How do software engineers find mentorship?

It’s hard to find a safe environment to try new things and get feedback.

I’m a self-taught programmer. I didn’t start that journey until I was in my mid-20s. It took me that long to have a good reason to do it. Learning on my own was hard. Unfortunately, it was a common theme throughout my career.

I became a “professional” computer programmer in the U.S. Army. The Army didn’t train me to write software. I just had the time and motivation to learn it myself (the motivation was to reduce the amount of work I had to do each day). For all of its faults, the U.S. Army has an incredibly robust mentorship program built into its structure to help you become better. The Army has built-in leadership schools so that, when you get promoted, you have the skills it takes to perform your next job. You continually refine your knowledge and receive feedback. It was something I would miss when I left for civilian life.

Curtis Schlak, VP, Professional Development Curriculum

Once I started programming in earnest “in the industry,” I found myself without somebody to help me get better. It got even worse as I “moved up” to team leader, then as director of development within a few short years. There were no assigned mentors at the company I was employed at. I was supposed to be mentored by my manager, but most of my managers were non-technical. I made mistakes in technical implementation and leadership that might have been avoided if I had a reasonable mentor.

What finally did help me was tea and coffee with friends outside of the work setting, after office hours. After moving on to other companies, former coworkers and I would meet up every other week. We’d sit and chat about the successes and difficulties that we were having. It was a completely safe space. I trusted these friends. It paid off.

Our peer mentorship helped me become better because it was a design space with people that were smart and invested in one another’s success. We helped a member design a new UI pattern that could help out his team. We helped another with different strategies to provide a healthy and fun development environment. I would describe my difficulties “managing up” to the group to get their insights and advice.

As the industry has grown, I’ve seen a dozen different ways that peer mentorship has manifested: meetups around technologies, Slack workspaces, Reddit, and Stack Overflow just to name a few. While some of those are fun (I would never think Stack Overflow is fun), I find what is lacking is the feedback mechanism of people working toward a common goal of understanding. Instead, they turn into passive learning (meetups) sessions, a conversational oligarchy (Slack), or a high noise-to-signal ratio (Reddit). While I value them as resources, they don’t necessarily satiate my desire for conversation.

At Galvanize, we take this idea of mentorship to heart. We have coordinated the so-called classroom time during our coding bootcamps to work as a way for people to actively engage in design considerations rather than being lectured to. You will get a chance to converse in a small group about the topics and skills that you’re learning, working together to find elegant solutions to advanced problems. You’ll have the freedom to apply new knowledge and get feedback from your peers and instructors as you work together and independently to push beyond your current understanding.

More about Curtis Schlak, Chief Academic Officer

Curtis Schlak’s software development career spans more than two decades in software, energy, finance, legal, and education. He has worked as an individual contributor and has led teams of nearly 200 people. He has worked or consulted at Barclays Capital, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, British Petroleum, CITGO Petroleum, Ernst & Young, and Microsoft. He has led software teams at startups like KickFire and DataCert. His consulting firm leads the training and adoption of Feature-Driven Development in the US. He has created and delivered consumer and enterprise training for hundreds of people through The Iron Yard, App Academy, Hack Reactor, and Galvanize. He has a BS in Mathematics, BA in English, and MS in Computer Science. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in Computer Science.

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