5 reasons why every programmer should have a mentor

adminguy's picture
Posted December 17th, 2014 by adminguy
Recently I enrolled for a MOOC called: "The Science of Resilience in Children". The instructor had done years of research on what factors help children who have undergone trauma in their younger years to overcome those challenges and bounce back in life. Several common factors have been observed in the lives of children who have overcome hurdles to eventually thrive in life, but one of them - the importance of mentors - caught my eye. A good mentor has often been instrumental in turning many a life around.
Even though life presents several diverse challenges we will discuss career related challenges and why a good mentor is a boon for the fortunate who have access to them. All fields of work have their set of unique opportunities and challenges, programming and software development is one of the few fields in which the rate of change has almost become exponential. New languages, libraries, frameworks, architectures; web apps, mobile apps, devops, cloud; something.js, everything.js, whatthehell.js; big data, machine learning ... gosh this list is not going to end; it reminds me of the 90's song - We didn't start the fire
Not only is there a lot to learn, there are other big decisions to be made as well: like what technology stack to learn, should you work for a large company or a startup, should you work in this city or that, should you do a PhD. or stop after M.S., and so on. It's a daunting landscape and we all need a Gandolf to escape mostly unscathed. Here's what a user on Hacker News has to say:
I currently have a mentor that's been instrumental in my development. I feel incredibly lucky to have them in my professional life, and think it's invaluable. I wouldn't be where I am without their help.
Here are five reasons why we should all strive to seek a mentor.
A mentor will have had more experiences than you. They have met more people, perhaps traveled more, had more successes and more failures. Life experiences make a person wise, and a mentor has been there and done that in more instances than you are me. They have already walked the path you are attempting to tread. They have seen pitfalls and opportunities which you may not be aware of. 
A friend once told me how someone he saw as a mentor advised him to start his career working for a small startup rather than a large multi-national corporation. He did exactly that, and is glad of that decision till date. Working at a startup gave him fantastic all round experience working in the trenches. A few years of working there gave him the knowledge and confidence to build his own product and create his own company. However, this is just one example; a good mentor can guide you in dealing with difficult colleagues, making career choices, developing work-life balance, selecting the most appropriate technology stack and so much more. 
When we start our careers we lack experience and have a narrow world view. A mentor as we have already seen, by virtue of diverse experiences have a much broader world-view. Talking with a mentor, learning from the richness of their experience gives us an opportunity to become wiser by assimilating their experiences. It enables us to see the world through a larger lens rather than the narrow crack to which we were earlier confined. Imagine if you could seek advise from Linus Torvalds or James Gosling; wouldn't their broader world view help you? 
Approach your mentor with humility and curiosity and you will be surprised at the wealth of knowledge they will share with you.
Modern life is often marked by work stress, family pressures, lack of work-life balance and, god forbid, irate bosses. Sometimes we get caught in a rut and at other times we may be happily coasting along. Inspiration is likely to fade away in both these cases. Passion is an important factor which leads to fulfillment in work, and inspiration is the foundation on which passion is built. 
A good mentor will inspire you to achieve your best; to become the best version of yourself. They remind us of the things we are capable of achieving when we ourselves are full of self doubt. And not only that, they also warn us of the pitfalls we are likely to face. A good mentor will inspire others by the very life he leads - which sets an example for many to emulate. If you ever find yourself lacking inspiration, you will be surprised with what a half hour talk with your good mentor can do.
I know a group of four college students who decided to build their own startup after graduating. They had a good idea for an enterprise mobile application, but did not know how to validate the idea and get it off the ground. Their mentors introduced them to organizations who not only validated the idea but also became their beta customers; something that would not have happened (as easily) without the mentors opening their rolodex of contacts. Angel investors do this for the companies they invest in, but mentors do it without any benefit for themselves. They simply do it because they want to help you.
It's not only startup founders who have benefited from their mentor's network. There are countless examples when mentors have helped someone under their wings, make a career change, or move to another city, or someone who wanted to team up with like minded people for a project or maybe find a co-author to write a book. The possibilities are endless. 
A chance to pay it forward
This one may not be apparent, but once you have been blessed with someone's help you will never forget the impact it has had on your life and will want to help younger versions of yourself in return. Convocation speeches given by famous people abound with references to how a mentor may have helped them, and the speech itself is an attempt to reach out to the younger generation and share some hard earned wisdom. This is how the baton has been passed for generations and will continue to be so in the future.
I'd like to leave you with a small anecdote from the MOOC I mentioned at the beginning of this article - The Science of Resilience in Children. The course featured a series of interviews with Dr. Mike Madduas who was arrested 24 times as a juvenile delinquent before he got his life together and went on to become a surgeon. Even though several factors played a role in his turnaround, but one of the biggest factor was mentors; people who saw something in him and believed in him. His first mentor owned a high-end furniture business. He took Mike under his wings, as a delivery boy, because he saw something in him. Working at the furniture shop helped Mike believe in himself and chanced him to meet another gentleman - at whose house Mike had gone for a furniture installation - who also took a liking to Mike and eventually inspired him to take up a career in medicine and become a surgeon. His mentors clearly played a very important role in Mike's life and success.
If you already have a mentor, consider yourself fortunate, but if you don't, stay tuned, next week we will talk about how you can find a good mentor.