How to find the right coding mentor

The best person to learn from is the one who has been down the same road you are traveling. It works the same in computer programming. Jaimie Stevens introduces you to the resources for finding the right mentor, who may already be someone in your network.

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Coding mentor with coding student.
Choosing the right mentor will set you up for success as a coder. Photo – Shutterstock

As I’ve been writing these articles, one thing I’ve noticed pops up consistently as a helpful asset to beginners is having a mentor.

Having a mentor is one of the best ways to ensure you’re always improving your current skillset. Learning from someone can make a huge difference in your performance and ability to develop. At large companies like Google, Microsoft and Airbnb they assign mentors to junior developers hire because its such an efficient way to learn.

One of the fastest ways to learn how to do something is to talk with someone who has already done it. Not only can a mentor get you through the development process, but they can also be that person to inspire you when things get difficult, which, as you probably know as a beginner in tech, it can get difficult. You should continuously be seeking out more mentors as you move further down the road of your career.

A great mentor is someone who looks at your current experience and figures out where you need to improve. The best ones keep their mentees right on the edge of what they understand and what they don’t — expect your mentor to push you and encourage you to move beyond your expectations.

Some mentors will give you tips or advice; some will go as far as custom-tailoring a path for you. Others will start asking you questions just as much as you ask them questions, so you start coming around the answers on your own. The relationship has the potential to be very valuable either way, so don’t make light of it.

WorkingNation’s Jaimie Stevens.

My first mentor in programming wasn’t a traditional coder — she was a Salesforce programmer, and she taught me how important it was to be able to work independently and figure out how to use the internet to figure out the answer when I needed help. My second coding mentor helped me figure out what coding school to go to and pointed out where it could strengthen my career. My third coding mentor was a teacher who sat with me in tutorials and helped me figure out how all the nitty gritty details of JavaScript.

RELATED STORY: Getting to know Javascript, the internet’s mainstay

All of these mentors taught me entirely different things at moments when I really needed it. Before venturing out on your quest for a mentor, take a minute and decide what you’re interested in learning from them. You should find someone who knows where you’re coming from and understands where you want to go.

Also, figure out what role you want this mentor to play in your life. Do you need someone with a strong network? Someone who will challenge you? Someone who will offer advice on career choices? Be strategic—you don’t need to find one mentor who is all of these things, or many mentors who overlap in these things. Find the few that best fit into what you want to accomplish.

Finding a mentor might seem hard, but really you just need to know where to look.

Before you do anything — check right under your nose. Sometimes the best mentors are already sitting in your networks.

There are a few advantages of asking people you already know to be your mentor. One, the person will probably consider mentoring you a more efficient use of their time than someone who doesn’t know you.

Two, if they are a reputable person in the industry, they probably have other people approaching them, too, and you have an “in.”

While there are accomplished professionals who will help new talent, they are still busy people, and your options might be limited — so you should go for whatever you can!

If that’s not working for you, there are some other things you could do. Consider in-person coding events and online communities like Github. You could also just reach out to other coders directly via Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Attend a Meetup. Take a programming class. Find a favorite and email them.

Check out hackhands.com, codementor.io and airpair. These are all ways to meet coders that might make the right mentor. Once you’ve pinpointed who you want to talk to — make sure you don’t waste their time! Before you approach someone as a potential mentor, think about your goals. What are you aiming to achieve in the next six months? How about the next five years? Are you looking for someone to help you with getting a job, or learn to code or both? What skills do you already have, and what do you need?

What is the focus of this conversation going to be? Send them casual (or formal, if you want) agenda points before you speak with them. When you do meet with your potential mentor for the first time, evaluate the feedback that they give you. How constructive was it? Was it insightful? Do you see yourself having a strong mentor relationship with this person?

Later, either in person or via email, summarize the main points of the conversation and what your next steps will be. If you want them to see your code, make sure you connect on Github.

If you do see something happening with them, you could offer them help — is there something you’re good at that you could contribute to their work? Is there something particularly interesting that you want to learn more about, to the point where you’d be willing to work on the smaller pieces of development just to be a part of the process?

Coding requires lifelong learning, and having a mentor is one of the strongest ways to facilitate you on that journey. If you take the necessary time to figure out what you’re looking for in a mentor and put together a plan of action, you’ll find the mentor that you need at every stage of your career.

This article is part of WorkingNation Associate Producer Jaimie Stevens’ “Starting Out in Tech” series where she shares her insight into becoming a computer programmer. Catch up on her previous articles here.

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