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.
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.
In following posts I'll be exploring things like different types of mentorship, activities that could be performed by mentors and mentees, criteria for choosing a mentor and a mentee, public recognition, professional reputation, graduation, mentorship duration, how this could change our industry and a few other points. Watch this space.