Written by Chris Hammerschmidt Jan. 2, 2023
I learned the importance of mentorship firsthand. Both academia and start-ups force you to balance individual creativity and broad contextual awareness. That’s really tricky to do, especially without feedback. Mentors provide input that can put you on the right track… but without it, you can wind up a bit lost. After being in a position where my mentors weren’t helping me make progress, I found myself seeking out guidance in new, unconventional places. By trying to find what I was missing, I learned a lot about the type of mentoring that is most helpful for someone looking to innovate.
From students, graduate students, and later employees, mentoring became part of my daily life. Mentorcruise has let me get in touch with an even wider range of smart people working broadly in a variety of computer science roles. The diversity of challenges my mentees bring with them has enriched my own intellectual life. I especially enjoy when I can provide nuanced perspectives or insights my mentees didn’t realize they needed to consider.
Since then, my career has been about independently identifying and solving industry challenges – a process that has a lot in common with the rigorous but self-directed research I did in research. This drive to keep independently solving challenges is what still motivates me as an entrepreneur.
Which problems and topics do you usually cover during your mentorships?While I’ve had a couple of early career mentees with questions about data science projects and interview processes, most of my mentees are fairly established mid-career software engineers, data scientists, and machine learning engineers. Their goal is to become a better more well-rounded individual IC that can take charge of
Some questions I’ve addressed repeatedly are for example: How can I gain more confidence in my knowledge of the status quo of research in a particular field? How do I approach working with cutting-edge models that haven’t made it into easy-to-use libraries? How do I structure my own research and experimentation process? How do I communicate my results and my confidence in my output in face of uncertainty and an incomplete picture to stakeholders relying on me?
Mentorship is continuous and iterative progress that adapts to the mentee’s needs. I like to start mentorships by first just getting to know each other a little and seeing if there’s a connection. Once we’ve both decided to work together, I work with mentees to set up fixed monthly calls.
Generally, we set up two regular appointments each month. During our first call(s), we come up with a plan: What are the mentee’s goals? Priorities? Motivation? What type of support is most effective for them in their unique situation? In the following calls, we work together following the plan we’ve made.
Between the calls, we use the chat for asynchronous support and accountability. I share links to articles or resources related to our last conversation, or I answer shorter questions mentees send to me as they pop up during their work. We work iteratively and keep refining the steps we’ve identified for the mentee to reach their ultimate goal. For example, we might decide to take a deeper look at something we weren’t expecting to talk about. Or, we might decide that technical details we originally thought might be important aren’t essential after all. What matters most is that we keep the mentee’s goals in sight and respond flexibly to inevitable bumps along the road.
Most of my mentees are software engineers or data scientists. Mentees always manage to bring me questions and challenges that enrich my own intellectual or professional life. Sometimes, that’s because they make me a research paper I haven’t considered in a few years or to spend some time thinking about how to apply a familiar solution to a novel situation. Because my mentees’ particular topics are so diverse, their questions often encourage me to think more deeply about topics I otherwise would not spend much time with.
But beyond that, it is enriching because I really enjoy being able to pay forward, so to speak, the benefits my own mentors gifted to me. Both research and start-ups are fields that heavily rely on mentorship and guidance. No matter how much you’ve read or how many classes you’ve taken, there’s no substitute for a good mentor. Having benefited from the time and thoughtfulness of my own mentors while I was starting out, I really enjoy seeing when my experience provides those same benefits to a new generation.
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