I mentor people, because I want to give them the opportunities I didn’t have.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is Each for equal (#EachForEqual). Related to this theme, I wanted to share my experience in the technology industry in volunteering my time to mentor people in marginalised groups, as well as offering mentoring for a small price, and my dedication to knowledge sharing and giving back to the community.

A beach at low tide with some small boats close to shore. In the foreground is some greenery slightly obstructing the view
A photo I took in Ettalong this week, while at Devcamp (a company off-site conference I organised)

My slow journey as an engineer with impostor syndrome

I was about five years into my career as an engineer when I watched people around me grow so much faster than me. I saw other people get opportunities that I could only dream of getting. They were offered roles at bigger, more influential companies. They did work and projects that made them more visible in the public eye. I saw some of them start with fewer skills than me, and then skyrocket to becoming far better developers than me. Although I was not in such a bad place myself, I felt so behind.

I constantly compared my journey to other people’s journeys. When I got better at something, it was so hard for me to see it until someone pointed it out and recognised my efforts. I put myself down a lot, often completely unaware of my own growth until someone told me to look back and have a look at something I did six months ago, or a year ago.

I wanted to talk to someone about their experience, but I didn’t know who, and how. I wanted to look up to someone who had a similar skill set to me, and see the work someone else had done, and I found a few people, but some of them were so incredibly out of reach. I didn’t know them at all personally, and I just saw their work online or their presentations at various meetups. I really admired them.

I did not understand mentoring until I started doing it myself.

I vaguely remember listening to a talk about finding a mentor, or even just having people in your workplace to look up to. If I remember correctly, the person delivering the talk suggested said that to find a mentor, you sometimes had to ask.

I was too afraid to ask anybody. Instead, I just waited in case someone was actually offering to be a mentor. When there was, I asked someone, but they politely declined because my goals and what I needed didn’t seem like a good fit for them. It got me down a bit because I didn’t know what to do from there.

It honestly wasn’t until I started mentoring people myself that I truly understood how important the connection is between a mentor and mentee. I feel like I can explain mentoring and mentor figures now that I’m in a better position to be one, and have had experience mentoring people. But to get here, it took me time to recognise my impostor syndrome and find the confidence in myself.

Hour of Code: Teaching kids how to code

We ran a few sessions at Campaign Monitor for Hour of Code, where children from primary schools and high schools came to our office to learn about the technology industry, what programming/coding was, and to have a go at it. We would start with a presentation and show them that using and liking computers was for all genders, and show marginalised folks (women and people of colour) doing cool things with technology.

I chose to take part because I remember when Lilian and I were the only two girls in our computer class in school, and I really wanted the opportunity to show young girls that they could have a future with computers too. I knew that getting children to understand stereotypes had to be done at a young age, long before young girls decide that they can’t use computers because there are too many boys in that space. I wanted them to feel supported the way that I never did when I was younger. I always had the greatest support from my parents, but it was so easy to feel alone when you were in a minority.

I found the experience wonderful. Each of the volunteering engineers paired up with one or two children, and walked them through small activities on code.org that helped them build their own game with computer commands represented with graphical UI. The children were so smart; they recognised patterns, conditional scenarios, and bugs very quickly. They gained basic understanding of loops and if/else statements through the activities, often going on without my help. We saw them take risks and make mistakes themselves, and correct themselves after they realised they were stuck or made an error. I enjoyed watching them learn and enjoy the entire experience.

Starting codebar Sydney

I met my friend Charlotte at a MusesCodeJS event (back then it was Nodegirls) in 2017. I was actually there to learn. The group was split into beginner and advanced activities, and I remember seeing Kris Howard there, and expressed my fear of going into the advanced group. I said I didn’t know any JavaScript and she convinced me that I was definitely knowledgable enough to do the advanced activity. She was convinced I would even be good enough to assist in mentoring, but I was definitely terrified of that. After doing the workshop felt genuinely surprised that I was able to do it – I felt that I knew no JavaScript at all.

Charlotte mentioned that she had started codebar Brighton, and said she planned to start a Sydney chapter soon, but just needed some volunteers, so she invited me to join. Even though I was definitely in favour of helping people learn how to code, my ears honestly perked up at the notion of organising an event rather than the reason behind it. I got behind it all and soon found that I wanted to mentor people just as much as I wanted to give students the safe space and opportunity to learn.

codebar is dedicated to teaching programming and coding to people in marginalised groups, and our mentors are all volunteers from the community. It was through some of our students at codebar that I saw the same struggle and doubt I experienced early on in my career, but now I had the chance to show them the way. Many of these students have been incredibly passionate about learning how to code, some of them of a mature age, and others wanting to transition into technology from a completely unrelated working background.

I cannot deny that these students come to codebar with a real desire and motivation for progress. Myself and the other organisers (Phuong, Geoff and Mike – Charlotte stepped down a little over a year ago) are constantly thanked for organising the event, and although we see students walk in nervously, not knowing a single person or a single thing about code, they walk away feeling like they have accomplished something great. At the end of the day, it’s not about us or the other mentors. It’s about the students taking action to reach their goals and the fact that we have given them the space and confidence to do so.

Believing in the next generation of programmers and developers

I spent a huge portion of my career avoiding technologies like JavaScript, that I was expected to use and understand in order to skill up in front-end engineering. I’m considered a senior now (this still scares me… a lot), but two years ago I probably couldn’t tell you a const from a let. I’ve been in the industry since 2011 and I’ve had small spikes in my growth as well as extremely long plateaus. No growth is linear.

