Mentorship in QA and Software Development

Mentorship programs in software delivery teams are consistently re-invented as they react to the cries of those who complain that they are not receiving the challenge and mentoring they should be getting. Companies struggle to bridge the gap between employee morale and shipping the products that support the bottom line. Why is mentorship so difficult to get right?

First, I am a big fan of mentorship programs. I think that people grow most effectively when they are guided by someone that can skillfully redirect their good effort and energy in a direction that is best for them, even if this direction is not understood or outright disagreeable.

If you see mentorship programs in a potentially positive light, skip the next paragraph. If you are reading to solve a current mentorship problem you are having, or if you’re considering overhauling your corporate mentorship program, this article will help you only if you are willing to take your self out of the equation and look at your past decisions as the best you could do at the time and now there may be an opportunity to look at a mentorship program as not about you per se but more as a relationship between the people in your company with each other.

If you are sour on mentorship programs, fair enough. I think that this article can at the very least bubble some questions to the surface for you. My style is to directly question your assumptions and decisions as a manager and to consider that you yourself may be screwing things up and not other people. My style is to look at your (my) direct influence on the problems that you (I) perceive in the world and ask how you (I) in fact create them. I would ask that you question whether you are sour on mentorship programs themselves (have you ever been positively mentored?) or if you are sour on poorly-implemented programs that resulted in some sort of badness. In other words – are you confusing the teaching process itself with the color of your own life experience, or can you separate your (in this case, negative) experience from the possibility that true mentorship can exist if implemented correctly? You may have just never seen it. You might acknowledge that the black swan may still exist, just perhaps not where you’ve been in your experience of the world.

My hypothesis on the reason that mentorship programs by and large succeed for a fortunate few and fail in some way for a vast majority is that mentorship programs are being used to solve problems they were not designed to remedy. This article will look at the intention of mentorship programs, the pre-requisites that feed the program, the problem that mentorship solves, and the problems that mentorship will not solve.

Intention of Mentorship

The real intention of mentorship is lastly skills enrichment and primarily a deep individual growth in an apprenticed individual in the context of a skilled trade.

In a historical goods and services sense, the intention of mentorship would be direct labor and management skills (learning blacksmithing skills as well as slowly learning how to run a smithery in a small town.) Traditional apprenticeship was rather straightforward – your decision to take on a trade was usually made at a young age—often a product of the family trade—and the commitment was often a lifelong decision to hone the skill set to a degree of mastery that would earn a wage capable of supporting property and family. This is not necessarily the case today in software development.

In academia, mentorship is intended to expand subject matter knowledge and force a deeper questioning of the status quo of the state of the art. Academic mentorship involves a well-formed professor-student relationship that assumes a desire of specific subject-matter research and a specific well-formed contribution to the subject matter required as a criteria of graduation with a degree. The thesis and subsequent defense proves a candidate’s successful upholding of both the subject matter and the prestige of the institution granting the degree. This process is familiar to nearly all engineers and managers working in software development, as such a degree is a pre-requisite to employment.

In modern software development, mentorship is intended to encompass coding skill, technological knowledge and application, and management techniques. The recipient of mentorship is the mentee, and the giver of the mentorship is the mentor. The mentee is expected to deliver working software products to support the given business while at the very least keeping their skills up to date and at the most advancing their industry knowledge and skill set to be able to grow larger than their job title to take on more responsibility within the company. Mentors in a software development context must possess a track record of solid delivery of quality product as well as ownership of a certain level of maturity in order to know when to provide the answer and when to let the student struggle with a question.

So what is mentorship?

What is Mentorship

Mentorship is the upholding of an agreement between teacher and pupil as to the giving and taking that each will contribute toward the goal of building more effective skills in the mentee. This agreement is an acknowledgment of the need for a person’s advancement in a field of study to benefit the company.

Mentorship for a mentor is a contract for a teacher to provide time and effort to ascertain a students capability, build a learning program, facilitate teaching, follow-up and adjust based on results, and to advise on the student’s progress in a measurable way. A mentor must clearly evaluate and commit to this contract before taking on a mentee. A mentor often adjust the effort they put forth into the contract as a positive >1 multiple of the mentee’s time and effort investment.

Mentorship for a mentee is an agreement to honor the mentor’s time and effort by putting in the time above and beyond their workload to read, research, respond, and otherwise engage their mentor in the challenges they are given. A mentee is expected to own their mentorship in their skill. A mentee is expected to emotionally and intellectually own their participation and measure where they are succeeding and failing in putting in the time and contemplation required for them to grow. A successful mentee can be measured by their persistence of effort decoupled from results. A failing mentee can be measured by their pessimism or complaining.

Three Degrees of Mentorship

Mentorship requires mentors that can size up a candidate’s maturity in three areas:

  1. Maturity in their physical work environment,
  2. Maturity of emotional ownership of the state of their own life career, and
  3. Maturity in their intellectual grasp of the subject matter.

