Why Is Mentorship So Important to Engineering Culture? Colorado Tech Leaders Weigh In.

February 25, 2021
engineering mentors
amp robotics

For engineering leaders, creating a culture of mentorship sometimes means letting someone else take the lead.

Just ask Robert Sulway. The VP of engineering at PAIRIN, an edtech company in Denver, is always encouraging non-senior engineers to consider how they can improve the company. And when they have a good idea, Sulway lets them run with it. 

Months ago, one engineer suggested that the company could improve its front-end testing infrastructure by adding Jest to PAIRIN’s stack. 

“So instead of simply adding it to a to-do list of ‘things we really should do,’ I worked with him to create a plan to prototype and present a proposal to the team for buy-in,” Sulway said. “This engineer genuinely led the initiative.”

At AMP Robotics, Head of Engineering Jason Calaiaro utilizes another technique to foster mentorship. He schedules a one-on-one chat with every team member, every quarter, which serves as a platform for both individual advocacy and mentorship. 

But Calaiaro knows that there are limits to what he can do as a mentor.

“It’s an easy trap for a manager to presume the role of know-everything mentor,” Calaiaro said. “Therefore, we’re honest about what we don’t know and where we need help.”

Built In Colorado spoke with four companies to learn how they’re creating a culture of mentorship for their engineers, and how it helps their teams grow.

 

Jason Calaiaro
Head of Engineering

Lean on peers

Calaiaro understands that he serves as a mentor to many of the engineers at AMP Robotics, an artificial intelligence and robotics company for the recycling industry. But he also stresses the need for peer mentorship. “With a strong peer mentorship culture, the collective capability of your organization improves by default,” he said.

 

Whats a practice your team follows that encourages a culture of mentorship and knowledge-sharing among your team members?

We’ve instilled a culture of mentorship at every level of the engineering organization. It starts with hiring. We focus on hiring curious people who want to learn. In addition to individual attributes, we’ve grown the organization in such a way where everyone has access to some type of mentorship and we’re conscious of the collective mentor-mentee load. As a technology company, peer review is a natural part of our development process, whether you’re working on a system diagram, software or hardware. When you create a safe space for critical feedback, you dissolve barriers. In this way, anyone can be your mentor.

 

How do you, as a leader, serve as a mentor to members of your team?

I lead by example, in big ways and small. For myself, I published a user manual that describes my philosophy, principles, ambition and how I intended to bring those ideas to the company. Ideas are less squishy when they’re written down.

There’s no competing with a strong peer mentorship culture.’’

We have monthly engineering all-hands meetings. I will pick a focus for some cultural tenet, socialize it with open dialog and engage the team with a challenge exercise for the next month so that they really live and feel it. At the individual level, I make one-on-one time with everyone every quarter, regardless of their role. It serves as both a platform for individual advocacy and mentorship. But it’s also important to acknowledge that no single mentor can be everything for someone. It’s an easy trap for a manager to presume the role of know-everything mentor. An intrinsic part of a growing company is that you very likely do not have someone who knows something about everything. Therefore, we’re honest about what we don’t know and where we need help.

 

How has a mentorship culture helped your team grow?

Mentorship is an essential ingredient for growth, particularly peer mentorship. When the team is small enough where two pizzas can feed it, culture and mentorship go hand-in-hand. When the team grows, it’s important to be conscious of how the organization evolves. I believe mentorship is a vehicle to facilitate self-mastery. When you turn everyone in the organization into both mentor and mentee, you increase the rate of learning and the effectiveness of the team. 

There’s no competing with a strong peer mentorship culture. It’s a competitive advantage in growing an organization quickly. As we bring new team members into the fold, the team integrates them quickly, and before long they’re contributing by mentoring someone else.

 

Lee Gonzales
Senior Director, Data Engineering

Tell a story

When it comes to mentoring, one tactic that Lee Gonzales uses often is telling a story. At Guild Education, an edtech company that partners with employers to build education benefits programs for their employees, Gonzales, a senior director of data engineering, often cites a previous experience that relates to a current situation as a teaching tool. 

 

Whats a practice your team follows that encourages a culture of mentorship and knowledge-sharing among your team members?

