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New and old versions of Obi Wan Kenobi
September 15, 2022 · 6 min read

Mentoring in a remote setting

With the newest cohort of developers starting work life from home, how can we make sure they’re getting the career guidance we all got when we first started? Mentoring remotely is the answer.

In a recent issue of our Wayfarer newsletter, Faith explored the idea that there are a lot of people who are new to the job market that will likely start as remote workers from the outset. So while a lot of us had the experience early on of working in an office setting, where mentorship almost happens as naturally as a bad code merge, the newest cohort of workers will have a different experience.

What people had to say in response was a mixed bag. Some wondered if juniors were getting that support in the office anyway? I know I’m just one person who had one experience as a junior dev, but to me that time working with people who were so much more experienced and knowledgeable was invaluable and really pushed me to become a better developer. I can’t tell you if that experience would have been better, worse, or the same if I was working in a remote setting, but I know that mentorship was a key to my success.

Why is mentoring so important?

Let’s start with the obvious: it’s important because you ultimately want junior developers to become mid-level developers, and eventually get to the point of being senior-level and above. And if you make a conscious effort to help juniors become good at what they do, you’re effectively building your team of ideal developers, which benefits everyone involved.

Software is a complex and sometimes confusing arena to work in. I felt lucky that the boot camp I went through was formatted differently than most in that I learned a full stack every single month (lots of beers and even more tears were involved), which put me in a good position to learn how to learn. It came in handy when I was hired at a company that used exactly zero of the languages I had slogged my way through. Without the mentorship to guide me through a new language in an already-established code base, I still would have been lost. And I think that’s true of almost anyone entering into the field for the first time. 

So, as senior-level developers and management, what can you do to make sure that same mentorship and experience that helped you grow as a developer is available to the newbies working remotely?

Benefits and challenges in mentoring remotely

One immensely beneficial component of mentoring remotely is that it removes some of the traditional boundaries we find in office settings. There are no corner offices or window seats that generally signal a higher position of power; we all have the same size screens, sitting at our own best version of our own ideal office. Getting a small glimpse into the way a coworker lives provides more context as well, helping us better understand the challenges and opportunities one another face. 

Like so many other things we’ve learned over the last couple of years though, remote mentorship is not without its challenges. Among those challenges, the biggest hurdles I see are communication, trust, and consistency. A newer developer may be reluctant to reach out via Slack, fearing they’re interrupting your workflow or asking too many questions. It also takes a lot of trust to build a good mentor/mentee relationship, and that trust is harder to build when you’re missing out on the social component of an office setting. For better or worse, that social component helps build bonds much faster than any amount of Zoom calls could achieve. And when it comes to consistently sitting down with your mentee, we all know how easy it is to shoot over a quick “Hey, mind if we reschedule?” and miss following up for something that doesn’t feel like a top priority.

Overcoming the challenges

Okay, so if we’ve established what the challenges are, how do we go about getting past those?

Set boundaries

There’s a fine line between making yourself accessible and getting driven bonkers by an endless stream of questions and hypotheses. The type of boundaries you set with your mentee will depend on both what they are looking to get out of the mentorship and what you see your role of mentor as. Is this person super green, and will need a lot of hand-holding? Maybe checking in once or twice a day is appropriate. Do they have a little working time under their belt and are trying to learn how to build bigger and more robust systems? Once a week might feel like a better cadence. Mentoring remotely may take some time to figure out, but

Whatever it is you decide, you need to stick with it. We’re all too familiar with the panic that sets in when a Zoom call you didn’t expect hits at the worst possible time in your day. Curb those missteps by setting boundaries and sticking with them.

Stick to a schedule

Once you’ve set your boundaries, you need to set a schedule. The relationship between a mentor and a mentee takes work, and by knowing when to expect certain things, you can build a trusting relationship. Nothing is worse, as a mentee, than trying to rely on someone for growth, encouragement, and insight than to have a person who constantly cancels on them. If you’ve committed to doing this for a growing developer, do it wholeheartedly.

Decide how you will communicate

There’s no shortage of ways to communicate via computer, and you don’t need to use just one. If your mentee will have smaller, easy to answer questions then a quick Slack message might suffice. Need to walk through something in-depth? Set aside a block of time to screen share. Got something easy to share with them that doesn’t require a back and forth? Sounds like the perfect application for a Loom. 

Keeping your lines of communication open and clear helps to stick to those boundaries you set, helps to build trust that you are open to talking, and keeps you both on the same page. 

Mentoring tools

When you’re working face-to-face with someone, the mentorship relationship falls into place fairly easily: you can get a feel for who pairs well together, see progress firsthand, and easily track the growth of the mentee. Mentoring remotely can make this more challenging. Luckily there are a number of tools that help facilitate these things. Software options like Ten Thousand Coffees or Qooper start with employee onboarding and can go all the way up to creating dedicated programs for mentors and mentees to follow along with, creating consistency in the mentorships across an organization. 

If you’re on the smaller end, in terms of team size, these tools may feel like a bit of overkill. But as your company grows and teams grow, they can be a great way to grow your relationships, foster good learning environments, and ensure your team feels supported.