During the time I avoided JavaScript, I saw my “potential career path” move further and further away from me. I looked at job descriptions and decided I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have the motivation or desire to learn JavaScript because every time I tried, I felt like I fell down again. I lost patience. I stuck to what I was good at, but even my confidence in what I was good at began to dwindle because I lacked the support I needed.

In this day and age, I’m seeing so many companies seek senior developers and engineers and take no interest in juniors. There’s a large amount of memes about requiring “ten years experience in React” when React didn’t even exist that long ago. There are jokes about job requirements containing everything to do with front-end development but that you couldn’t possibly be an expert in all of them. These kinds of things scare less experienced developers and make them feel like there isn’t a future out there for them. And I really relate to that.

Communities have become increasingly more supportive of people who are new to coding or are less experienced, because the truth is that the industry just isn’t that kind. But people in the community care. Events like DDD Sydney created a junior developer track to inspire and feature developers who fit into this description. I took the opportunity to speak at this event to reach out to those people, and I couldn’t be more proud of them. We have to remember that more experienced developers don’t just get pulled out of thin air. They have to start somewhere and they have to grow from some point.

While I’m certain a lot of stubborn people will disagree with me, you have no idea how much potential junior developers have until you see them work, give a presentation, or put themselves out there. They are the future developers of everything we build today. That passion and those skills are only going to help them grow into the developers they will be tomorrow.

I know what it’s like to be in their shoes: feeling intimidated, unsure of myself, scared of the world out there, overwhelmed by all there is to learn. They have potential. But they don’t need someone to hold their hand all the time. They just need support.

Using MentorCruise to mentor people

Dominic, founder of MentorCruise, invited me to join the platform a couple of years ago and set up a profile on the website. MentorCruise was new, and although I was open to mentoring people, I didn’t prioritise his request, so he reached out to me again after I didn’t take any action. Eventually I created a profile on the site. I already dedicate some time to mentoring for free, so I chose to put a small and reasonable price since I was making myself even more available on this separate platform.

I am glad Dom pushed me along, because I have been in touch with some mentees and helped them feel more sure about themselves and less confused about the world out there. As someone who struggles with impostor syndrome, it’s helped me realise that I have knowledge and experience that can help others who are in places where I once stood.

When I started mentoring Tom, he said he knew “some” HTML and CSS. He practiced rebuilding the existing Twitter UI to understand naming conventions and I was so impressed with his work. He improved his skills within a matter of months, and even started a blog to document his learnings. I remember chatting to him about how he felt about his progress and I had to remind him that just six months earlier he probably wouldn’t be confident enough to do what he was able to do now.

The best thing about mentoring is seeing people achieve their potential.

When you mentor someone, you often see rapid progress that you didn’t see in yourself. When you’re working on something on your own, chipping away at things, trying to learn things you have no idea about, you often forget to look back. And looking back doesn’t seem like it helps much because you have your own bias and tendency to focus on what you didn’t know, rather than what you did know or had learned. I feel like I’m the kind of person to need recognition, and need someone to remind me what I’ve done, otherwise I get lost in my own flaws and I forget the things I’ve achieved. But in a way, I think we’re all like that. We all need to celebrate the tiny wins.

When I think about the motivation people usually have to help others, there seems to always be a “selfish” reason, and some kind of gain to be made from doing it. In the past, I definitely thought that mentoring people might make me more visible in the community, I could earn a little extra coin, or show off my work. But I’ve realised that I care less about that, and myself, and more about the people. By giving these people my time and knowledge I’ve been able to help them grow.

Seeing people grow feels somewhat rewarding when I’ve helped them with part of their journey. But I didn’t do much. What I see is that it was their perseverance and hard work that got them there. And that is what really makes me proud of them.

This post was written for International Women’s Day, on the 8th March this year. The theme was EachForEqual and I chose to write about my mentoring experience, because what drives me to continue doing it is seeing other people realise their potential. I want to give back to people who have the same struggles that I dealt with, especially people in marginalised groups, because they deserve to be given the same opportunities as anyone else.

Other posts I’ve written for International Women’s Day:

  • 2019: There is nothing surprising about a woman in tech
  • 2018: I can wear whatever the hell I want, and no matter what you say, I’m still an engineer
  • 2017: Passion is immeasurable
  • 2016: Women don’t think they’re better than anyone. They just want to be respected

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Comments on this post

This was such a wonderful post to read. My imposter syndrome has really hit me hard over the last couple of weeks thanks to a few awkward situations with clients. It’s so easy to beat yourself up for not knowing how to do something that has been asked of you and to forget that despite not knowing that one thing, you still know a hell of a lot.

Depsite having been coding for 12 years now, I feel like I could really do with a mentor or at least someone with more experience than me to tell me I’m doing ok. One of my collegues at my previous job was great at doing this, but now I’m self-employed, I don’t have any support like this.

I’d also like to get into mentoring other people, especially given my “interesting” journey into web development. I think I definitely have something to give, I just need to find some opportunities to do so.

I can totally relate to you saying that your growth hasn’t been linear. I remember when I first started working as a developer and I felt like I was learning so much every day. Then it slowly ground to halt and I felt like I was slipping behind. I honestly thought I’d be stuck in that job forever because I wasn’t moving forward, and I didn’t have the energy to develop my skills outside of work. Then I left my job and I started investing more time into my education again, mainly because business was slow in those early days.

It’s slowing down again now because my workload is so heavy, and I’m struggling to find to work “on” my business as well as work “in” my business. But I guess even when I’m working on client’s projects I’m still learning, just not at the same rate I am when I make time to learn.

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I’ve never tried mentoring myself (and I’m SO not knowledgeable enough to), but also never had a mentor.

However, it does seem like it would be great for the person and the mentor. You should be proud!

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