Mentoring Engineers: How to Teach in Tech

What’s the best approach for mentoring engineers? What do new engineers need from a mentor, and how can you use your experience to help others?

Mentoring engineers requires communicating well, both listening and explaining thoughtfully. Effective mentorship also means planning your mentee’s workload strategically.

Learn more about how to be an effective mentor with these mentoring tips and strategies.

Understanding the Mentorship Role in Engineering

The first managerial experience many software engineers have is being a mentor to a junior team member, such as an intern or new hire. Experienced engineers take on this responsibility, but it’s not an official managerial role. When mentoring engineers, you’re still primarily an engineer, but you’re also responsible for helping your mentee acclimate to the company, understand their tasks, and connect with their coworkers. Fournier says this is a good first step toward becoming an engineering manager because it lets you practice directing and supporting another person without the pressure or higher stakes of an official role. By learning how to be an effective mentor, you will start building the skills needed in management.

Types and Benefits of Mentorship

Some business experts describe mentorship in more detail, explaining that mentors help their mentees improve in a specific area by sharing their knowledge of that area (for example, a salesman may share methods for making sales). They identify four types of mentorship

1. Formal: Officially arranged, with regular meetings for the mentor to teach the mentee.
2. Informal: More spontaneous, with the mentee learning from the mentor on the job.
3. Reverse: A junior employee shares specialized knowledge with a senior employee.
4. Onboarding: A senior team member helps a new hire adjust to the company.

Fournier’s description of mentorship arguably encompasses two of these categories: a formal mentorship, since she describes a mentor as having defined responsibilities to their mentee rather than a spontaneous relationship; and an onboarding mentorship, since the responsibilities she defines help the mentee get used to the company and their new role.

Fournier notes that being a mentor can benefit the mentor by starting them on the path to management, but there are also benefits for the company as a whole. Mentorship programs can help grow strong leaders within the company, build a culture of healthy relationships, and attract new talent by showing the company cares about employees’ development.

Mentoring Tips and Strategies: Good Communication

In mentoring engineers, your goal is to develop basic communication skills, which you’ll build on going forward. Fournier says this foundation is important because as a software engineer, you’re likely used to working independently. Writing code requires a lot of focus, so you may not communicate much with your coworkers because it would break that focus.

(Shortform note: In Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier suggest that improving your writing skills can help you communicate clearly. Writing lets you practice arranging your thoughts so other people can understand you. You can apply that skill when talking to people directly (even if you’re used to working independently). In addition, the increasing use of email and chat sites makes writing skills even more important.)

Communicating clearly requires two fundamental skills, according to Fournier: listening and explaining.

Basic Skill #1: Listening Carefully

Practice listening. Careful listening is essential because it lets you fully understand the information people share with you. Fournier says the early leadership positions on the career ladder are good for developing this skill because you can focus on listening carefully to small numbers of people. Listening is both part of how to be an effective mentor and part of higher level management roles.

To listen carefully, be mindful when someone speaks to you. Recognize when you get distracted—for example, by thinking about your weekend plans—and redirect your attention back to the other person. Once they’ve finished speaking, rephrase what they said in your own words to confirm that you understood them correctly.

Further Strategies for Effective Listening

Some leadership experts expand on Fournier’s advice, saying that paying attention when another person speaks and rephrasing to ensure you accurately understand them isn’t enough: To be a good listener, you must also provide constructive feedback.

These experts describe constructive feedback as responses that encourage the other person while gently providing new perspectives for them to consider. Providing new perspectives helps both you and the other person fully understand the information they’re sharing, as you consider it from multiple angles instead of one narrow viewpoint. Doing so in an encouraging way helps make the conversation a positive experience, where you can both share ideas and feedback without fear of criticism or rejection.

The experts don’t discuss constructive feedback in the context of a specific role. However, they do say that you must analyze the information the other person shares, understand their feelings about that information, and empathize with them. This requires you to focus carefully on one individual, which may be easier when your team is small enough that you can give members individual attention.

Basic Skill #2: Explaining Thoroughly

Practice explaining things. Fournier says miscommunication often occurs when you assume another person knows more than they do. This leads to confusion and errors. To communicate clearly, explain your expectations and feedback in detail. Mentoring engineers means knowing when to step back and explain concepts in more detail.

(Shortform note: Productivity experts add that making assumptions when listening to someone can also lead to miscommunication. You think you understand their point, so you stop paying attention, leading to later conflict. To avoid this, listen to the other person’s entire message and ask questions to ensure you fully understand their expectations and feedback, as discussed above.)

The mentor level is a good time to develop this skill because your mentee is likely new to the company or even the industry. The questions they ask and mistakes they make can help you get better at mentoring engineers by recognizing which information you failed to share and correct these gaps, practicing thorough explanations. In turn, the tech lead level expands on this skill by allowing you to practice thorough explanations with a larger group.

(Shortform note: To improve your explanations, recognize when your lack of thoroughness caused your mentee or teammates to need more information or make a mistake. In The Oz Principle, Craig Hickman, Roger Connors, and Tom Smith say that acknowledging how your actions contribute to a situation is taking accountability. Many people struggle with this kind of self-reflection because it’s easier to blame others than yourself—blaming your mentee or teammates for their lack of knowledge or mistakes is more comfortable than blaming yourself for not explaining well. To overcome this reluctance, consider whether you’ve been in similar situations before. Who was responsible then? Could you have done something differently to stop it from happening again?)

Planning Strategically as a Mentor

When mentoring engineers, you need to practice basic strategic planning skills—namely, dividing a project into clear and attainable steps. Fournier focuses on describing how mentors can engage in strategic planning when mentoring interns, specifically. We’ve organized her recommendations into three mentorship tips and strategies for planning projects:

  1. Select a project that will keep your mentee occupied but not overwhelmed. Remember that your mentee is less experienced and will spend more time and effort to complete tasks. Pick simple tasks and ensure they have plenty of time to complete them.
  2. Break that project into steps. Giving your mentee a multistep plan to complete the project can boost their confidence and ease them into their responsibilities, letting them focus on finishing one step at a time instead of being overwhelmed by the whole project.
  3. Make sure these steps are attainable. Prepare any information or resources your mentee will need to complete these steps and, ultimately, the whole project.
Another Model of Strategic Planning as a Mentor

Fournier discusses strategic planning specifically when mentoring interns (who are usually college students), but other mentorship programs have a broader scope. For example, the Linux Foundation—a software development platform—discusses the importance of planning when mentoring both college students and people in the industry who want to learn new skills.

Linux’s mentorship practices differ from Fournier’s in a couple of other areas, too. First, instead of discussing the strategic planning process as being only the mentor’s responsibility, Linux recommends including the mentee throughout the planning process. Creating a plan without your mentee’s input can waste your time if they end up disagreeing with it. Often mentoring engineers requires taking input from your mentee.

So, complete the first and second steps of Fournier’s process with your mentee, discussing their schedule and the amount of work they can do. Encourage your mentee to be honest about their abilities so they don’t accept more work than they can complete—and so you’re both confident they can complete the project’s individual steps without being overwhelmed.

Second, Fournier discusses in-person mentorships, while Linux offers remote ones. This illustrates possible differences in the third step of the process. For instance, with an in-person mentorship, you may plan where to put your mentee’s desk, while with a remote mentorship, you may plan how to work around time zone conflicts.
Mentoring Engineers: How to Teach in Tech

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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