I hear it again and again: the key to a successful career is in finding good mentors. According to the Women in Tech panel I attended at PDC, lack of female mentors is the number one reasons for our gender dichotomy in tech. I’ve also seen much of my success through mentoring. Were it not for Steve Hawley and Lou Franco at Atalasoft, the paths to accomplishing things like applying for a patent or speaking at an event would have continued to remain a mystery. Once something has been shown possible it becomes much more accessible.
So, how to find mentors? As with anything people related, it’s all about generating good feelings. Consider two ways to accomplish this: Making a personal connection and offering a defeatable challenge.
Finding Mentors through Friendship
Make friends with someone more knowledgeable than you and of course that person will want to share their knowledge with you. It’s always good to invest time in getting to know those who are more experienced. This can be accomplished with something as simple as asking someone if they’d like to go get lunch. This is the traditional way to find a mentor. It might even be considered common knowledge.
However, as you accomplish more and more in your career, the mentors you need are busier and busier people and thus harder and harder to gain access to. How might you incentivize them to spend time on your education?
Finding Mentors through Challenge
This one only occurred to me recently and was the impetus for this post. The idea was inspired by the recent exchange of posts by Chris Smith and Brian McNamara on the F# Team. Through a series of technically escalating blog posts each out-optimized the other. What better way is there to get someone to spend a lot of time on teaching you than to challenge them on a topic they know well? Nothing motivates like a challenge to the ego.
Did you ever get in a fight with someone in grade school and become fast friends after? I know it happened to me. When the victor reaches out his hand in friendship to the bested, acknowledging their strength in offering or standing to face a challenge, a strong bond can be created. The victor is now the mentor, the bested the student.
The big risk in a professional setting is in how things work out afterward. If things get too intense your relationship might be damaged. I believe this risk can be measured in terms of the work environment and how used to conflict the members are. If a large amount of tension was a allowed to build up before the challenge, people are likely to take the challenge personally. However, if things have been kept playful with a small amount of constant challenge, escalating is much less likely to have any repercussions.