About Sandro Mancuso

Software craftsman, founder of the London Software Craftsmanship Community (LSCC) and author of Software Craftsmanship: Professionalism, Pragmatism, Pride.

Mentorship in Software Craftsmanship

First, a little bit of background and metaphor

In the medieval times, apprentices would work in workshops an would be mentored by senior craftsmen (journeymen) or by the master craftsman himself. The apprentice had the responsibility to learn, observing the master’s and everyone else’s work, questioning everything and practising as much as he could. This was different from the teacher/student relationship where the teacher had the responsibility to teach. Here it was the apprentice that had to push his own development.

The apprentice, mentored by the master, would learn and refine his skills on a daily basis. Over time, the master would reach his limit as in what he could teach the apprentice and the knowledge and skills gap between both would not be that big any more. The master would then publicly recognise the apprentice as a professional that could take on work on his own and would deliver it with the same quality that the he would deliver himself. The master, at this point, would be putting his own reputation on the line since he was the one that trained the apprentice and was now vouching for his ability.

This would be the graduation point. Now the apprentice was ready to start his own journey, as a journeyman. As a journeyman, he would then go from town to town, work for and learn from different masters up to a point that he would be recognised by all of these masters and other craftsmen as a master himself. He would then be ready to have his own shop and start mentoring other journeymen and apprentices.

Back to the present

From now on, instead of master/apprentice, I’ll be using mentor/mentee. The main reason is that you don’t need to be a master craftsman to mentor someone. You also don’t need to be an apprentice to have a mentor. Besides that, each developer has different areas of expertise. They can be very senior in certain areas and completely ignorant in other areas. As we all know, software development is not as limited as a blacksmith’s workshop in the medieval times.

The role of the mentor

Deciding to mentor someone is a big responsibility. The role of a mentor is more than just be available on the phone and answer a few questions here and there. Although this can be very helpful, the role of a mentor goes way beyond than that. The mentor has the responsibility to make the mentee a good professional and that includes the technical and the personal side. More than just teaching the mentee a specific framework or technique, the mentor will also be teaching the mentee how to become a professional software developer, including ethics and code of conduct. From the technical perspective, the mentor will do his best to teach everything he knows. If they don’t work together, the mentor is expected to reserve formal time to work with the mentee. From the personal perspective, a mentor should help the mentee in his career (journey), giving some guidance, advices, opening doors or showing the doors he has already opened himself, introducing the mentee to his own professional circle and whatever else the mentor judges that can be important for the mentees.

The role of the mentee

The mentee is expected to do whatever he or she can to learn from the mentor. The mentee must be open-minded, be able to take criticism on board, be able to listen and also be very proactive in terms of perpetuating the knowledge. Practice is key. The mentee is expected to practice as much as possible, making him or herself better everyday. Mentees are also expected to produce something. Something where the mentor can measure their progress and possibly identify areas of improvement. Besides the direct benefits to the mentee, this is also the best way to keep mentors excited to be helping. Mentees must show passion and a clear desire to learn otherwise mentors will probably loose interest and find it a waste of time.

Gains and sacrifices

Mentors have the opportunity to perpetuate their knowledge since they need to organise their ideas to teach someone. Mentors will also need to be studying and practising hard to keep feeding his mentee, what obviously is a good thing. They will get the satisfaction of helping developers to progress in their careers, with good foundation, ethics and professionalism. They will be doing their part in rasing the bar of our industry, training the next generation, and this, on its own, is a very noble cause. But there are sacrifices and the main one is time. Mentors are expected to dedicate time to their mentees. If mentor and mentee work together in a daily basis, they won’t need much time outside work. However, if they don’t, mentors need to be clear they will need to find and reserve time for their mentees, ideally in a regular basis.

Mentees have the opportunity to speed up their development as professional software developers. They benefit from the mentor’s experience acquired over the years, shortening the time they would take to learn something and avoiding to commit the same mistakes. They also have someone they trust that could offer a different perspective on the things they are going through (technical issue, problem with a manager, process, bureaucracy, deadlines, estimation, etc). Without any scientific evidence to back me up, I would dare to say that with the right attitude from both parts and a good amount of time together, the mentee could learn in two years what the mentor learned in ten. That gives the mentees a massive head-start in their careers. Time should never be called a sacrifice from the mentees perspective. When someone is getting a lot of knowledge and help for free, possibly saving years of their careers, complaining about time (or lack of it) would be very short-sighted, to say the least.

Mutual Respect

Both mentors and mentees should respect each other. In order to have a healthy and prosperous relationship, there must be a commitment from both parts. This commitment is the mutual respect. The mentor shows respect with regular interactions with the mentee and time commitment. The mentee shows respect with his commitment to excel and demonstration of progress. That’s the minimum a mentee could do for someone that is sacrificing time with family and friends in order to help him.

