About mentoring in general and in particular

Cadres are everything!

This has never happened, and here again … A rather qualified employee quit, despite the fact that the volume of work did not decrease proportionally. The first collective thought, which all the remaining “one and a half diggers” agreed with, was to try to hire a person of similar qualifications. No question – said, done. The HR department received a description of the vacancy and soon began to provide questionnaires of potential applicants suitable for the requirements of the project, offering interview options.

It turned out, however, that quickly hiring the right person is difficult due to a set of requirements. After a dozen interviews, we had a second thought – to look, in addition to a qualified specialist, also a person with basic qualifications and less experience in order to retrain him in practice. In fairness, it is worth noting that with the second thought came a reasonable question: “And who is ready to engage in additional training?” Whatever one may say, but no one, except us, will prepare a person for our project for us. Well, volunteers have traditionally been assigned.

The Problem of Choice, or the “Rule of Two”

The theater starts with a coat rack …

And mentoring starts with choice. Yes, our bosses are still democratic and, despite the current situation, the right to choose is reserved for the employee, which is good news. Frankly speaking, this additional training does not in any way remove other project obligations. So, first of all, each of us had to make a choice for himself: is he ready to become a mentor? We understood that this work was not for a couple of weeks, but for several months, and every day we would have to postpone our affairs in order to help the ward.

As you may have guessed, I decided to become a mentor and started, of course, with interviews. Interviews in IT are generally a separate topic, full of funny and curious moments, but that’s another story. For those who still have little experience in interviewing, I strongly recommend that you prepare: at least, make a list of questions for the candidate so that at the end of the interview you will have some impression of the person and the level of his theoretical and practical training. Fortunately, I already had experience in interviews.

I understood perfectly well that mentoring is not a “one-sided game.” If a candidate has no motivation to study, his eyes are not “burning”, then most likely we will waste our time. High motivation is an essential requirement for a candidate. An interview in face-to-face format helps to assess the desire to develop. Personally, it is important for me to see how a person behaves, how he reacts to questions, and not only to hear a voice in Skype or Zoom. For obvious reasons, today it has become more difficult, but here you can call HR for help. They are usually more experienced in assessing the personal qualities of applicants and sometimes notice points that may slip away from the interviewer.

How is the training going?

Do like me!

So, we chose the candidate, seeing the potential in him. Now our task is to develop this potential (or bring it in line with the requirements of the project, as luck would have it) and raise a specialist in a limited period of time. One of the oldest, most obvious, but powerful ways to do this is to teach by example. If you want a person to write the code correctly and not make stupid mistakes, do not make them yourself. For a while, the ward will make mistakes, one must accept this, without this it is sometimes difficult to explain why it is necessary to do “the right thing”.

If you want to accustom a person to regular code review, invite him to inspections of your code and, if possible, the code of colleagues. You can invite not only as a “reader”, but also give the opportunity to speak, comment on the code. This way we involve the newbie in team work and relieve the stress that always appears when submitting a code for evaluation. It is important to show here that a review is not an indicative whipping, not an execution, but a normal workflow.

When conducting training, it is important not to lose contact with a new employee, not to leave him alone to master the documentation on the project and processes in the company. At first, you will have to devote most of your work time to explaining the main points: where the necessary documents are located, how to get access to the source code of the software you are going to work with, and so on. To save time, prepare a list of resources for your reference in advance. Check with the new employee every day to see if everything is clear, if there are any additional questions.

Be sure to involve the trainee in internal project discussions. This will give him an understanding of the work process, communications between employees, the procedure for resolving work issues, etc. It is very useful to give an opportunity to speak on the assessment of projects, the scope of planned work, tasks, to involve your own assessments in the review. This should be done not from the first days, but after the employee completes a number of training tasks, looks at and analyzes someone else’s code and work.

In this way, you will immerse the new person in the accepted workflow in the company. In some cases, this can be done quite abruptly, in others – in stages. It all depends on the degree of preparation of the employee. For some, a full immersion from the first days can be very interesting, but for someone you need to very carefully, step by step, study the process of work and all the nuances. It is important, together with HR, to control the entry of a new employee into the project through feedback.

