Published Dec. 4, 2019
Aaron has two decades of experience in the tech world, so in 2019, when he decided that he wanted to give back, his choice fell onto MentorCruise. Having mentorship experiences from past positions and experiences, he fit right into the mold. A perfect fit, how it turned out!
Hey Aaron! Thanks for doing this short introduction interview! You’ve been with us for a few months now! When did you join, and why did you decide to become a mentor?
In the beginning of 2019, I was thinking about ways that I could give back. Historically, I’ve ran programming teams and been a senior contributor, so I’ve always mentored programmers. I decided to look online for something like this and stumbled across MentorCruise. I know how hard it is for people to figure out they need a mentor - and then where to find one - so I was immediately drawn to this website. I also liked the way that I could reach out to people of all countries, not just the United States. This helps me grow as a programmer and a person as well.
What’s your background? What skills do you pass onto your mentees?
I started programming when I was 8 (on a Commodore 64 with no disk drive and no printer! It takes patience to retype everything after the power goes out!). For my professional career, I’ve been a programmer, architect and manager. This combination of skills allows me to share with mentees all kinds of skills. When we first begin, I tend to focus more on the technical skills. Then, as we develop a relationship, we invariably move on to career-focused work. I can help them understand what is required of them in the business world because I’ve been on both sides.
Did you ever have a strong mentor in your life? How did they help?
I think you will find that you have a lot of mentors in your life and career, you just don’t know that they’re this to you at the time. I can think of a few managers and a few peers I’ve had in my career that really helped me along, whether they realized it at the time or not. I’ve had one official mentor that really helped me on the sales side of the business. In my experience, most programmers have a tense relationship with sales (they always seem to be selling things before I’ve had a chance to make them!). This mentor helped me understand the methodologies and reasons why they operate the way they do.
Loaded question: What’s your mentorship style?
I expect a lot from my mentees, but I give them more of myself in return. If you asked employees of mine, they’d say “Aaron always had a reason for whatever he asked for.” Sometimes I can share that with the mentee right away, other times I need them to trust me and just follow the process. I’m not mean, but I’m here to help - and in return I expect that the mentee is dedicated to it as well. We all have limited time, and I want to make sure I make the best of my time - yet give the mentee more value as well.
Also I tell jokes. They’re not good.
In the past, how did you set up mentorships? How and how much did you communicate? How did you track progress and keep things going?
In the past, I’ve only mentored programmers who worked directly for me. I kept track of their progress in a set of notes that I also used for their performance reviews. Doing this is a bit different. I ask my mentees to put together Trello boards talking about their goals and current challenges. We use that as a roadmap to tackle the work they have to do. If we haven’t moved any through the columns, then we’re not making good progress!
Tell us about one of your best past mentorship experiences!
Initially I started working with a mentee to help him with technical programming problems. We worked through a lot of things, I validated some of his choices and I pointed him in other directions. As time progressed, however, our relationship grew deeper. The most fulfilling part of this has been when he changed from asking me about technical questions to full on career-based questions. We even talked about emotional and mental health and how that applies to being a younger developer. These conversations I think neither of us expected to have, but I found them very fulfilling and I believe he found them to be very helpful. I think there’s a freedom in the remote nature of these relationships: you can invest as little or as much as you want, and if you really want to share, the distance can actually help reduce some of the fear we have from making ourselves vulnerable.
What are you getting out of being a mentor?
The best way to know something is to teach it. Having to explain information to mentees makes sure I fully understand the topic. Also, I feel good about making sure that someone doesn’t have to make the same mistakes as I did. I may have more experience, but we’re all equal - and the more trouble I can save these mentees, the better chances are they’ll make something great - that I might find myself using soon!
What’s your best advice for new mentors out there?
You’re not out to make mini yous. That is, do not try to force the mentee to be a replicant of you. Instead, be empathetic - listen to their issues, their challenges, explain what you’d do if it were YOU - but then help and support them as they make the decisions themselves. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to be there after they fail, not with an “I told you so” but with the full context of their journey - so you can help them make sense of it and learn from it.
What is the most crucial skill to learn for people entering the tech industry?
Reading and documenting. First, read more. Read the manual. Follow along. Second, write more documentation. If people didn’t do that, you couldn’t learn. But in addition, when you document something you get two benefits: you learn the thing inside and out and you don’t have to remember what you document as well - you can always go back and reread it. You only have so much bandwidth and memory, so documentation can put some of your knowledge into “cold storage.”
Who is your ideal mentee?
Anyone who wants to take it as serious - or more serious - than I do. Someone that understands that a mentor is helping you, so the mentee has to bend to their schedule. A mentee that has aspirations to pass on the knowledge they gain to others. A programmer who builds the next billion dollar unicorn and then decides they want to buy me a new house for all the help I gave them.
And to wrap things up, where can we find out more about you and your work?
I’ve written over 500 technical and business entries over the last decade at aaronsaray.com. In addition, my mentoring is not just limited to developers - I work with engineering managers as well at thedevmanager.com.