So far I’ve given a bit of background history and also described the roles and responsibilities of mentors and mentees according to the Software Craftsmanship principles. Now I’ll be convering a few other areas related to the relationship itself. Remember that the focus here is on mentorships outside work. Let’s start from the beginning.

How do we find mentors or mentees?

That’s probably the most difficult question to answer. I can think in three possibilities (in no particular order):

  1. Try to find someone that works with you in a daily basis. It will make the approach easier.
  2. Via user groups and communities. If you are an active member of a user group or community you will have the opportunity to meet a lot of people and maybe find the mentor or mentee you are looking for.
  3. Via indication: A friend could recommend/introduce you to someone.

Choosing a mentor

Although not a rule, normally, in Software Craftsmanship, it is the mentee that chooses the mentor or, at least, start the conversation. The mentee needs to have an idea of the path he wants to take. For example, he may want to learn more about mobile development, work as a consultant, work in high-performance low-latency systems, learn about gaming development, improve his automated testing techniques or, in the best case, just learn how to become a better developer. Whatever the mentee’s ambitions are, the mentee needs to make sure that his future mentor is a person that can provide the knowledge he or she is looking for.

Unfortunately, this may be easier said than done. Depending where the mentee is in his career, he may not know exactly what he wants. He may not even know what options he has. Although good developers are good developers and the foundation and priciples of software development always apply, we all know that the skills set used in different types of systems can vary a lot. A well experienced developer that spent the majority of his career doing web-development and became an expert in user experience may take a while to perform well in a completely server-side, asynchronous application with no GUI. Working on an application that heavily rely on algorithms and that don’t use any database can be totally different from developing a mobile client application. The same way that working for a consultancy company can be very different from working for a bank or a startup.

Those are some of the things that developers at early stages of their careers may not even have a clue. If you are at this stage in your career, the best suggestion is that you focus purely on being a great developer and learn the basics. Things like Test-Driven Development, clean code, refactoring, Object-Oriented principles, different languages and paradigms. Once you have that, it will be easier for you to choose your next move.

Choosing a mentor involves is not an easy task. Maybe a single mentor won’t be able to teach everything a mentee wants to know. Mentees should focus on their very next step(s) instead of focusing in everything they want to learn throughout their entire career. Mentees may change their minds quite often as soon as new opportunities and options are presented to them. They should keep their options open and choose a different mentors as time goes by.

Choosing a mentee

Mentors, before accepting a mentee, should ask themselves: Would I be able to dedicate time to this person? Can I really help his or her career? If the answer is yes, fantastic.

The first thing to look for in a mentee is passion. Since a mentor will be allocating time to help someone, they should make sure that this person deserves their help. Make sure that the mentee is committed to be better.

Another thing mentors need to decide is what sort of seniority level their future mentee should have. Some mentors will prefer to take graduates, others prefer juniors with one or two years of experience and others prefer to get seniors or mentees on the verge of becoming seniors.

Choosing a mentee is a very personal thing and different mentors will have completely different criteria. If the mentor already knows the mentee, than it is easier. When the mentor doesn’t know the mentee I could suggest a few options that could either be combined or used independently:

  • Introduction letter: The mentor could ask the mentee for a summary of his career so far (not a CV). In this summary, the mentee would describe what he has done, where he thinks he are in his career, the things he learnt, provide (if any) links to his public profile like github account, twitter, blog, web/mobile applications and most importantly, what he expect from the mentor.
  • Coding challenge: The mentor can set up a challenge before considering to speak and accept a mentee. E.g. the mentee, using his preferred language, needs to write a simple blog or wiki application, have it deployed in somewhere (heroku, cloudbees, Google App Engine, Amazon Beanstalk, etc) and code should be public (github, for example). Or it could be simpler like solving a few katas using two different languages or anything along these lines.
  • Blog: Mentee should create a blog, if he or she does not have one, and publish a few posts related to things he has been learning on his own.

The mentor, if going down this route, should set the challenges according to the level of seniority he is expecting from the mentee. Once the mentor is satisfied with the initial effort by the potential mentee, he could decide if he is going to accept or not the mentee.

Mentorship common misconceptions

The mentor is not better than the mentee. In general the mentor will have more knowledge and experience in the areas where the mentee has chosen to be mentored. However, the mentee can easily have more knowledge than the mentor in other areas. Mentees should not expect the mentor to have all the answers to all the problems and mentors should not be naive to think that the mentee doesn’t know anything. Both mentors and mentees have skills and limitations and this needs to be understood by both parts.

