Mentoring Juniors – A Juniors view

I’ve decided to write this post mainly to remind myself in a few years time of what it’s like to be a junior and how I felt I was best taught, the problems I faced and how I was helped to overcome them. I’m also hoping it will help to give others a guide of how to deal with Juniors and to maybe give other juniors a post they can identify with and to leave them feeling that they are not alone in the issues they are facing. That’s not to say that what I have to write will be the correct way to deal with every junior nor will my feelings reflect every junior developer out there, this is simply me and my experiences. That said I don’t think I am alone in these experiences so maybe I’ll be able to help at least one person :) .

It’s hard to teach someone something you have been doing for years. I know this because I tried to teach my younger cousin how to horse-ride some years back and I failed miserably. I just couldn’t understand why even the simplest fundamentals she could not grasp, but that sentence there is exactly where I went wrong “the simplest fundamentals”. What I meant to say was “what I THOUGHT were the simplest fundamentals”. Like many things if you don’t know it, it’s simply not simple! I ended up going into over complicated explanations, then losing my patience when she still didn’t understand, which in turn led me to begin correcting her in a harsh tone at every mistake she made, when she couldn’t grasp one aspect I’d dart to another and I even resorted to jumping on the horse myself to show her how it was done. After that she didn’t want to try again for a month as I’d knocked her confidence so badly. Clearly I was not teaching her correctly and so she started learning with a trained instructor and you’ll be pleased to hear she recovered from my disastrous attempts and is now extremely competent!

So teaching someone to ride is not the same as teaching someone to be a developer. However I do think the underlying principles apply. From what I have experienced most companies don’t have trained teachers, they have very knowledgeable and experienced seniors whom they get to mentor their juniors. On the surface this should work, but I feel *some* seniors forget what it’s like to be a junior, much like I forgot what it’s like no to be able to do rising trot. So I came up with a few pointers that may help to strengthen the mentor mentee relationship.

Confidence - This is a very delicate little cookie, it’s something I’ve personally struggled with in the past and I’m sure I will in the future. It must be handled with care. I’m not saying pussy foot around them, just don’t come down on them like a ton of bricks if they get something wrong. When I harshly corrected my cousin she just became even more anxious and nervous, made even more mistakes and  it all just went downhill from there. Show some compassion, guide them in the right direction one step at a time and empathise with their situation, it’s highly frustrating feeling like you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.

Simplicity - Don’t get all caught up in the technical spiel, sure it’s good to know why something behaves like it does or why you can’t call that particular method at that point but ask yourself “Is this something they really need to know right now?” If the answers No then don’t overload them, what they are taking it at the moment is enough to contend with without over complicating the issue.

Break things down -  One of the things I’ve found hard to do as a junior is break a large problem down into many smaller problems, I’d get all caught up in how I was going to solve this bigger problem that I missed key parts and it all felt a little bit too daunting to approach. My mentor at work asks me to talk through the big problem, then asks me to talk through again stops me when he identifies the first problem I should be addressing and outlines it to me. We then make a list of the all small manageable problems and I feel like I can solve the big one.

Do not take over – One of the things I think senior members find the hardest is not to take control of the mouse and keyboard and show them what to do. I’m sure some Juniors would relish a mentor completing the problem in hand for them but then what have they learnt? Let them make the mistakes, if they begin to write something and delete it encourage them to continue or talk through what they were going to do. When it doesn’t work they will have to fix it and then they will understand why it didn’t work. Understanding why something didn’t work is great. You get a better understanding of, say, that particular method and what it actually does.

All of these points are subjective to someone’s personality type and their own aptitude, i.e. you may be dealing with a very confident junior whom doesn’t need you to simplify things in which case most of my points won’t apply, however I don’t believe all juniors to be like that and so some of the above may help.

It would be interesting to know what are your experiences are as either a mentor or mentee? What works for you? How can I be a better mentee?

Sara :)

A thanks to my mentors for putting up with me!

Filed under: Debate, ,

16 Responses

  1. Christian Says:

    Hey Sara,
    I’m a mentor and just doing a SharePoint dev training for our juniors. I think they know what you’re talking about ;-) .

    Posted on October 29th, 2009 at 20:05

  2. J.R. Garcia Says:

    As a mentor, one of the things that I find most frustrating, is dealing with juniors who think they know everything. I’ve dealt with so many juniors that are very arrogant and can’t handle being corrected. They feel like they have a good grasp on things and if you try to show them otherwise, then you obviously don’t know what your doing.

    Another thing that bothers me is juniors who don’t want to learn they just want to get the job done. These are the types that I tend to see grow into more middle manager or project manager positions. They don’t care how things get done, they just want to be done with it.

    As a mentee, I deal with the problems you mentioned a lot. I have had several mentors that tend to pull up a chair, look at code and sigh and say, “Let me do it” in a condescending tone. I tend to shut down and no longer care about my work when dealing with those types.

