Being a mentor

Before I start, just to clarify, I am using the word “mentor” above in its generic sense, nothing to do with the name of my employers. The meaning I have in mind is akin to the dictionary definition: “A wise and trusted guide and advisor”.

A while ago, I stumbled across an advertisement from my local college, which was headed “Mentors Wanted”. It went to explain that they needed people out in the Real World to buddy with students. This college primarily serves 16-18 year olds, who are quite likely to be going on to university. Both my own daughters attended there, so I knew something about the place and I decided that I might have a contribution to make. So I responded to the advert …

I went along to a meeting and they explained that the group of students were doing a marketing/business qualification, which would be their entrée into university. [Similar to UK A-levels, but with strong coursework element.] They were after people, who had some experience of the business world, to establish one-to-one mentoring relationship with the students. The broad idea was to give them someone to talk to and from whom to get advice, who was neither a parent nor an academic. I signed up. The commitment was not too onerous – we were encouraged to meet about twice a term; i.e. around 6 times in an academic year.

Frankly, I got lucky. My “mentoree” was smart, motivated and knew where he was going. He was confident in getting good enough grades and exceeded his own expectations as it turned out. When we were discussing his application to university, I asked him which places he was applying for. He said London School of Economics. I commented that this was ambitious and they would need very good grades [LSE is one of the best business schools in the country] and asked what his backup choice was. He was so confident that he did not have a backup. I was a little nervous about this, but his confidence paid off and he received an unconditional offer from LSE.

I often wondered how much value I added in my role as a mentor, but my student reassured me that he had been pleased with my advice and had learned a lot from our long, rambling lunchtime conversations.

I realize that mentoring is something that I would do naturally. If I have a colleague, who has less experience/knowledge, I am more than willing to help – as long as they are willing to listen and learn. I look back on my career and can see a number of situations where I have been an informal mentor. In one case, way back in the 1980s, working with one guy inspired me to write my first book [about embedded software, of course].

I would encourage anyone who has amassed experience – whether technical, business or just life – to do their best to share their experiences. The process works both ways. The teacher always learns from the student, so it is a win-win.

In writing this, I started thinking about the Mentor Graphics name and remembered a funny story about it. Back in the 1990s, when I first came into the company, as a result of an acquisition, the Internet domain name was mentorg.com. This was a bit messy – I have no idea why they did not use mentorgraphics.com, which I believe was owned at the time and still is. The more obvious mentor.com was owned by another company. There was talk that the acquisition of that company was under consideration, just to get the domain name. This caused some excitement, as the other Mentor sold sex aids and contraceptives. There is nothing like diversification …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2010/06/17/being-a-mentor/