Mentoring testers

I have a few follow ups to my last post. Adam Goucher, who incidentally has a great blog of his own) emailed a few questions and told me it was ok to answer here if I thought the info could be interesting to a larger audience. I can't guarantee that the "larger audience" cares, but I like inspirations, so here goes.

I have been mentoring testers for about eight years. The first few years, my mentoring activities were primarily technical. For example, I would give advice on how to learn more about testing (focusing equally on reading, practicing, and thinking). Over the last few years, my mentoring sessions have leaned more toward general career growth as a tester. The progression makes sense to me. Newer testers generally need more technical information to advance their career. These days, I typically have mentor relationships with more senior testers who already have most of the technical stuff figured out.

Here's the one rule you need to follow for a successful mentoring relationship. This is important, and if you forget it, neither the mentor or the mentee (the person being mentored) is going to get what they need from the relationship.

The mentee is in charge of the relationship.

Notice that I didn't say "allow the mentee to be in charge", or "the mentee is in charge of scheduling the meetings". What this means, is that the relationship is for the person being mentored. They should have goals they want to achieve with the relationship, and share those in the first meeting. They should have questions or an agenda ready at each meeting. They should continue to share with their mentor what they expect to get out of the relationship and work toward those goals together. It may help to write them down, or at least make a goal of working on them during the mentoring sessions.

In his email to me, Adam mentioned that he often parallels coaching sports with mentoring, and while I haven't thought of it before, it's a great analogy. I knew a guy who used to work with Sonic players. I guess he was sort of a basketball mentor. Sometimes he had to spend some time making sure weaknesses were addressed, but most of his efforts were concentrated on helping the players improve their strengths. He was quick and effective. He just gave the players minor corrections and adjustments, and didn't try to do too much too fast.

Good mentoring is quite similar. Like my friend the basketball mentor, I'm usually pretty good at figuring out what peoples strengths and weaknesses are quickly (another reason why I am doing the screening, or informational interview for our open position mentioned in the last post). Once I know a bit about someone, I usually try to give them advice that helps round them out - addressing their weaknesses enough so they are not a hindrance, and helping them develop their strengths through whatever advice or direction I can send them in. I don't always have something for them either - often, I just connect them with someone else who can address whatever they need better than I can (I guess this would be like sending Shaq to a free throw specialist!). The key is to mentor according to what the mentee needs.

As a mentor, my approach is often ad-hoc, but I do always take time to prepare for my mentoring sessions. I usually take 15-20 minutes before a session to refer to notes from previous meetings and I try to think of some advice before we meet. I may not use the advice, but it helps me focus on having a productive meeting.

This post is a bit rambling, so let me summarize my tips on a successful test mentoring relationship.

  1. The mentee is in charge of the relationship
  2. Have goals
  3. Prepare for the mentoring sessions

The rest will work itself out.

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