The Secret Art of Effective Developer Mentorship

April 26, 2018

Ryan Atkinson

These people are doing kung-fu, not developing software.

Developer mentorship has become an afterthought in the tech world. Project budgets are tight, and senior dev hours ain’t cheap. Besides, developers like to learn in their free time. Couldn’t they just teach themselves? While it’s true that there are countless coding education resources available online these days, teaching coding patterns was never what mentorship was about to begin with. Or at least not what I see as its significance today.

Developer mentorship isn’t so much about transferring technical information as it is building a supportive relationship. I’ll say that word again: relationship.

Relationships are the essence of mentorship.

Junior developers experience a myriad of perfectly normal feelings such as inadequacy and self-doubt. A good mentor doesn’t solve their problems for them, but gives them the reassurance they need to solve them on their own. Maybe even an occasional breadcrumb of a solution. But when it comes to PR review time, they don’t hold anything back. 🔥

The key is that when junior developers inevitably find themselves in the weeds, a mentor doesn’t come with a weed-wacker, he comes with a glass of lemonade.

So how does one become this coding saint you’ve described?

Well, 5 Tips:

  1. Sacrifice your own time to mentor others; don’t rely on project management to allocate explicit mentorship time.
  2. Always assume junior developers knows less than they say. We all have a tendency to say “I know” even when we don’t. In general, be overly communicative.
  3. Transparency. Be honest when you don’t know something yourself, and share your own failures. Share your honest viewpoints. Share all of your development habits without reserve.
  4. Focus on the relationship more than the task. “How are you”, not “how’s the project”? Let them know that they aren’t alone, no matter where they’re at.
  5. Challenge them but don’t torture them. Calm seas never made a skilled sailor, but we don’t need anyone drowning. It’s OK to intervene with some coding help if they are legitimately in over their heads.

I have firsthand experience with this formula, and I have seen its benefits. I have even made friends that transcended roles at work and ultimately became a local network of supportive co-developers. As my first mentor once said, “Be the change you want to see.” …Okay, Ghandi said it too.

I hope some of this article resonates with you. Reach out to me directly and let me know how you’ve been able to incorporate these tips into your mentorship efforts!

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Ryan Atkinson