active listening and engagement in your sessions can unlock invaluable guidance tailored to your journey.
In the following article of this series, I’ll share how mentorship has influenced me while moving into a manager of managers and how I became a mentor. In the meantime, I invite you to reflect on your own experiences. How has mentorship shaped your professional journey, and what lessons have you carried forward?