Top Tips for Finding a Computer Science Mentor
Mentors are one of the most valuable yet underutilized assets in the professional world. In fact, 97% of Fortune 500 employees who have mentors say they’re valuable — but only 37% of employees actually have one. Often, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a professional or a student connecting with a mentor is the lack of knowledge in how to find one. Finding a computer science mentor can be relatively straightforward if you know the type of guidance you seek. Here are some tips to help you understand what a mentor does, find the best mentor for you, and get the most out of this important relationship.
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Know What to Expect from a Mentorship
A computer science mentor is someone who provides advice and answers questions regarding your professional goals, challenges, and opportunities. In a way, a mentor is like a coach with industry-specific knowledge and experience they can use to help you achieve your goals. For example, the late Steve Jobs, the head of Apple, was a mentor for Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg. Jobs helped Mr. Zuckerberg reconnect with his original vision for Facebook when the platform was going through a rough patch. Jobs’ advice encouraged Zuckerberg to refocus and continue to shape his company into the giant it is today.
This kind of help makes a mentor different from a sponsor or an advocate. A sponsor is typically someone in your company who takes you on as a protege, helping you advance within that organization. An advocate is different in that they will speak on your behalf to others, promoting you as a responsible, skilled professional.
While advocates and sponsors can also provide mentorship, their roles center around interfacing with someone else on your behalf. A mentor, on the other hand, only interacts with you. They provide direction, act as a sounding board for ideas, and help you strategize and advance in your career.
Understand the Different Kinds of Mentorships
There are a few different kinds of mentors: one-on-one mentors, peer mentors, and group mentors.
You can expect both a one-on-one mentor and a peer mentor to:
- Give you open, honest advice — even if it’s hard to hear
- Meet with you one-on-one in person when possible
- Communicate via email, text message, or a phone conversation as their schedule permits
- Establish a genuine relationship, much like a personal friendship that is based on honesty, dependability, and communication
A group mentor arrangement involves a selection of people (mentees) who all have the same mentor. While a group mentor will help you gain the perspective of an experienced professional, you might not foster the personal connection you need to share and work through some of your more sensitive career challenges.
Set Clear Goals
Setting goals ahead of time is important because these form the scaffolding of the mentor-mentee relationship. Once your goals have been achieved, the professional relationship can end, and you can sustain your relationship as friends if you both desire. In some situations, you may want to establish a new set of goals and continue the professional relationship. Be clear about your goals and expectations when you communicate with your computer science mentor out of respect for their time and energy.
Some goals that you might use a mentor’s guidance for setting and accomplishing may include:
- Qualifying for a new position
- Improving your soft skills
- Learning how to apply hard skills to a specific position, job, or professional challenge
- Understanding how to navigate “office politics” and other professional relationships
- Switching careers
- Acclimating to a managerial position, perhaps for the first time
Identify the Qualities You Need in a Mentor
You ultimately want to find someone who has specific experience pertaining to your professional goals. A computer science mentor does not necessarily have to be older than you, but in most situations, he or she will be. Aside from age, a mentor must have more experience in the field.
For example, suppose you just got promoted to a position as a team lead who is responsible for several programmers at your job. You’ve never managed or led other programmers before, and the idea of doing it for the first time is daunting. As you look for a mentor, you could search for someone who:
- Has experience as a team leader
- Is in charge of an IT department
- Has served as a VP of a company, overseeing technology or digital infrastructure
These types of professionals can give you a detailed description of what can help you succeed in your new position — even if they’re younger than you.
On the other hand, if your goal is to qualify for a promotion to a management or executive position, your criteria may be very different. You may want to look for someone who:
- Has several years of experience in the role you desire
- Is already a step above that role
- Has experience in human resources and knows what it takes to succeed in the role you want
Search the Right Places
Finding someone willing to assist with your career development may be easier than you think, primarily because many consider it an honor to help someone along their career path. The key, however, is to find someone who is not only qualified and willing but also ready to dedicate the time necessary to foster a productive relationship. You should always respect your mentor’s time constraints. Keeping this in mind, here are some places where you can cast your net:
- Your place of employment
- Another company or organization within your field
- Tech groups or communities, whether in-person or online
- Professional networking events
- Family members who have been working in your field for several years
Approach Your Computer Science Mentor in the Right Way
In most cases, you will want to establish a rapport with someone you hope will become your mentor before you “pop the question.” This may involve talking about your respective professions, playing a couple of rounds of golf, going out for coffee, or having a lunch chat.
If you meet at a conference, online, or at a networking event, you should extend an offer to talk some more by giving them your contact info or asking for theirs. One way to approach this potentially awkward interaction is to say, “I enjoyed our conversation. I have a couple of questions I’d like your thoughts on. What’s the best way to get in touch with you?”
After you’ve established a solid rapport, you can ask them if they’d be willing to be your computer science mentor. Whether you do it in person, over the phone, or via email or text, you should include the following info:
- Your goal(s)
- Approximately how long each interaction would be — and be sure to honor that specified timeframe going forward
- Some things you appreciate about their perspective or experience that makes you desire their mentorship
In many situations, it may be best to ask them over email because it gives them time to make room in their schedule. If it’s in person, you should tell them to feel free to get back to you when they are able to and that you can circle back in a couple of weeks.
The right computer science mentor can give you deep insights into how to shape your career, change careers, or improve your overall professional package. You can find a mentor through the IEEE Computer Society. You can also check out the IEEE Computer Society Career Center for positions that will help you switch careers or climb the ladder in your current field.