Pre-requisites of Mentorship

A good mentor will be able to size up their students on a measurable scale on each degree and engage them appropriately and compassionately (that is to say: bereft of punishment, and rich in redirection and self-reflection.)

Each degree of mentorship is not necessarily tightly coupled to another, although a mentor may believe they are. A good mentor can separate themselves from their results and acknowledge that good results can come about as a function of methods and work styles that differ from their own. A good mentor can self-rate themselves on each degree and see their built-in assumptions and beliefs about themselves and see this is as a limitation in their mentorship. A good mentor asks for feedback often from those that have what they want.

Receiving mentorship as a mentee requires that one can remove all chips from their shoulders and set their self image to the side. This is a huge challenge for most people and impossible for some. If you have ever set a goal and then rationalized your way out of it, this is a struggle for you. (This is a struggle for the author – don’t feel bad about having limitations.) Knowing that this is a challenge for yourself and discussing the particulars with your mentor leads you on the path to a valuable and more intimate relationship with your mentor. As a mentee, it is valuable for you to be able to accurately self evaluate yourself on the same degrees of mentorship as a good mentor.

A mentee has the additional responsibility to think about why they want mentorship or believe they need mentorship. A self evaluation of asking why a person believes they want or need mentorship is vital to the successful engagement of a mentor. If they are going for something they do not in reality need but believe they do, then the contract will be inked under false pretenses. Clarify upon the initiation of a mentor-mentee relationship is vital to success, and probing deeply into assumptions at this early stage will either drive a mentee back into their ego or open up areas of improvement that the mentee can engage on.

What Problem does Mentorship Solve?

Mentorship encourages staying competitive.  The problem mentorship solves is not so much an existing deficit in capability, but more of a proactive hedge against the erosion of mental engagement and problem solving desire/capability.

When individuals remain competitive, the company’s ability to adapt itself to a changing competitive landscape is greatly increased. A company that is built to last is an interdependent function of its people and far less so a function of its management style or executive staff. Companies that have focused on a strong command-and-control model have historically grown to great size and, like a weather balloon, exploded at a critical mass and fall back to earth to have its pieces picked up by scavengers.

Bad mentorship reacts to misdirected employees believing they are entitled to exterior challenge. This is ultimately a model of a child demanding entertainment in place of an inner drive to discover and build. A good mentee will be already demonstrating a fervent drive to learn and grow themselves. A good mentor will be on the lookout for good potential mentees and naturally engaging them when they are themselves engaged. Do not be fooled: a good mentee is not a linear product of intellect or success. Entitlement grows deep in both the bright and the satisfied. The key to mentorship is maturity and the accurate assessment of why both parties are entering into the mentorship contract.

Trying to mentor a person who insists they need mentorship for the sake of mentorship or satisfaction will inevitably fail. It is the responsibility of mature leadership to recognize and grow their teams first emotionally, be encouraging and set an example physically (show up on time etc), and lastly focus on skills building. A confused mentee will have this value set reversed.

Effective QA Mentoring Checklist

A good QA Lead/Manager will be able to self-evaluate themselves on the following checklist.  The spirit of the self-evaluation is looking at them with the mindset of thoughtfully responding to the questions, starting conversations around these questions with people they respect in the company (and perhaps outside the company where external coaching is desired,) and to be themselves open to feedback.

These list items lend themselves primarily to self-evaluation and secondarily to a pensive mulling of how these questions relate to the person you are thinking about mentoring or to whom or what team you are already providing guidance.

  • Why do I choose every day to be a QA Lead/Manager/Engineer on this team?
  • What value to I bring to my current role and how does mentorship support that role?
  • What are the limitations and advantages to building software in this company?
  • What career path do I want and how does mentorship support it?
  • What is the nature of the community of software development I want to build?
  • In what areas am I capable of mentoring and where am I weak?
  • How do I define QA Lead, QA Manager, QA Engineer, and why?
  • What do I expect of the QA positions on my team?
  • Do I have the right people doing the right jobs and do they know this?
  • Am I being fair and patient in my self-assessment and the assessment of my team?
  • How do I break down testing approaches and why?
  • How do I break down testing types and why?
  • What are my beliefs about the differences and application of QC and QA?
  • What are my technical abilities and disabilities?
  • What beliefs or prejudices do I have about my industry and QA that may limit me?

The theme throughout this checklist is the mantra “you’ll get to where you’re headed.” Am I being honest with where I am today, how I got to where I am today, why I am here today, and the difference between how things are going for me today compared to where I want my QA career to be.

The overwhelming color of this article is questioning mentorship and doing it right in order to build an inner honesty with yourself first in order to (secondly) build a team that has a stronger integrity. Many go about it backwards – as Jeremy Piven said in Politically Correct University about wearing the t-shirt of the band you’re about to see, “don’t be that guy.”

Jeremy Piven in PCU, Dont be that guy.

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