Mentoring is the secret to success, probably in most professions, but especially in software engineering, which is my area of expertise.
I discovered early on that the best way to get the most interesting projects and prove your worth as an engineer is to find yourself a mentor and volunteer to do shit work for them: Debug their work, write utility routines, help them with investigations — stuff that no one else will do.
People often think that doing shit work is demeaning. But if you’re a great grunt, no management or technical lead in their right mind will throw away your skills on grunt work. They’ll give you more and more challenging work.
The trick in finding a mentor is to find the person who does really good work. It’s not the guy that spouts off his mouth in meetings or the guy who acts like he knows everything (yes, I worked in a profession dominated by males). It’s the guy whose solutions are ingenious and whose code is streamlined and crisp, who covers every single detail. He’s the guy who never releases untested work.
I can recognize the type, and my mentors have always done good by me. By the time I reached my last couple of jobs, I was senior enough that I became the mentor.
My last mentor was a cocky son-of-a-bitch to most people. Most geniuses are like that. They are intolerant of stupidity. This guy accepted me as his protégé in crime, though, and I dedicated long hours of overtime for him, never once complaining. In exchange, he taught me so many things. My name on that work gained me a reputation for being a part of the core infrastructure that very few people understood. People consulted with me for many years afterwards. They even stopped me in the halls in subsequent jobs just to introduce themselves. It was quite rewarding.
So the greatest lesson learned is, you never need to prove to the world how good you are. You must be the student before you can be the teacher. Only then will the world know, and by that time you’ll stop giving a shit about who knows and who doesn’t.
Have you ever had a mentor? What was the greatest lesson you learned from him or her?
Thanks for the great idea, ozarkmountainhiker!