Category Archives: mentoring

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Learning from people

If I want to learn about more than I can explore in my own life, I’ll need to learn from other people. The easiest way to learn is from people who are already teaching: books, courses, and so on. Although I could probably spend my entire life doing so, it might be interesting to go beyond what I can learn from books and classes. That’s because books and classes have to be written for a certain kind of audience, and learning is further restricted by the time it takes to create these resources and the kind of people who can do so.

I can learn from coaches and mentors as well. Coaches may have explicitly thought about what they want to teach and how they want to teach it, but they customize the approaches and tips for each person (at least good ones do). Mentors might not have thought about the topics as much, so if I want to make the most of mentorship, I should get better at asking questions as well.

An interesting challenge is to learn from people who might not step forward as coaches or mentors. Some people have thought a lot about what they do as they improve it, but they might not have realized that other people would find that useful, or they might not have gotten around to sharing. Finding them is probably the key challenge; once we make the connection, we can have a geek-to-geek conversation. Other people do good stuff without having thought about how they do it – unconscious competence. In addition to the challenge of finding them, there’s also the challenge of articulating how and why they do things, maybe through interviews and observation.

2014-01-24 A path toward learning from people

2014-01-24 A path toward learning from people

I’m pretty decent at learning from books. I’m working on getting better at tracking how I came across a book so that I can thank people, and so that I can see the book in the context of the great conversation. I’m also working on translating ideas into actions and experiments. Books are familiar and well-understood.

2014-01-27 How can I improve my book-reading workflow

2014-01-27 How can I improve my book-reading workflow

Coaching, on the other hand… I could probably make better use of coaching, if I find good matches. Essentially, I’d be investing in faster insights and more effective learning. Could be worthwhile. What would make me say, “Yes, that was totally worth it. I grew in ways I couldn’t have done alone. Let’s continue.”? Path-finding, I think – a quick way to sort through decades of experience and all these resources.

2014-01-28 Understanding coaching in my life

2014-01-28 Understanding coaching in my life

What am I generally curious about? Systems, paths, estimates of effort and reward, other people to learn from, blind spots…

2014-01-15 General questions for coaches, role models, and mentors

2014-01-15 General questions for coaches, role models, and mentors

So that’s for formal coaching relationships. For informal learning, like the conversations we have over years of blog posts and the serendipitous connections we make on Twitter, I’m curious about getting stuff out of people’s heads and helping them share that with other people. People are learning all sorts of cool stuff, but (a) few people slow down and write about them, and (b) sometimes you really do need someone else to ask questions, so if I share what I’m curious about, maybe I can connect with people who have spent some time thinking about these things too.

Mel Chua and I were talking about interview techniques, and she mentioned how instant replays are great for helping people break things down. You watch people do something, you do an instant replay as you try to explain what they’re doing, they say “No, no, no, I did it because ____”, and you iterate until both of you have a clearer understanding. Sounds interesting. I wonder how we can do that online… Timothy Kenny‘s approach is like that too, except not in real-time. He analyzes the behaviour, and then discusses the model with people to see if it can be corrected or clarified.

Anyway, that’s my plan for getting better at learning from people – more conversations, and then eventually regular conversations. I think that will help me get to a more awesome place than I can on my own. =)

2014-01-15 Where I am and where I want to be

2014-01-15 Where I am and where I want to be

Have you deliberately worked on learning from people?

Presentation draft: Mentoring on the Network

Gail LeCocq asked me if I wanted to give a presentation for the Other-Than-Traditional-Office (OTTO) group in Toronto. At the time, I was preparing The Busy Person’s Guide to Learning from the Network, so I suggested that. When she got back in touch a ew weeks later to confirm, though, I realized that I wanted to talk about a different topic instead. I suggested a topic on mentoring, which several people had asked me about. Here’s a rough draft.