Mentors should not be looking for themselves a few years younger. This can be frustrating for the mentor. People are different and the mentor will be missing out when not being more open to the type of mentee he or she is prepared to take on board. There is no reason to be so restrictive. Mentoring someone with different personality, possibly slightly different ambitions can be extremelly enriching for both mentors and mentees. However it is important that both have same values and principles.

Mentees should not expect that mentors will change their lives. The mentors will be there for the mentees, giving them advices and teaching what they know but it is up to the mentee to decide what to do with it. Mentees should do their part to improve and not think they are going to be spoon-fed by mentors. It’s up to the mentee to look after his or her own career.

Walking the long road together (or at least part of it)

Once the relationship between mentor and mentee is established, it is fair to say that they will be in a journey together. Every software craftsman is on a personal journey towards mastery. They are all walking the long road. Both mentor and mentees will be learning while they share part of their journey with each other.

What mentors and mentees should do during the mentorship?

Well, this may vary a lot depending of the type of mentorship. In general, they are expected to write code, loads of code. Ideally they should build something together, where the mentee should be the most active in terms of writing the code. The mentor is expected to pair-program with the mentee whenever possible and to be reviewing his code.

Agreeing on creating an application would probably be the best option since that would involve not just writing the code but also thinking about requirements, being able to prioritize, defining a development process, deployment strategies, production environment and everything else that is related to a software project in the real life.

Working on katas is also a valid. It’s a simpler and quicker approach for the mentee to learn basic skills. This could be used when the mentees are interested in the basics of TDD, naming, refactoring, programming languages paradigms, etc. However, after learning a few basic skills using katas, they should aim to do something larger that really can mimic the sort of applications they would be working on in their professional environments.

Establishing goals and tracking progress

Establishing goals is definitely a good practice in a mentorship. It keeps mentor and mentees focused in whatever they want to achieve. Working towards an objective is always the best way to study and learn something. Goals should be achievable and used to motivate and direct the menteed and not to be treated as a hard deadline. However, they should be as concrete as they can be, for example, writing an application with features X, Yand Z and have it deployed into production or doing a number of katas using TDD, write blog posts, read books, submit patches to open source projects, or whatever the pair agrees on.

It’s important that progress is tracked so both mentor and mentees can see how they are getting on and how much the mentee is evolving. Tracking progress is all about feedback. The quicker and shorter the feedback loop is, the better. It’s also a good tool to trigger conversation about improvements and refinements.

How long a mentorship should last?

Unfortunately that’s another question that does not have an exact answer. This will depend a lot on the type of mentorship, how much the mentee wants to learn from the mentor and also how much the mentor has to offer.

Some say that this should be a lifetime commitment, some say that it should last between 2 to 5 years and some say that it could be as short as a few months. Some mentorships start with very technical and specific things like learning the basics of a language or test disciplines. However they can evolve to an entire project lifecycle or even to a longer term career advice, networking, help with books and conferences, etc.

I, personally, would never try to define that upfront. Just enjoy the journey and let time tell when the mentorship should terminate.

How and when does it terminate?

For the majority of the relationships, both mentor and mentees at some point need to continue their journey in separate ways. This does not mean that they will never talk to each other again or that they don’t like each other. This just means that they need to move on, teach or learn from other people. Also, we all change our minds in terms of what our next steps would be and we need to react to that.

One important thing is that regardless who wants to terminate the relationship, this termination should be explicit. It should be clear to both parts that the mentorship is over.

Professionalism, Reputation and Public recognition

Software craftsmanship is all about professionalism and it is almost impossible to talk about professionalism without talking about reputation.

Throughout the mentorship, it is important that the mentor advertises the progress of her mentee. Mentors should public recognise all the skills acquired by the mentee, what would help the mentee to start building her own reputation. However, mentors also need to be aware that every time they vouch for someone, they are also putting their reputations on the line. Mentees are also expected to be recognising their mentors for all the things they’ve been learning. This mutual recognition is one of the things that may help both to build their reputations.

Raising the bar

Mentorship is at the heart of software craftsmanship and this is probably one of the most efficient ways for us, developers, to help raising the bar of our industry. Sharing our knowledge and experiences with each other is what will help us learn from our mistakes and successes.

We probably can teach many things to someone in a fraction of the time that took us to learn them. With this, mentees could absorb a lot of knowledge in a much shorter space of time, making them, overtime, a much more complete professional than any of the mentors she had in her career.

Regardless of our level of seniority or if we are being mentored by someone else, if we all take the responsibility to mentor someone, we will all be helping to raise the bar of our industry.

Reference: Mentorship in Software Craftsmanship – part 1Mentorship in Software Craftsmanship – part 2 & Mentorship in Software Craftsmanship – part 3 from our JCG partner Sandro Mancuso at the Crafted Software blog.

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