The value of mentoring to your IT career
Posted on
February 11, 2015
A workplace mentor can be a powerful ally.

Mentoring is perhaps one of the most powerful — and yet wholly underrated and underutilized — personal development and career-building tools at your disposal. Just imagine the future career possibilities when backed by an advocate who has absolutely no preconceived notions about you or your skills, no hidden agenda — nothing to gain — and who is solely focused on your personal and professional growth and development. What could possibly be better than knowing you have such a powerful alley on your side to whom you can turn for advice, guidance and counsel?

What type of mentor do I need?

Mentors come in all shapes, sizes and flavors and are found in all walks of life. Mentors fall generally into one of three categories:  a peer/buddy mentor, career mentor, or life mentor. What you need in a mentor depends on where you are in your career and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Peer mentors

Peer mentors are a wonderful resource for those just beginning their careers, who are new to an organization, or attempting to master a new skill. Managers often (or should often) pair new or junior team members with more senior, more experienced members. The mentors are charged with the task of helping the junior team member navigate through the maze of organizational requirements. Mentors are invaluable in terms of helping new team members quickly get up to speed with job skills, organizational requirements and generally understanding how to get things done within a particular corporate culture.

While the value of mentoring by peers is unquestioned, not all managers assign mentors to new employees as a part of the onboarding process. In such instances, ask for a mentor or actively seek one from the more senior team members. While often a fairly informal arrangement, mentorship at this level functions almost as a master/apprentice type relationship — so seek someone who possesses the skills which you’re trying to master, as well as soft skills which you’d like to emulate.

Career mentors

The role of a career mentor is somewhat different from that of a peer mentor. While peer mentors focus on immediate job skills or scenarios, career mentors look at the broader picture and assess your skills from the perspective of how they fit into an overall organizational structure. Career mentors help you identify undeveloped strengths that directly translate into benefits not only for you but the organization as well.  Working with a career mentor can be beneficial if your career has stagnated, or if you’ve become bored or unsatisfied with your current position.

By way of example, a good friend whom I’ll call “Joe” was a team lead at a cutting edge software development company. After 10 years in the same role, however, he felt his career had stagnated and began to dread going to work each day for “more of the same.” He probably would have left the company for a different adventure if not for the wisdom of his manager, who recognized the warning signs that he had an employee with growing job dissatisfaction.

The solution? His manager assigned a mentor from another department within the organization. Because of his prior demonstrated leadership abilities as a team lead, he was enrolled in a management leadership program which eventually resulted in his accepting a managerial role of a new technologies department. The result was a win-win for everyone. The company was able to retain a talented IT professional and Joe was thrilled with the challenge of his new position.

Career mentors can help you identify strengths (and weaknesses), and evaluate where you are now within the company hierarchy vs. where you’d like to be in the future. Such mentors are your advocate and advisor within the business organization and help you build the skills necessary to move your career forward. When seeking a career mentor (particularly if the goal is to build your career within your current business organization), look first at senior team members within your company. This could be someone from your immediate organization, or from a different organization within the company.

Life mentors

Mentoring is a life-long process and does not end once onboarding is complete, or initial career goals attained. There are times when even mid- and senior-level management need advice, counsel and guidance from trusted advisors and confidants. Life mentors provide guidance when faced with difficult or challenging decisions or career changes. Mentors at this level may come from within your business organization, but it’s not uncommon for life mentors to come from many varied backgrounds such as alumni associations or professional organizations or even colleagues from other business organizations.

While peer mentors and career mentors are more focused on your professional growth within a particular business organization, life mentors are solely focused on what is in your best interests without any bias or conflicting company loyalties.

Selecting and working with mentors

Selecting the right mentor doesn’t have to be intimidating or daunting. Where to look for your mentor depends in large part on the type of mentor that you need. If you’re just beginning your career or new to an area, look for mentors among more skilled and experienced team members. Likewise, if you’re trying to grow your career within your current business organization, then it’s wise to look for mentors among more senior members or company alumni.

Many companies have formal mentoring programs that allow you to shadow senior members. Ask to participate in these programs. If none exist, then ask your manager to assign a mentor or ask senior team members if they will consider mentoring you.  Mentors can also be found through collegiate alumni groups and organizations and of course, professional organizations.  Many certifications require continuing education credits to maintain the credential and credentialing boards often allow mentoring activities to count as CEU credits.

Regardless of where you are in your career path, mentors are an invaluable and powerful tool. Seek mentor relationships with someone you admire, trust, respect and who possesses the technical skills and qualities which you’d like to acquire. Since mentor relationships are frequently long-term, it’s important that you establish a rapport with your mentor early.

Most mentors are volunteers and they are giving you their most valuable assets — their personal time and knowledge. Be respectful of their time. Mentors are there to guide and advise you, not provide a solution to every problem you encounter. Use your time with your mentors wisely, and you won’t be disappointed!

About the Author

Mary Kyle is a full-time freelance writer, editor and project manager based in Austin, Texas. Formerly employed in various positions at IBM, Mary has more than 10 years of project management experience in IT, software development and IT-related legal issues.

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