Mentoring on the Network
View more presentations from Sacha Chua

Why

Mentoring. We all know mentoring is good for your career, but sometimes it’s hard to make time to find and meet with mentors. Here’s how mentoring can make a big difference in the way you work:

  • Information: Mentors can help you learn complex tools or processes, review your work, and avoid or resolve problems.
  • Advice: Mentors can share insights you didn’t even know you needed. Mentors can also help you understand your hidden strengths and weaknesses.
  • Accountability: Mentors can help you commit to your goals and stay motivated.
  • Stretching: Mentors can challenge you to grow and call you out if you’re slacking off.
  • Connection: Mentors can help you navigate a large organization and find just the right people who can help you.
  • Sponsorship: Mentors can help you find opportunities you may not hear about yourself, or convince people to take a chance on you. Mentors can also speak up for you when people are making decisions.
  • Social interaction: Regular mentoring conversations can bring some of that social interaction back into remote work.

    Challenges and advantages

So mentoring is good, but how can you convince someone to invest the time and energy into mentoring you, particularly if you can’t make that face-to-face connection with them or develop familiarity by working together in a colocated office?

Mentoring can be difficult if you’re a remote employee. In an office, you might bump into someone you admire and ask them questions, your manager might walk over and introduce you to someone, or you might buy someone coffee or lunch while picking their brain. When you’re remote, you need to be more creative about connecting with people.

On the plus side, you can connect with possible mentors around the world. This means you can learn from very different perspectives. You can get a sense of what life and work is like in different business units and geographies.

Finding mentors

In IBM, you can use the Bluepages company directory system to find people who have volunteered to mentor other people. IBM Learning organizes speed-mentoring events where you can connect with many possible mentors, ask quick questions, and follow up for additional help or introductions. IBMers are also usually open to e-mail requests or questions.

Mentors can be older than you or younger than you, in the same business unit or in a different one, next door or around the world. Keep your mind open, and reach out. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

You can build a mentoring relationship over time. Start by connecting with your potential mentor and asking for a small piece of advice. Act on that advice if it’s good. Send a thank-you note with the results. Ask for more advice, and share more updates. Share what you’ve been learning from other people, too. If it turns out to be a good fit for both you and the other person, you might ask if you can set up a regular monthly chat to learn more.

If your potential mentor posts blog entries or profile updates, you can use that to build a relationship as well. Read what they post, comment, and share any updates on insights you’ve picked up from them and applied in your work or life. Send thanks – or better yet, post your thanks online too.

Making the most of mentoring

  • Have a clear idea of what you want to learn, how your potential mentor can make a difference, and why he or she may want to help you.
  • Set up a regular time to connect with your mentor – once a month, for example. Meet in person if possible, or connect using a video-conferencing program like Skype.
  • Talk about communication preferences with your mentor. Some people like having very focused meetings. Send them prepared questions before your conversation. Other people prefer e-mail or blog conversations over phone conversations. Try that out.
  • Take notes. Mentors invest time into helping you, and you can save them time and increase the ROI by writing down what you’ve learned in a form that they can easily share with other people.
  • Thank people!

    Helping others

Helping others is fulfilling, and you’ll learn a lot along the way. Even if you don’t consider yourself an expert, you’ve probably learned a lot of things you take for granted. You can help people get started, save time, and learn more. Give mentoring a try!

Some ways to connect with mentees:

  • Talk to your manager and other people about the things you can help people with. They can refer people to you.
  • Give presentations and share your slides. There are many groups in IBM who organize regular conference calls, and they’re always looking for speakers.
  • Attend virtual and real-life networking events. Ask people what they want to learn or what could help them be more successful.
  • Post profile updates or write blog posts. This helps people learn what you’re good at and get a sense of who you are.

Don’t forget to mention your mentoring during the Personal Business Commitments (PBCs) review. It’s a way of giving back to the community and investing in others!

