Mentoring: Value for the IT Pro

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The idea of mentoring might seem misplaced in IT — how can an older, possibly out-of-touch techie provide insight into a field that practically changes on a daily basis?

But the lightning-fast evolution of technology is actually what makes mentoring a perfect fit for IT, said to Sheila Forte-Trammell, an HR consultant with IBM.

“The book ‘Deep Smarts’ talks about lost knowledge and how it takes approximately 10 years at the minimum to acquire knowledge, particularly technical knowledge,” Forte-Trammell said. “In today’s fast-paced world, we don’t have the luxury to take 10 years to re-create knowledge and to create new experts. So, looking at the technical discipline, we have a particular focus on how to transfer knowledge.”

Mentoring for Newbies

Mentoring within IT usually takes place within three career phases: as a new hire or entry-level employee, midcareer and as a retiring or exiting employee.

At IBM, the mentoring program includes a socialization section, which corresponds to new hires and onboarding.

“This includes culturalization for new employees to IBM or even people who are onboard who are moving from one organization to another,” Forte-Trammell said. “It allows them to adjust to the climate of that new organization.”

When new employees join the company, they begin the mentoring process on Day 1.

“As a new person coming in, you have a buddy system,” Forte-Trammel said. “The person is paired up with someone in the organization, and this person helps them understand the culture, where to find things and other things to shorten their learning curve. From there, they are integrated into the regular IBM mentoring program.”

In addition to the workplace, mentoring also has entered the academic arena for soon-to-be IT pros.

The University of Minnesota Institute of Technology provides a mentoring program that matches students with professionals in the field.
Through the program, students meet with their mentors for at least two hours per month throughout an academic year.

Sara Beyer, director of the institute’s alumni relations, coordinates the mentoring program.

She said students and mentors are matched up based on their fields, interests, location and other special considerations.

The mentors come from companies such as 3M, Boston Scientific, Honeywell, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, and Beyer said they run the gamut from recent grads to retirees.

“We have quite a bit of variety,” she said. “We get some retired people who are interested, and we have some mentors who are one or two years out of school. It’s a pretty good mix between midcareer, late-career, those with management experience and some who have Ph.D.s.”

Beyer also said the students and mentors interact in a variety of ways. Although most of the mentors are in the region, a few are on the East or West Coast and participate as remote mentors.

Suggested activities for the pairs include resume reviews, informational interviews, workplace tours and professional society meetings.

“Sometimes, they get together for coffee or lunch and talk about the transition from academic life to the professional world,” Beyer said.

Beyond Certifications

For recent grads and IT newbies, after clearing the initial hurdle of finding that first job, most turn their attention to career development.

Obviously, within IT, this is where advanced certifications and expanded technical skills come into play. Mentoring, however, also can help IT pros get on a track toward leadership and executive-level roles.

At IBM, employees are provided with the necessary tools and resources to benefit from the company’s mentoring program. Ultimately, though, it’s up to the individual to take full advantage of these benefits.

“We believe in professional responsibility,” Forte-Trammel said. “We help employees get to the point where they self-select mentors. In our individual development plan, an employee can choose up to 10 mentors, or the reverse, 10 mentees. And they also list their developmental needs and a way to document it to document progress and to document closure.”

How employees deliver and receive mentoring is up to them. Forte-Trammel refers to IBM’s program as “cafeteria-style” — they can choose to interact with subject-matter experts, attend group mentoring sessions or solicit help through the program’s Web site.

The program also offers webcasts, podcasts, one-on-one mentoring and even speed mentoring, which is similar to speed dating but adapted for business, Forte-Trammel said.

“It’s a mentoring jam session,” she said. “We have executives within a specific area to do a panel discussion. So, the executives will talk about their mentoring experience so that others can learn from them. Then, we break out in tables, which are eight-on-one, so that executives can speak more intimately to that small group.

We also divide the tables by discipline. And they spend some time at one table in one setting, and then I use the bell (as I would in speed dating).

So, while they’re learning, we create an atmosphere where it’s fun for them.”

At the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology, students within the mentoring program also participate in these types of networking events.

Beyer said the university’s alumni association coordinates events such as networking exercises for students and mentors, and as with IBM, speed-networking events. Overall, these events have been popular among these technical students, despite the commonly held belief that technical folks tend to lack communication and networking skills.

“I’ve met all kinds of IT alumni and students who are outgoing and very friendly, but there are also some that need the extra encouragement to network, and extra communication training doesn’t hurt,” Beyer said.

Mentoring can help address some of these needs, she said.

“It’s helpful for the students to meet with a mentor who might be able to tell them how important these skills are in the real world,” Beyer said. “They can share their own experiences and say, ‘Not only do I have to know how to be an engineer and sit in my cube, but I also have to work with other parties.’ They describe what it’s like in the real world and how teamwork is an important skill to learn.

“It’s just a great learning experience. It helps the students make a transition from an academic environment to the work world and also teaches those skills like networking, communication, relationships and professionalism.”

Forte-Trammel said IBM’s mentoring program also focuses on relationship building, which can be especially useful for techies.

“As we look at our technical employees, we ask them to blend technical knowledge with professional development competence — it’s a holistic approach,” she said. “One of the things we want our employees to be able to do is to empower others and to lead with passion and engage others. If you cannot do that, if you don’t have those relational skills and ability to connect, it’s not going to take us too far.”

Generation Next

The mentoring program at the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology has been in place since 1991, and as a result, some former students are now playing another kind of role, Beyer said.

“Some who participated as students are now participating as mentors,” she said. “So, it’s great to see that kind of commitment, and it’s bringing them back to try this new role.”

Transitioning from mentee to mentor is common as aging techies near their retirement years. In fact, many organizations use mentoring programs to address retirement, especially in light of the roughly 70 million baby boomers who are projected to retire over the next 10 to 15 years.

As much as many IT pros would like to pass on retirees’ knowledge the same way they complete most data transfers, technology has not quite evolved to the point where we can plug a thumb drive into our personal CPUs — that is, our brains — and download 40-plus years of work experience.

Instead, corporations use mentoring to unlock that knowledge and help up-and-comers learn from the folks who have done and seen it all.

“We have asked our managers to look at organizational readiness in terms of, ‘Who in your organization would be deemed having critical expert knowledge? Who in the pipeline, in the next generation, is poised to acquire that knowledge?’” Forte-Trammel said. “We’re in an innovation and knowledge era, and as we look at the people within the organization and especially within the IT part of our business, there are skills that take years to develop. And the question becomes, ‘How do we target that knowledge, and how do we preserve that knowledge and transfer it to the generation behind them?’”

To address this need, IBM has implemented a campaign called Pass It On.

“The initiative is injecting some excitement in people who are passing their knowledge on to others,” Forte-Trammel said. “We’re looking for the highly technical people, the distinguished engineers, the IT architects, to see what they are doing to ensure their knowledge is being passed on.”

Beyer said the mentoring program at the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology addresses this issue because it pairs up professionals and their companies with tomorrow’s workforce.

“It’s important for the alumni to get connected with the students today,” she said. “The mentors are the ones out there in the real world, but the companies also need to learn from the students and know what’s changing with the generations.”

–    Sarah Stone Wunder,

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