Demystifying Mentoring

I just found the article “Demystifing Mentring” from Amy Gallo on the Harvard Business Review. She points out the following “myths” about mentoring and follows up with some useful do’s and don’ts. Here’s my thoughts on her Myths.

Myth #1: You have to find one perfect mentor

I agree, this one’s a myth! You will find that you many have different mentors as you progress through your career, or you many have one mentor who helps you with some aspect of your development and a different mentor for another aspect. For example, you might have one person who works with you advise you on how to navigate the personalities you work with. You might want to talk to someone outside your organization for advice about your next career move.

Myth #2: Mentoring is a formal long-term relationship

I have mixed feelings about this one. I agree that it doesn’t have to be formal (and I prefer both mentors and apprentice relationships to be casual and friendly) but I do feel that my most significant relationships have been over a long term. If your mentor does not know you well, they’re just providing advice. This isn’t a bad thing, I just see mentorship as going deeper.

Myth #3: Mentoring is for junior people

Yep, I agree it’s a myth.  I seek out mentors in areas where I need to grow, and I am happy to help people who are either older or more experienced than I am in areas where i have something to offer them.

Myth #4: Mentoring is something more experienced people do out of the goodness of their hearts

Again, this one is mixed. I am partly motivated to provide help to people because I believe in the value of Interaction Design and I want to see more people have success in their own practice. That’s a somewhat altruistic motivation. At the same time, my experience has been that I get as much as I give when I mentor people. It’s a huge source of satisfaction for me when someone acquires a new skill they wanted to gain, or when they land that dream job that they felt was out of reach. Pure gold!

And, what do you think?


Let’s talk about apprenticeship at IxDA’11

If you’re going to the Interaction Design Association conference, Interactions ’11, I’d love to meet you!

[posted to the event board]

I’d like to talk to people interested in the subject of apprenticeship and the craft of Interaction Design. Our field is both wide and deep. Even after you gain enough skills to get started, it’s a lifelong journey to explore new areas and become better at what you do.

I believe that we can help each other be better practitioners by providing supportive work situations and by developing professional relationships with more advanced practitioners in the field.

I consider myself both a teacher and a student. I’ve been a mentor to several interaction designers over the past year. I just started a program of study in graphic design. I started a blog on the subject to write about my experiences

Please let me know if you’d like to get together and share stories!

How do we grow the next generation of UX talent?

The Shillington School offers learning through theory and hands-on experience working from briefs under real-world timelines. The founder, Andrew Shillington, observed that it was hard to hire people with all skills necessary to be productive in an ad agency.

“As an employer, Andrew sought to hire talented young graphic design graduates but found it increasingly difficult to find those with high-end computer skills, a practical knowledge of design theory and could meet challenging deadlines. It soon became apparent that students leaving schools and universities were not adequately trained in today’s world of computers and design software. And so Shillington School was born.”

I’ve observed the same situation in the UX field. There’s often a mismatch between academic programs and the demands of employment. As an employer of interaction designers, I’ve had difficulty finding people who have a work-ready skill set right out of school. Most often, it takes a couple years working in a professional environment before someone picks up the necessary combination of design thinking skills, tools use, collaboration and facilitation skills, client interaction and project management, and general knowledge of how the business world works. When evaluating an applicant, I want to see their process and approach as well as finished work. Most junior level jobs only expose someone to pieces of a project, and don’t provide opportunities to experience the end-to-end process of finding insight, creating a concept, constructing a prototype or other artifact and validating that with actual users. It’s even less common that someone’s had that chance to do that work as part of a collaborative balanced team.

How can we create work that’s appropriate for a new interaction designer as they gain the full compliment of skills? In an agency setting, it’s possible to partner a less-experienced designer with a more experienced design partner. I’ve seen this work well, however an agency can only take on a limited number of new people in this way. It doesn’t help the individual practitioner who wants to work in-house, or start his or her own company.

What if we could treat apprenticeship as a form of entrepreneurial exercise? The apprentice creates a portfolio piece that follows an idea from research and concept identification to visualization and validation. With that as a basis, we’d just have to figure out how to extend that individual practice into an ability to participate as a part of cross-functional team. Ideally, we could create cross-functional teams and mentor THEM, but would that still be considered apprenticeship, or an incubator?

Boon Chew on “why we need UX apprenticeships”

While I was in London a few weeks ago, I had an excellent chat (in an excellent pub) with Ian Fenn @ifenn and Boon Yew Chew @jaremfan about the importance of mentor/apprentice relationships. We’re all exploring these issues in our own practice, so it was a real pleasure to talk to other people who are thinking along the same lines. That conversation was really the genesis of this blog (thanks guys!)

I scribbled a bunch of notes on a napkin which I have not written up yet, but I do want to add a link to an excellent article Boon wrote on the subject, “Why we need UX apprenticeships.I think he’s spot on when he says…

Broadly speaking, there are three main issues that practitioners and the industry is experiencing right now:

  • The huge gap between research and practice
  • Challenges faced by junior and non-UX practitioners seeking to gain employment in UX
  • Difficulty for employers to find UX candidates who can articulate and present good design thinking”

Are mentors outdated?

In a recent Harvard Business Review post, Priscilla Claman writes that the “career strategy of hitching your future to some rising manager is rapidly becoming outdated” because “senior-level managers are no longer the ones with stable jobs.” Instead, she recommends that you form a personal board of directors who can provide a variety of perspectives. She advises that “The people on your board of directors should know more than you about something, be better than you are at something, or offer different points of view.”

I don’t think that mentors are defunct, however I do think the role of mentor has to change to keep up with the times. The structure of work has changed, and we can no longer expect a lifetime career with a single company. It’s much more common that people consider themselves free agents who work with a company for long enough to complete a project, or learn a new skill, and then move on. I’ve often heard people complain that it’s no longer possible to be promoted within a large company, because people from outside are favored over inside people even if they have great ideas. I believe it’s far easier to find success if you appoint yourself as the captain of your own career and establish a plan. That way you can thoughtfully find employment that provides learning opportunities, as well as a paycheck.

In the process of charting a course and monitoring your progress, it is particularly helpful to have a mentor. A good mentor is not necessarily someone who is your professional (or chronological) senior. A good mentor is someone who can help you define your objectives, evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, advise you about how to approach work assignments and motivate you as you navigate the ups and downs of finding the right employment on your path. I’d also say it was helpful if your mentor has domain knowledge in the field you want to work in.

So, in summary, I would not say that the role of mentor is defunct, I’d just say it’s changed, as our relationship to work and our careers have changed. Some of my best long-term mentor (and apprentice) relationships were formed with people I met through jobs, and I’d say that our relationship has only improved over time as we have moved on to different work.  I don’t have any objection to forming a board of directors, but that relationship serves a different purpose than a mentor.