Next steps

Now we get to the networking part of this presentation, where you might find a mentor or connect with a mentee. You’ll probably want pen and paper for this one, so you can write down people’s names. Let’s go around and introduce ourselves. Say your first and last name, then answer these questions: What do you need help with? What can you help people with? Then say your first and last name again, in case people missed your name the first time around. (Spell your name if you need to.) If you’re listening to someone’s introduction and something interests you, feel free to connect on this call or through Sametime!

What do you think? What would you like to share with other people looking for mentors or mentees?

2011-05-20 Fri 14:55

On developing a reputation for project work

Over lunch, Archie and I talked about one of his business goals for this year. He wanted to work on his personal brand.

I asked him what he meant by his personal brand. “What would success look like?” I asked.

Archie said that he’d like to be known more for troubleshooting, and that he would consider himself successful if more project managers asked him to troubleshoot their projects – both technical and non-technical issues. He’s been working at the company for 12 years, and he had plenty of war stories and lessons learned to share with me. He told me that his peers know about his skills, but he wanted to hear about more projects, expand the kinds of roles he took on projects, and go into projects with more authority and leverage.

Now that was a much more useful vision than “improve personal brand.” We could work with that. It might not even have anything to do with wikis, blogs, or Twitter.

So: How can one build a reputation for project work?

We figured that the best ways to reach the people Archie was interested in would be through managers and resource deployment managers. There are a couple of ways to do that: e-mail and presentations.

In terms of e-mail, one of the best things Archie can do is to make sure that the results that he’s getting turn up in the right people’s e-mail inboxes. As it can sometimes be difficult to get recognition or documentation of results from busy project managers, I suggested that Archie write up the problems he solves, the results, and tips for avoiding such problems in the future. If he sends this e-mail to the project manager and to our manager, they can forward it to other people as needed – if they hear of a project that has a similar problem, if someone asks them who can help with a troubled project, and so on. It’s important to keep one’s manager up to date on the kinds of things one is good at or interested in, because managers talk to other managers and can refer you to opportunities.

In terms of presentations, Archie can summarize key tips from his experiences into a short presentation – maybe a top 10 list, or focused on a topic such as performance. This gives him plenty of opportunities to use and reuse the material. Speaking at a lunch-and-learn is one way to do it, and he’ll get extra exposure from the invitations going around. Speaking at one of our internal education events will let him reach even more people. The presentation can be shared internally, included with newsletters, forwarded to other people.

What else would you recommend?

2011-04-08 Fri 20:40

Reflections on mentoring new developers in Drupal

UPDATE: Fixed formatting. Thanks, Brock!

Two developers recently joined our team. Johnny has worked with Drupal before, and needs a little help getting used to Drupal 6 and Views 2. Elena is an IT architect who is new to both IBM and Drupal. She needs a lot more help getting started, because she doesn’t know what things are called yet and she isn’t yet accustomed to the Drupal way of doing things. For my part, I work on Workflow, node access, and other requirements that require deep Drupal hacking.

I’m learning to check on Elena more frequently and to help her break down tasks. Otherwise, she might get lost or stuck, because she might not yet know where things are or whether she’s getting closer to an answer. I’ve made good progress on the things we’ve planned for this iteration, and I can invest the time into helping our new team members be more productive and learn more effectively.

Both Elena and Johnny have set up their debuggers in Eclipse, so they don’t have to figure out the right places to insert var_dumps. Instead, they can trace through the relevant pieces of code, learning more about the structures and the flow of Drupal websites along the way.

Although I occasionally struggle to explain things I take for granted, I enjoy helping someone who’s new to an area. It helps me remember the things people need to learn. For example, Elena’s work on surveys requires her to learn about nodes, getting values from the $_REQUEST, loading nodes, working with CCK, altering forms, adding new form fields using the Form API, and using Drupal functions for links and text. We broke down the task into the following steps:

  1. Create a CCK node type.
  2. Use hook_form_alter to add some text to the form.
  3. Load a node and fill the information in the form.
  4. Get the extra node ID from the URL.
  5. Adapt form_alter for the case where you’re editing the node.

