Why You Should Be A Mentor

This is a cross post from the Pitt Computer Science Club blog. Emily is a fellow club officer.

I'm psyched that Emily is piloting a mentorship program this year. Her idea is to pair our experienced members with members who are just starting out in programming. Appropriately, the first mentee-mentor pair is Emily and I.

Although I was uneasy about being a mentor at first, I've overcome my reservations. Here are some questions to help you figure out if you should be a mentor too.

Are there things you wish someone had told you when you were in CS 401?

How can I be a mentor, I wondered, if I’m not a star programmer who has his whole life figured out and 10 job offers from Twitter, Tinder, Grindr et al.? In truth, it doesn’t matter that I’m not the next Sam Altman (But hey, who knows.). It does matter that I’ve been through a few upper-level electives, thrived in my co-op, and spent a year or two simmering in software culture.

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone told you when you were just starting out that you must avoid this and that professor? That it’s ok to feel like everyone is smarter than you because you felt that way too? That when you were banging your head against the wall trying to make a sticky footer and navbar that this thing called Bootstrap exists and it’s pretty nice? Sure, you’re still a student. You may still suck at making software. But you have something to give.

Do you like people?

My next reservation was, what does a mentor even do? Do I sit down with Emily and give motivational speeches? That seems weird. Do I make Emily run up and down the Cathedral stairwell while reciting the Java API from memory? Actually, I might do that.

In reality, we’ll meet once a week or so for coffee. She’ll have questions, I’ll occasionally have answers, and I’ll have questions for her. We’ll continue to work closely on club stuff. If we have the opportunity, we might even partner on a side project. The takeaway is that you don’t need a grand mentorship scheme. Find a mentee you mesh with and the rest will follow. Emily’s cool and I’m tolerable, so we mesh.

Have mentors made you a better person?

Most of us are lucky enough to have had teachers, coaches, and friends who have challenged us to better ourselves. My speech coach Ed taught me how to turn an argument into a narrative. My first boss Sarah taught me how to command respect from professionals. My favorite math instructor Jeromy taught me to reason more precisely.

I took so much from these people, but they weren’t flawless Atticus Finch-like pillars of humanity. Ed was famously foul-mouthed and had a chewing tobacco habit that grossed me out. Sarah was a goofball. Jeromy could launch into a half-hour-long reverie of “abstract nonsense” before he realized he’d lost his audience. I’m not perfect either, but I can still help Emily like my mentors helped me.