    Posted on October 29th, 2009 at 20:11

  3. nfma Says:

    As a mentee I don’t care about the attitude of the Mentor, I just want to learn. Every bit of information I can get, even if it’s just the way some people approach problems.
    If the Mentor comes in and does something, I’ll try to understand what he has just done, I’ll ask questions until I get it. Sometimes, it’s easier to grasp something once you see the solution in front of your eyes.

    I had people being very harsh to me, but that doesn’t bother me as a mentee, it bothers me as a person that others are not polite.

    As a mentor, I try as much as possible to make the mentee think, I try to direct him to the path of the solution without revealing it. I draw things and have conversations, I ask questions such as “what do we want to do now?” or “what do we want to accomplish?” or “What is the error we are getting? and what should we do to fix it?”
    Sometimes while explaining the error people find the solutions themselves.
    I’m a very patient person and sometimes I would wait for 5 min for the mentee to come up with an answer to something I’ve asked… I would just sit next to him waiting, while he was thinking…
    This has worked nicely but as you said it doesn’t work for everyone.
    Recently I failed to recognise that this kinds of questions made my mentee feel stupid and that blocked him from thinking, which would make me wait more time for him to come up with something. He would then come up with something not well thought just because he couldn’t bare the silence or because he didn’t want me to ask any more questions. At that point I would point to him that he might want to read a book on the subject or showed him some blog posts explaining how things work. That made him feel even worse…
    What he wanted was for me to tell him the solution and carry on, without understand how things work. Which is a pity…

    Posted on October 29th, 2009 at 22:41

  4. Rob Says:

    I think you’ve caught the essence of questioning what a good teacher is. I used to do a fair amount of martial arts stuff back in my uni days, and my trainer would always say someone can be an expert martial artist, but an awful teacher. Teaching is a skill and not everyone has it.

    In terms of development to become a good senior/lead/architect etc… you have to learn to teach and work with less experienced developers. If you can’t then you’re not going to make an effective leader.

    Hence, as you mention you should never forget your roots. Much like when you get stuck behind a learner driver. Just remember you were there one day. Try to remember what it was like.

    J C Garcia makes some valid points, but I think dealing with juniors like that (and they can be quite common) is part of being an experienced senior developer. Think of it like Days Of Thunder, the arrogant rookie, Tom Cruise causing problems. The experienced and senior, Robert Duvall dealt with him in a way that benefited both of them = they won races.

    Posted on October 30th, 2009 at 00:37

  5. Reflective Perspective - Chris Alcock » The Morning Brew #466 Says:

    [...] Mentoring Juniors – A Juniors view – Sara Stephens talks about her experiences as a junior developer being mentored by more senior staff, explaining what worked well / not so well in the process. Its nice to see this from the other side as so many articles are from the Point of view of the senior staff member, not the junior [...]

    Posted on October 30th, 2009 at 08:37

  6. Duncan Says:

    Training someone it the most important, and the most difficult job any craftsman or journeyman can take on, and you have highlighted some of the problems that can easily be caused, even by the most experienced, I think I am guilty of at least two!!

    Another one that always worries me when I start out, is the fear of discovering that I don’t actually know exactly why we do some things! The apprentice asks “why” and I am stumped to find a good answer.

    The first thing to do is not to try to blag it, tell the truth and attempt to find the answer they are looking for with them, I have found that even showing someone how you find answers using Google etc, explaining my thought process and generally showing how I tackle the search is a valuable lesson, and in the future, they have some of the tools to dig themselves out of knowledge holes.

    A great article, and one I shall keep, as craftsman and journeyman, we need reminding, what it was like being an apprentice, and how to approach the mentoring process.

    Posted on October 30th, 2009 at 09:59

  7. Chuck Says:

    Great Post!

    And, not having confidence while on a horse is doubly bad because the horse knows this too. :)

    When explaining ANYTHING to any level, we forget that it took us a long time to get from A to C. When we get excited and tell others, and they get that dazed out look on their face, we don’t understand: We want them to be at C without even going through A or B.

    It can be tough, but you have to have a lot of patience.


    Posted on October 30th, 2009 at 10:20

  8. Sergio Pereira Says:

    It’s always nice to hear the other side and put ourselves back to a position that we were one day (and that we will likely be once again.)
    I think it’s important for anyone in a mentoring position to realize that this is a great opportunity to positively impact the transition of the mentee into this unfamiliar territory.
    I’ll quote one of my favorite teachers when he said “Teaching is like telling a smaller lie every day”. I’ll never forget that.

    Posted on October 30th, 2009 at 16:26

  9. freddy Says:

    I have to disagree with the Simplicity point, in particular the example in it:

    “Simplicity – Don’t get all caught up in the technical spiel, sure it’s good to know why something behaves like it does or why you can’t call that particular method at that point but ask yourself “Is this something they really need to know right now?” If the answers No then don’t overload them, what they are taking it at the moment is enough to contend with without over complicating the issue.”

    Not understanding why something behaves like it does or why, is pretty much the same as taking over the keyword and doing it yourself … prob worst in some cases. You might leave thinking you got it, and you will move on to other stuff. Take that situation again and again, and then you realize after 3-5 years that you didn’t really learned many stuff during that time. People feel a lot worst when that happen, than some v. short term situation.

