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How to find and become a mentor in IT

Wherever you are on your IT career path, it pays to find an experienced advisor who can guide you through pitfalls and shortcuts, both within your company and in the broader industry. But you need to find the right person and avoid jumping into an alliance with the wrong one.

Whether you’re starting a new job, trying to change your current role (such as deciding which cloud skills to learn), or looking to move up the corporate ladder, you don’t have to go it alone. It can be a huge advantage to connect with someone with more experience and a willingness to listen. A mentor can fill this role and make a long-term difference in your career.

It’s not just a matter of having a shoulder to cry on. A mentor can be of enormous value in your personal success. In an Accountemps survey of corporate executives, 86 percent said that having a mentor was “somewhat” or “very important” for career development.

Perhaps you feel stuck in your current position. A mentor can help you understand what’s realistic (“How long does it take to get promoted?”) and help you decide if you need to change direction (“Would I find a better fit in programming instead of QA?”).

I remember when I started in a new technology field myself. I already was well established in my career, but I started attending an annual industry conference in a field that was new to me. I was lucky to meet someone who was knowledgeable and respected. That person, Joel, was willing to talk me through all my questions. We established a tradition of having lunch together on the third day of the conference every year. I would tell Joel what I saw and thought I learned, and he would explain the real significance (or lack thereof) of those technologies. These interactions accelerated and enriched my understanding of my new field of interest. And I will be forever grateful for his generosity.

The benefits of having a mentor

Mentors can help you in many important ways. They’ve been down the same roads you’re traveling, and they can share advice based on their experience. As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. You don’t have to repeat the mistakes others made. A good mentor can help you avoid career pitfalls that you might not know about.

Obviously, you want to get ahead, which means making yourself more valuable to a (current or future) employer, so you can do your part to make the company more successful. A mentor can guide you in making decisions that can increase your value. For example, James Pietrocarlo, director of partnerships sat ClearObject, an IoT systems firm in Indiana, has mentored young employees and regularly offers two recommendations. “Remain current,” he advises, and learn all you can about innovations and new technology. He also suggests that mentees “become technology-agnostic.” If you have skills in more than one area, you will be more versatile and may get more opportunities in your company.

Finding a mentor

Many companies have formal mentoring programs, where employees are paired with other employees who have more experience. These programs can provide varying degrees of structure to these relationships. Typically, your mentor is someone other than your direct manager, though in many cases a wonderful boss becomes a valued mentor.

If your company does not provide you with a mentor (or even if it does), you don’t have to struggle to find one. “When you think that you have found a good match, just ask the person,” advises Evgeny Sorokin, head of R&D at Devexperts. A good mentor “wants to see your growth and be excited about your success,” according to Sorokin.

One of the most important factors to consider is that you want a mentor who “shares the same core values as you,” says Tony Daniello, director of infrastructure services at Computer Design & Integration. You need someone you respect and trust. For this reason, it can be a good idea to take your time and not just jump into a relationship until you get to know the other person.

Derek Nielsen, practice manager for delivery at ClearObject, recommends that you look for someone "you would want to be.” Find someone who sets an example you’d like to model and adopt to your own individual style. Avoid people who always seem to have time on their hands, adds Nielsen. These people tend to be less motivated in their own work, and they may lack the desire to help others.

Internal or external?

You can find mentors in many places, both inside and outside your company. External mentors bring certain advantages to the table. They may have a broader industry view beyond the narrower perspective from within your own company. The relationship is less likely to have explicit or implicit strings attached, since you work for different organizations. And an external mentor may be more useful in providing connections when you decide that it’s time to look for new job opportunities outside your existing company.

On the other hand, if you rely on an internal mentor, it can be more convenient to find times to meet or arrange an impromptu conversation. The internal mentor knows more about the company culture and politics and can guide you through “how it’s done around here.” They can also expand your knowledge and understanding of your employer, so that you’re aware of more options within the organization.

Perhaps the most important advantage is that your mentor can be an informal advocate on your behalf. Internal candidates have a huge advantage when it comes time to apply for an open position. Having a senior contact tell you about developing opportunities—and even recommend you—can be a powerful way to move up levels in the org chart.

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You’ll find many variations in mentor/mentee relationships. Some companies create formal pairings, assigning more experienced workers to support newer ones. Other companies leave it up to individuals to make their own connections. (Even if you’re in an assigned mentor/mentee relationship, that doesn’t mean you can’t strike up a connection with someone else as well.) Sometimes you will find a mentor within your own department, or you may connect with someone from a different section of the company (which can offer many of the same benefits as having an external mentor).

Being a good mentee

The key to a good mentor/mentee relationship is respect. This starts with mutual respect of each other’s time. A mentee should not bring every little problem to a mentor, for instance. Do your best to solve the issue on your own, and save the big ones to bring to your mentor for advice (or a post-mortem analysis if your efforts were less than successful).

Recognize that the mentor is volunteering time and support on your behalf, so be grateful for the effort. “You don’t have to follow every piece of advice from your mentor,” says Sorokin, but be grateful and acknowledge their efforts to help.

The respect cuts both ways. “The biggest mistake that can be made on both sides is not listening,” observes Daniello. A mentor needs to recognize that he or she may not know everything and can learn something from a mentee. And the mentee has to be willing to accept guidance from someone who has been around longer.

For the best results, meet with your mentor on a regular basis. “Schedule a recurring time and stick to it,” says Nielsen. Set a clear agenda and goals, and make an effort to document progress. This provides conversational focus and keeps the mentor engaged by showing that you’re willing to make an effort to improve.

There are no shortcuts for advancement. It still takes hard work and focus, and you have to pay attention to what’s going on outside the immediate confines of your job’s responsibilities. If you’re willing to make the effort, a mentor can help you avoid making mistakes and chart a more efficient course on your path to success.

IT mentors: Lessons for leaders

  • Mentoring employees helps grow a company’s talent pool from within, developing future leaders.
  • For the best chance of success, build a mentor/mentee relationship on clear communications, shared commitments, and a good match in personal and work values.
  • Mentoring can help keep your job fresh and expose you to new ideas and technologies.
  • Mentors find their work to be a great way to “pay it forward” for the help they experienced in their own careers.
  • Encourage your employees to find mentors. This increases their engagement, enhances their value to your company, and encourages employee retention.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.