STEM Was Built on Mentorship. Your Team Needs It.

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“If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

This famous quote by Sir Issac Newton means that knowledge goes further when it’s shared. Newton experienced this first hand, reaping the benefits of mentorship: Before he developed the theory of gravity and changed the way we understand the universe, he was mentored by another famous mathematician, Isaac Barrow.

The legacy of science, tech, engineering and mathematics is brimming with mentors and protégés who carried the torch of contemplation, contributing to breakthroughs that still impact the STEM fields today. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson credits his time with Carl Sagan for altering the trajectory of his life. Socrates mentored Plato who mentored Aristotle. 

It’s hard to overstate the benefits that mentorship brings to brainy work, and it extends beyond the reaches of academia. So it stands that creating a culture of mentorship has the power to transform an engineering department. Mentorship not only improves ideas but builds mutually beneficial relationships. Among other things, mentorship improves employee satisfaction, retention and success for both parties, and can also be particularly helpful for underrepresented or marginalized team members. 

It’s a win-win-win for mentors, mentees and their employers to prioritize mentorship. 

There are a number of ways engineering leaders can reinforce this idea and encourage knowledge-sharing and mentorship, from practices like pair programming and hackathons to formal mentorship programs. We spoke to three Chicago-area tech engineering team leaders about their strategies for cultivating a culture of mentorship to help employees thrive. 

 

Timothy Overly

Sr. Engineering Manager

What they do: Root is a licensed auto and homeowner insurance carrier powered by mobile. 

 

What’s one practice your team follows that encourages a culture of mentorship and knowledge-sharing among your team members?

We start every engineer’s journey with intensive pairing and onboarding. We have found time spent in the beginning is crucial to setting the tone and development path for new engineers. It sets the expectation that you work with other people and that you shouldn’t slog through problems alone and abandoned.

 

How do you, as a leader, serve as a mentor to members of your team? 

A large part of how you help your employees grow is to be a good and thoughtful mentor. I believe a mentor is someone who shares personal knowledge and perspective to help someone grow faster than they would alone.  

A regular way I mentor my direct reports is through coaching on the more difficult intangibles. For example, if you have an underperforming employee, my experience is that there is a value mismatch. For example, maybe your team values taking action above asking permission. That is a value and not something that usually shows up in job description level guides. Through my own failings and learning, I have discovered it is extremely valuable to root my coaching in values. Instead of saying, “You are not participating in meetings,” which is not a value I care about, I would coach by asking, “We value action, how can we identify ways you can increase those behaviors?” I try to help my employees avoid the worst of my own mistakes through thoughtful mentorship.
 

You shouldn’t slog through problems alone and abandoned.”

What formal mentorship programs does your company offer, and what does this program entail? 

We do a formal mentorship program. We run regular signup for both the mentor and mentee, they are paired and meet at regular intervals.

 

Bob Peterson

Senior Manager of Engineering

What they do: iManage combines artificial intelligence with content and email management to free, secure and understand information.

 

What’s one practice your team follows that encourages a culture of mentorship and knowledge-sharing among your team members?

You need to be open to being a mentor as well as being mentored regardless of experience level. Everyone has something to offer, so take advantage of other people’s experiences. 

My experience is that development groups tend to stay somewhat private. They don’t normally reach out across development groups for information unless they have to. Over the years I have tried to break down those barriers (or at least fracture them) by holding learning sessions and encouraging other group leaders to be involved in cross-training between groups. That makes it easier for people to mentor, or be mentored by, folks they don’t normally work with. 

One technique I use is to ask for, or offer, mentorship in a group setting so others see that it is OK to do, and not be apprehensive about it.

 

How do you, as a leader, serve as a mentor to members of your team? 

It is part of a good technical staff member’s DNA to be curious and want to solve problems in areas they might not be familiar with. This is great from a personal development and learning aspect, but from a business aspect, it can lead to small delays that add up with a major impact on deliverables. One of my goals as a mentor is to show people that it is OK to reach out and look for guidance. I lead by example. I regularly work with members of my staff and have them mentor or educate me. I use the words “mentor” and “educate” interchangeably. I will ask someone to meet with me and educate or mentor me through a situation that is new to me that someone else might have already gone through. The people I ask for help realize that if someone with over 30 years of experience can reach out to someone at an entry-level position for mentorship, then it is OK for them to reach out to others. Everyone has something that can help you advance your mission, so reach out.
 

If someone with over 30 years of experience can reach out to someone at an entry-level position for mentorship, then it is OK for them to reach out to others.”

How has a mentorship culture helped your team grow? 

Mentorship will help make you, your staff and your organization more efficient. I have seen it make an impact in reducing development time frames, regression testing time frames, as well as production issue reports. I wouldn’t be able to quantify the results, but when I see team members start to reach out, or be reached out to, where normally I would have had to suggest they do so, I know we are becoming more efficient. It won’t happen overnight, but if you stay on top of it, it will happen.

 

Paul Nelson

Director of Engineering

What they do: PEAK6 is a fintech investment firm. 

 

What’s one practice your team follows that encourages a culture of knowledge-sharing or mentorship among your team members?

We use a concept called “Tech Champs” to provide opportunities for every member of the team to own the design and delivery of new features. The Tech Champ partners with the product manager through the entire lifecycle of a feature, from discovering the value of an idea to estimating feasibility to identifying architecturally significant decisions through delivery sprints and deployment to production.

The key to Tech Champs being effective is splitting owning and doing. We don’t expect an individual to be able to do everything needed. Anyone will need to rely on teammates and the wider engineering community. A less experienced engineer owning a feature encourages meaningful sharing of knowledge and experience from senior engineers since the decision rights lie with Tech Champ. Simple rules, like “No one can be champ for more than one feature at a time,” ensures that ownership is spread across the team.

 

How do you, as a leader, serve as a mentor to members of your team? 

My main goals as leader of a team are twofold. First is creating an environment of psychological safety where everyone feels safe taking risks and pushing themselves. Secondly, I want to make sure everyone understands the top-level vision and goals for our team and our organization so that as much as possible decisions get made as local to the problem as possible.

Mentorship is an invaluable tool to achieve these goals. With some engineers, I share stories about times I’ve made mistakes and how I responded. For others, I get to talk deeply and ask for their beliefs and opinions about our vision and goals. Showing humility, curiosity and growth as a leader helps…

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Read More:STEM Was Built on Mentorship. Your Team Needs It.