Controversy and authority

Authority is not an argument

In the process of work, controversial moments will surely arise, because each person always has his own opinion, vision of the problem and its solution. What if the employee does not agree with the proposed ideas, argues with comments on the quality of work or completely ignores the comments of colleagues, does not comply with the internal project development standards? Should a mentor put pressure on authority and limit himself to short “this is how it should be” or “that’s not how they do it”?

In my opinion, relying on personal authority in such discussions is a very dubious decision. It is more correct in such a situation to appeal to the experience of colleagues and the requirements of the client, to give examples from practice. If the questions do not relate to classified information, then you should refer to open publications, profile articles. When preparing to send a person into “free swimming”, make sure that he can make the right decisions on his own, based on his own practical skills and knowledge, and not someone else’s authority.

Another possible problem – the employee does not want or does not see the need to work according to the proposed process. This means that all the work related to the formalities of the workflow will have to be done by one of the colleagues for such an employee. If you come across a genius who does double the norm in a day, then it might make sense to leave him in the project. Otherwise, it is worth considering whether such an employee is needed in the team.

How do you assess readiness?

– What’s with the sausages, Charlie?

– Two minutes, Turkish …

How to determine if an employee is ready for independent work or still needs supervision and assistance from a mentor? Can you entrust him with a certain amount of work or still wait, finish your studies?

There is an opinion that “if you want to do something well, do it yourself.” This is probably the case, but in the context of mentoring and transferring your knowledge and skills to a new employee, this thesis does not work. Our goal is not just to do well, but to teach this to a new person. Yes, we all understand that by training and educating a young specialist, we are preparing ourselves a competitor in the near future. But c’est la vie: both mentoring and the transfer of lessons learned are part of life, part of our work and, if you like, responsibilities.

At some point, it’s time to completely entrust your ward with a small “combat” task. It is important here not to be greedy and not to be afraid that “the person is not ready yet”. In fact, to issue a real task and control all phases of the process of its implementation is the only possible option to evaluate both your mentor’s skill and the results achieved by the student. On our project, one of the stages of such a check was the inspection of the code and prepared documentation. We conducted the inspection in full accordance with the workflow, inviting teammates who did not participate in the training.

Such an assessment shows what has already been learned well, and what needs to be focused on in order to work out the corresponding skill. Also, by this time, an employee who has undergone individual training already gets some idea of ​​the work process and the tasks to be solved, and can decide whether he is interested in developing his career in a given direction.

But what if the employee did not complete the tasks or did not meet the deadlines? First of all, you need to understand the status of the task:

  • More than 80% of the main work was done, but the employee was carried away by perfectionism? Well, this is very common among programmers. In this case, it makes sense to give a little more time to put the work in order and start the code inspection procedure.

  • Is the job less than half done and leaves a lot to be desired? In such a situation, we clarify that it was not clear whether it was interesting to deal with the task. Perhaps it makes sense to offer the newcomer other projects or directions in the company.

What is the bottom line?

In the end, we were still lucky – we managed to attract a very sensible specialist into our ranks and retrain him on the project. I was able to evaluate the results in a review of my own code, when my newly minted colleague left several comments, including on the design, and to the question “What are you so picky?” answered: “So you taught me yourself!”

I can give beginner mentors a few tips that I learned from my experience:

  • Mentoring is your choice. Do it consciously, be realistic, assessing your time and energy.

  • Try to arrange a face-to-face interview and get to know the candidate in person. Ask HR to help with the interview.

  • Prepare in advance a list of documents and resources that the new employee will need to read.

  • Engage the newcomer in practical tasks, include them in teamwork, let them speak their minds and learn about the workflow.

  • In controversial moments, appeal to the experience of colleagues and the client’s requirements, give examples from practice.

  • The learning process itself can take a long time. Do not be afraid at some point to let the student go “free float”, while remaining open to questions.

  • Together with HR, control the entry of a new employee into the project through feedback.

  • Remember that you will have to accompany the beginner for some time after the adaptation and training is completed, and this is normal.

Will I take on someone else to train? Rather yes than no. Practice has shown that this process is beneficial for both parties. After it, it will not be superfluous to involve HR to conduct a survey of young employees for their satisfaction with the training. Feedback will help mentors reach the next level.

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