We’ve managed our planning well, so I don’t feel overcommitted or stretched with the additional mentoring I’ve taken on. The time is an investment that will pay off both in the short-term as well as the long-term. If I can slow down and write more, then the investment can benefit to other people too.

I like this. It’s certainly much better than leaving developers to flounder and work things out on their own, and I learn a lot in the process of helping. Maybe that will be one of my specialties: projects where other people are learning a lot on the fly.

Proactive communication: Five tips for following up

Isabelle’s manager wanted her to get better at proactive communication. She’s comfortable e-mailing people, but she has a hard time following up when people don’t respond. Timezone differences between team members in Singapore and in the US compound delays. She reached out to me for advice, and I suggested a few things that might help:

1. Clear, dated requests. When asking for help or a response through e-mail, specify a target date instead of leaving it open-ended, and give a reason for that date if possible. This makes it easier for people to prioritize working on your task. (Don’t always ask people to get back to you TODAY, though. It looks like you don’t plan well.)

2. Clear, dated responses and priorities. If you’re working with other people on some lower-priority tasks, those tasks might never be finished. Clarify the relative priority of a task with your manager: it might turn out to be higher-priority than you thought. If it really is a low-priority project, contact the people you need to collaborate with and get an estimate of when they might be able to work on their part of the project. Find out what other important projects they’re working on, too. This will allow you to:

  • give clearer reasons for delays (“We can only work on the report next week because we have to finish the keynote presentation this week”)
  • negotiate better solutions (“I can do that part of the presentation if you can do this part of the report”)
  • re-negotiate priorities with your manager (“Actually, this report is more important than adding animation to the presentation”), and
  • give you dates for following up (“John is working on the presentation now, but he promised to work on the report on Monday, and I’ll follow up with him then”).

3. Status reports. They’re good for your manager and for you. Keep track of where you are on projects: what your next actions are, what you’re waiting for, and what you’ve accomplished. Share this with your manager frequently, so there are no surprises.

4. Concrete follow-ups. When you’re waiting for a response, schedule a follow-up so that it doesn’t slip through the cracks. Follow up by e-mail, and then move up to following up by phone or instant message if needed. I don’t do this for all of my tasks, but I do this for tasks I “own,” and it helps.

Concrete follow-up dates also help you write better status reports. Instead of reporting “Waiting for response”, you can report “Waiting for response; will follow up on ____ by e-mail and _____ by phone.” Clear follow-up plans make people feel more confident that the task won’t be forgotten.

5. Tactful escalation. When people don’t respond, sometimes you need to find other ways to get things going. Isabelle had learned how to cc:ing her manager so that her manager could stay updated, but she wasn’t comfortable with cc:ing the other person’s manager because it felt like escalation. If done tactfully, though, escalation can be a good tool.

How to escalate: Give people the benefit of the doubt, and acknowledge that they might be busy working on priority projects. Send them a gentle reminder, cc:ing their manager. In the note, explain to the manager that you understand that the original contact may be busy or your request might be a better fit for someone on the team, and ask who might be the best person to talk to.

Hope that helps!

2010-08-24 Tue 10:20

Thank you, David Singer

I remember reading a discussion topic about what it means to be an IBMer, and how people feel an emotional connection with the company even if they’re no longer employees.

David Singer retired from IBM a few months ago. We kept right on going with our mentoring chats anyway, and I’ve been learning a lot from both our adventures. A few days ago, a friend of ours—another IBMer in the UK—expressed appreciation for David’s thoughtfulness. David had reached out to him when he was down, and  encouraged him at just the right time.

It’s wonderful that even after leaving the company, David Singer still cares. He jokes about it being an investment in IBM’s stock value, and maybe it is – maybe these human connections are part of what makes a company thrive.

Thank you again.