5 Ways to Find a Mentor

adminguy's picture
Posted December 23rd, 2014 by adminguy
Telemachus and Mentor in the Odyssey
Last week we wrote about why it's important for every programmer to have a mentor. A mentor is godsend for anyone and for more reasons than one, but since we are a community of programmers, so we will focus on technical mentors.
Because a mentor can have a huge impact on your life, it is important to find the right mentor; someone who understands where you're coming from, understands your aspirations and what you seek in life. It's hard to know at the outset if someone will be able to understand you and give you good advise, but if you make an effort and are able to connect with a mentor who has empathy, compassion, wisdom and expertise in their field, then you should consider yourself very blessed. 

I would like to add a quick word of caution before I get to the heart of the topic. If you meet someone you think could be a great mentor, don't directly ask them if they would be willing to be your mentor. It could get awkward for them and for you. Think about it. If someone you (perhaps) don't know came and asked you to become their mentor, how would you react ? If you are like me you would probably think of all the commitments you are already juggling with your limited time. You'll probably think if you have the time to make such a commitment. Not knowing the person who is approaching you complicates matters even more. They don't know if interacting with you will be satisfying or end up becoming a time sink. So instead of asking them to be your mentor, approach them for some advise first. Ask them a good question, seek their advise or maybe a suggestion on something that's bothering you. Start a conversation; take it one small step at a time; and be very careful not to impinge on their time. 

Now that we have the cautionary note behind us, let's talk about five ways you could connect with a mentor.
Professor or school alumni
If you are a student then potential mentors might already be very close to where you are. If you attend your classes regularly - which you should - you already spend good many hours with professors in your classes. They know you as a student, and if you interact in class, they also know you as a person and a curious mind. If you connect well with a teacher and feel like they could be a good mentor, then much of your quest may be over. All teachers have office hours; make good use of their office hours to approach them with (relevant) questions, clarify your doubts, and even ask them for advise. Most professors like it when students take genuine interest in their subject and will be very happy to offer help and at times general advise as well. Just be careful not to waste their time with silly questions or random ramblings. And if your professor gives you suggestions, like a book to read or something to research, then be sure to follow up on their suggestions. That way they will know you are serious and are not just wasting their time.
If you are not able to connect with a teacher, then try connecting with someone from the alumni network. Many schools organize seminars or events where alumni members come to come to their alma-mater to talk with current students. These events are a great opportunity to find mentors. 
Boss or senior colleague 
If you are not in school and are already in the workforce, then once again your mentor might be very close to where you are. If you connect well with your manager or boss then they may be the mentor you are looking for. However, relationships with bosses and managers can be a bit tricky, depending on their temperament. If you feel like you have to tread a think line when talking with them, then the situation may not be very conducive to mentoring, because good mentoring depends to a large extent on honest and free exchange of thoughts and words. It may also not always be wise to discuss a potential career change with your boss. Despite these shortcomings do not rule out a mentoring relationship with a good boss. Since you already work closely with them, they understand your strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities more than most other people. A good and empathic manager is in a unique position to give you great advise and guidance; an opportunity which you should not let go.
In case you are not able to connect with your immediate superior you could still try and connect with a senior employee who has a good head on their shoulders and has experienced the field for a few more years than you have. As a grad student I was chosen to work on a research project at a company close to the university. The cabin next to mine was occupied by a professor who was not my research advisor, but we connected well and would often have lunch together. I used to look forward to these lunches, because he shared anecdotes from his time as a student, had great advise about the programming and software development and was generally so full of life, that his mere presence was inspiring. Similarly I also connected very well with a senior colleague and would often step by to his office for a cup of coffee. Even though I did not explicitly ask them to be my mentors, they were very generous with their time and our conversations always had a huge take away for me. 
Real world meetups
Meetups, user groups, special interest groups and tech events are other places where you can connect with potential mentors. Most of the people who come to these events are very passionate about their field and they attend because they are interested in learning, sharing and networking. If you attend these meetings regularly it is very likely you will connect with someone from whom you can seek advise and eventually develop the interactions into a mentoring relationship.
Websites that list mentors
Till now we have discussed three real world settings where you can find a mentor. However, you need not be disappointed if none of them helped you connect with one. After all we are living in the digital age and a person at the other end of a Skype call is almost as close as your next door neighbor. There is absolutely no need to limit ourselves to mentors in our city and the real world. There are some websites that explicitly list people who are interested in mentoring. There are even apps - like the understudy app - which lists people interested in mentoring students studying SICP (Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs). If you don't find an app or website, then you can send out a request for mentors like this thread on HN.
Find your mentor by reading technical blogs and articles
What if none of the above work for you? You still don't have to despair. There is still hope. You may have to do a little more work, but very often god helps those who work hard and persist. If you have read this far, you are certainly interested in your field, in building your knowledge, and seeking a mentor. I am fairly certain you read blogs of good techies in your field, and also participate on good developer forums. There you go, you already have access to a wealth of resources. Make a list of all the people whose blogs you read who you think might make a good mentor. Then add to the list people who participate on forums, post great answers and enjoy teaching. Reach out to such people - gradually as we have already discussed before - and see if you can develop a mentoring relationship with them.
We have shown you five ways that can help you can find a good mentor who will share with you his or her wisdom and give you right guidance. However, finding a mentor is only half the road walked. A good mentor is a blessing, and should be treated as such. The other half of the road involves being a good mentee, and that will be the topic of our next blog post. Good luck and stay tuned ...