Aha Moments: A Love Story

After much soul-searching and reflection, I changed jobs a little over three years ago. I had been at my previous gig for over nineteen years and had almost grown up there in a professional sense. I moved to my new job and found myself surrounded by really bright and eager managers and technologists. Many were at a similar point in their careers now to where I had been those many years ago when I started my last job. They were good at their jobs and eager to grow their careers. I found myself in the role of mentor to some of these folks.

I spent much time thinking about what advice might be useful to help them drive their careers forward. In doing so, I reflected on my experiences with the various people whom I considered my mentors. I realized that my professional development was influenced by a series of mentorship encounters that led to “Aha” moments that shaped my perspective. In 20/20 hindsight, I did not recognize some of those encounters as mentorship at the time since some were uncomfortable while others were chance encounters, but the insights gained at the time were just the same.

Let me share a few of my own Aha moments:

You will not get ahead if people do not want to work with you

I admit that when I came out of college, I was full of myself. I had done pretty well in my undergraduate education, and I thought of myself as a pretty talented software developer. While I was good at my job, I was also cocky and just a bit impatient with others. My manager was very complimentary of my technical skills but at one point had a pointed conversation with me about my ability to collaborate. She pulled me aside one day and said, “I know that you are a good developer, but rumor has it that some people get annoyed when working with you. It seems that you are sometimes impatient to get an answer and sometimes don’t want to listen to other views. I am concerned that people might not want to work with you if this keeps up.” This was an uncomfortable moment for me since I had never had one of “those” conversations at a job. After I had gotten over the initial discomfort, I realized that she was trying to help me succeed. I knew intuitively at the time that I was sometimes impatient in my desire to get results. She identified a blind spot with me that I needed to address. I worked to become a better listener and team player, and her message has stayed with me. Fast forward and I find myself in similar situations with own eager, talented staff. I know how uncomfortable it was for her to have that conversation with me. I realize she acted out of a commitment to me and my career development. I admire her for her willingness to point this out, and she continues to be a role model for my own difficult conversations with staff.

Beauty in technical design elegance

I was five years out of college working as a software engineer. I was in graduate school evenings working toward a Masters in Computer Science. One of my first classes was Data Structures and Algorithms, which I greatly enjoyed when I took it at the undergraduate level. I loved the elegance of solutions afforded by the practical use of data structures and their accompanying algorithms, but the “nerd” in me was too embarrassed to say it out loud. I had a professor for the class who was passionate about this topic. He would get enraptured when explaining the intricacies of subjects like digraphs and height balanced AVL trees. I could tell that this guy loved this topic, and his enthusiasm was infectious. I mentioned after class that I enjoyed his lecture and commented about his passion for this. He and I had a long talk about the aesthetics of data structures and the elegance of the solutions they spawn. My professor exemplified what I had been afraid to show. I ended up asking him to be my graduate advisor and was fortunate enough to have him as my teacher for numerous classes. Since that experience, I have never been bashful about commenting on the beauty and elegance of technical solutions. In fact, I have found make kindred spirits among those who identify themselves as software craftsman.

Coming to grips with self-imposed limitations

I have stuttered since I was about four years old. The only times it got in the way was when I had to do public speaking in school. I became a master of wiggling out of these requirements sometimes playing the sympathy card. I did learn to “hyper-prepare” when I had to present so, at least, my grasp of the materials was not adding to my source of dread and learning to prepare in this manner certainly helped my grades. In one of my early jobs, I worked with some very senior software developers who at the time appeared to me as “grizzled veterans” of the early days of software. One of these guys “adopted” me for some reason that I could not fathom at the time. One day while we were chewing the fat, he said to me, “Charlie, I know that you struggle with your stuttering. But sooner or later, you’re going to have to come to grips with it if you want to advance in your career. Managers expect you to present to teams, and you seem to avoid it.” No one had ever had such a pointed and frank conversation with me about my stuttering. In fact, most people politely ignored it “like the plague” tacitly indicating that it made them as uncomfortable as it made me! I knew that he was right, and his words stayed with me for years until one day at another job they needed someone to go out on sales visits to explain technical interfaces to clients. I heard about the opportunity and remembered my former mentor’s comments. I raised my hand and volunteered for the role. I was scared to death, but the opportunity got me over my fear of public speaking and helped pave the way for advancing my career.

Lessons learned

In each anecdote above, I learned something about myself that helped shaped my career direction. I realize that these conversations were sometimes as hard for my “mentor” to deliver as they were for me to hear. However, I realize that mentorship is as much an act of love (maybe tough love) as it is a chance to share wisdom and learn from it.

For those on the mentoring side of such a conversation, don’t be bashful about being frank and honest. People are often blind to their weaknesses or even embarrassed about expressing passion for their craft. Mentoring is at the same time about acknowledgment and exploration. You may be that “grizzled veteran” or seasoned manager that is looked backed upon fondly for providing an uncomfortable insight that helped a bright, eager rising star to shine.

For those seeking mentorship, don’t limit your exploration to just kind words and gentle encouragement. Seek out those who are willing to risk the relationship and be candid with you. Often others see our blind spots and weaknesses much more clearly that we do. It is out of concern for your well-being and career advancement that true mentorship happens. Realize that it is often as hard for mentors to deliver tough news as it is for you to hear it! Look for these encounters and take them for the acts of love that they are!