    Its very hard to deal with the feeling some people have that they are supposed to know all the underlying stuff. Its right there where the lack of confidence comes in, and they block. Of course, its an issue of 2, the senior has to handle the situation in such a way to minimize that situation. But, u can only go so far, if the person Needs to understand something else in order to really learn something, and just won’t hear of that because ‘that’s something else / not needed for the task”, there is not much you can do about that … teaching some rules when x do y, when a do b, will be much worst and they won’t realize what’s happening after a v. long time.

    Posted on October 30th, 2009 at 18:30

  10. Sara Says:

    Hi John,
    Thank you for your comments, I spoke to a close friend of mine about the arrogant junior issue you outlined and he seemed to agree that there is definitely a juniors out there like that and a lot more than I would imagined there to be. While I’m all for confidence I think arrogance actually impedes learning, I tend to see arrogance as a front, I think you’re right, they can’t handle being corrected because this dents pride, squashes ego and leaves them feeling a little bit stupid and no one ever wants to feel like the silly kid in such a highly intelligent environment.

    You’re always going to get juniors who don’t care, usually easily spotted by the traits you mentioned – I’m not entirely sure what you can do about that?

    On a side note – my mentor took my keyboard today and I told him off ;)

    Posted on October 30th, 2009 at 21:15

  11. Sara Says:

    Hi Nuno,

    Enjoyed reading your comment I always get a huge sense of community when people take the time out of their day to reply to my posts, so thank you.

    I knew when I wrote the post that not everyone would be faced with the same issues so it was interesting to read how you approach things as a mentee. It sounds to me like your mentor techniques are very good, I think it would work for me as long as the deliverance of the questions was not in patronising manner (I’m certainly not assuming that you deliver them in that way it was just something that’s happened to me in the past). I’m sorry these techniques didn’t work for one of your last mentees, did you explain to him that the silence is okay and why you are being silent?

    Posted on October 30th, 2009 at 21:38

  12. Sara Says:

    Hi Freddy,

    I love to hear one some disagrees, always healthy! I get what you are saying and yes maybe you should go into a little further detail, however what I have found is that one explanation leads to another and another and another, then before you know your mentor is off on some tangent and you don’t really know where you’re at anymore much less remembering where you were in solving the problem in hand. I think your right that if you find out 3-5 years later that what you learnt wasn’t extensive enough it could be a large dent in your confidence. However I think if a mentor has a firm understand of something they should be able to come up with a way of explaining it to their mentee, I always find analogies such a great way to grasp a concept of something without getting to embroiled.

    Posted on October 30th, 2009 at 21:46

  13. Sara Says:

    Just wanted to also say thanks to Rob, Duncan, Chuck, Sergio, Christian for your comments. I enjoyed reading every one and it’s nice to know the community has some amazing mentors out there.

    Sara :)

    Posted on October 30th, 2009 at 21:49

  14. David Says:

    I enjoyed this post – found it via Chris Alcock’s blog. I think mentoring is *the* most important thing that an organisation can do for its future growth, and yet it’s the thing that’s been done most badly in pretty much every place I’ve worked.

    Speaking personally, I have a dislike of “fake it until you make it” mentees. That is, people who don’t ask questions for fear of revealing that they don’t understand something. I particularly hate being the mentee who does ask questions next to one of these people. To a lot of managers and co-workers, they appear more competent than someone like me who will admit he’s not getting something and continue to ask questions.

    It’s also difficult being an older worker (43) working with younger team mates but still basically requiring a mentee relationship with them due to their expertise in specialized areas. There’s an unspoken assumption that because you’re the older person in the relationship, you shouldn’t require help.


    Posted on November 2nd, 2009 at 05:19

  15. PT Says:

    Very good post.

    Mentoring can quite difficult especially when your not very experienced at it. :) There are some fundamental concepts which you learn with time, bit by bit, and then try to convey to the mentee in one big blob. Quite understandably, this rarely works.

    Patience is required, not just for that one session, but in the long term as well.

    @David, I can understand your problem, I would much rather prefer someone to ask more questions than staying silent and not being sure about something. That’s another valuable lesson. ;)

    Posted on November 3rd, 2009 at 05:44

  16. Rob Says:

    I read this post ages ago, and just rediscovered it today. I like it so much I read the whole lot again!

    David’s comment is quite right about the importance of mentoring and the failure of organisations to get it right. All the focus is on getting tasks done, with mentoring left to the mercy of senior devs. Most are willing to do it, but are so overloaded that any time spent mentoring is at their own expense.

    The result I’ve seen many times is the departure of a senior dev prompting a realisation that a lot of technical and business knowledge is about to disappear with them. At this point the organisation embraces mentoring wholeheartedly. But what actually happens is high speed, high pressure knowledge transfer, which creates a lot of stress and not very much benefit.

    Rewind 12 months and send the senior dev on a mentoring course, then allocate 2 hours per week for proper mentoring which won’t impact on their project timescales. A year down the line that will be time well spent.

    Posted on September 2nd, 2011 at 06:53

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