By James Bach
A mentor is a person who acts as guide and adviser to another person, esp. one who is younger and less experienced. (A student is the person being mentored. Often people prefer other words than student, such as mentee, or protégé. As a high school dropout, I am a lifelong student— and particularly I am a student of the craft of testing, so I prefer that word. Mentee sounds like a candy, to me. Protégé sounds like a Bond villain.)
This is a short guide for mentors, to set expectations for casual mentoring. By casual mentoring, we’re speaking of the least demanding form of mentoring, which can be crudely summarized as being available. Casual mentoring can grow into something more demanding and explicitly structured than that, but if so that is a matter to be worked out between the parties involved.
Your responsibilities as a mentor look simple:
- Make yourself easy to approach for advice, and periodically check-in with your student.
- Respond helpfully to questions about work.
- Take an interest in the success of your student.
- Preserve the confidentiality of sensitive communication.
In practice this is not simple, because mentoring is mostly a working relationship. As in any relationship, the personalities, motivation, expectations, and aspirations of each side must mesh well for mentorship to succeed.
It may help to consider what your responsibilities do not include:
- You are not required to be available 24/7.
- You are not required to disrupt your work or family life to help your student.
- You are not required to do any of your student’s work.
- You are not required to tell your student what to do.
- You are not a guarantor of the quality of your student’s work.
- You are not your student’s manager.
- You are not required to train your student.
- You are not required to tolerate abuse from your student.
The responsibilities of a student mirror those of the mentor:
- Be respectful and friendly, and periodically check-in with you.
- Be resourceful, and ask thoughtful questions when they arise.
- Listen well, take your advice seriously, and take responsibility for their own success.
- In conversations with you, preserve the confidentiality of their employer.
And the student’s responsibilities also have limits:
- Your student is not required to follow your advice— only to listen and consider.
You can work a mentoring relationship in different ways. It’s really up to you and your student how you want to interact. But no matter how you do it, the overall goal of this mentoring is the same: not to create a good follower, but to help your student become powerful and confident in their work; to move toward becoming a leader in their own right; to move toward becoming your peer.
When you are assigned a student, don’t wait for them to contact you. Get in touch right away. Introduce yourself. Bear in mind that it is probably intimidating for the student to approach you, at first. So, break the ice.
Some people put explicit structure around a mentoring relationship. For others, they keep it informal. This is up to you. If your student does not check in with you, then you should check in with them, say, every week or two.
Example Mentoring Situations
- Your student asks you over email what the difference is between “sanity testing” and “smoke testing.”
- Do not say “I don’t have time for stupid questions.” (Even if you think it is a stupid question, a better response might be “Try Googling that and tell me what you come up with, then I’ll give you my opinion.”)
- You could, of course, just answer the question, but acting as a human encyclopedia of testing terms may not be the best way to help your student become self-sufficient.
- Your student asks you about GUI test automation, and you tell him “GUI test automation is a classic waste of time.” Then he comes back and tells you that his manager is demanding that he do it anyway.
- You could find out more about the context, then tell him honestly what you would do in that situation. Maybe that would be to refuse to do the automation. That could be okay, but remind him that it is his decision and his risk to take, not yours.
- You could help him understand better what the manager might be thinking, and how to talk to the manager so that he listens.
- You could refer your student to useful reference articles about this.
- You could advise your student to go ahead with the automation, even as you tell him you think it’s likely to fail as a test strategy, because that way he will gain his own experience of how hard it is to create and maintain that sort of tooling. Forewarned is forearmed.
- Your student won’t talk to you, or says very little.
- It takes two to make mentoring work. Perhaps it’s not a good match. All we can ask is for you to give it a reasonable effort, and do what you can to be approachable.