We spend active time discussing, documenting and aligning how we work together. We discuss team values, the importance of knowledge-sharing, giving and receiving feedback and mentoring. This helps build trust, rapport and communication. By doing all of this, we see good participation and people speaking up during design sessions to challenge one another. We also hold quarterly team health checks where we measure team practices, communication, engagement and trust. We want to see how everyone is doing, which is particularly important given the nature of remote work.

 

How do you, as a leader, serve as a mentor to members of your team?

There are a few practices that I commonly reach for when I look to mentor, train or advise my team. One is I ask open-ended questions, which are intentionally phrased in a way so as not to elicit a specific answer. For example, when talking about a recent decision to adopt a new tool for generating synthetic data for testing, I asked questions like, “How will we know this is working?” and, “How are you thinking about the cost vs. benefit of this choice?” Other practices I use are storytelling and unpacking mental models. An effective story will be relevant to the current situation, and it will resonate.

We have a bias for growing our people...’’

How has a mentorship culture helped your team grow? 

Our company’s mission is to unlock opportunity for America’s frontline workforce through education and upskilling. And as leaders, we are committed to unlocking opportunities for our own Guild employees as well. For example, our team seeks to hire from within for early career engineering positions, and we aggressively hire from local coding bootcamps. This means we must take the time to coach, mentor and support our engineers to ensure they can deliver what our business needs. We have a bias for growing our people, so we seek out prospective employees who are eager to learn new skills and grow into roles across the organization.

 

Robert Sulway
VP of Engineering

Communicate constantly

At PAIRIN, a social enterprise company whose mission is to make everyone’s journey more relevant and equitable by unifying workforce and education, Sulway takes mentorship seriously. He holds regular one-on-one meetings with his team members, along with quarterly check-ins and semi-annual reviews. This constant communication gives Sulway a great pulse to see how far an engineer has progressed.

 

Whats a practice your team follows that encourages a culture of mentorship and knowledge-sharing among your team members?

At PAIRIN, we’re transparent about our expectations for each level of engineer. We have our engineers work with product and design throughout the creation of a feature to ensure it meets our users’ needs. We also consider how we’ll monitor and track usage of a feature once it’s in our users’ hands, and provide constructive feedback to peers. Generally, as an engineer grows in seniority, what changes is the scope and depth of responsibility, rather than the high-level list of areas. 

We also work hard to help each other grow. For example, managers hold weekly one-on-one meetings where we hold frank conversations about how the engineer is growing their skills, which areas they would like to work on and what concrete actions they can take to improve those skills.

 

How do you, as a leader, serve as a mentor to members of your team?

I try to foster a culture of leadership and ownership throughout the organization. That means encouraging non-senior engineers to consider how they can improve the company, and then discussing the ways that they could personally take ownership and lead initiatives to make those improvements.

We hold regular one-on-one meetings in which we seek to grow a specific set of skills.’’

For example, several months ago, one of our engineers suggested that we should improve our front-end testing infrastructure by adding Jest to our stack. Instead of simply adding it to a to-do list of ‘things we really should do,’ I worked with him to create a plan to prototype and present a proposal to the team for buy-in. Then, we showed everyone how to create tests, how to devise a strategy for adding and maintaining tests on an ongoing basis, and how to regularly check-in to ensure things are going as intended. This engineer genuinely led the initiative.

 

How has a mentorship culture helped your team grow?

We hold regular one-on-one meetings in which we seek to grow a specific set of skills. Not only do we have in-depth conversations during one-on-ones, we also hold semi-annual reviews and quarterly check-ins. During these chats, we take a step back and look at the bigger picture of how far the engineer has progressed and their future goals.

 

David Zarlengo
Director of Engineering

Take an individualized approach

David Zarlengo, a director of engineering, knows there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring. At Reserve Trust, a fintech company with direct Federal Reserve access, Zarlengo takes time to get to know the engineers, which gives him the ability to individualize his mentoring techniques.

 

Whats a practice your team follows that encourages a culture of mentorship and knowledge-sharing among your team members?

We work to facilitate open communication and foster a collaborative environment on our small team, from collaborative work sessions to lightning talks featuring new techniques to discoveries and progress.

 

How do you, as a leader, serve as a mentor to members of your team?

Mentors should always lead by listening. This allows them to better understand where colleagues are excelling and where they are struggling. A strong mentor knows when to provide perspectives and guide a mentee’s learning, or when to allow someone to experiment and learn from their mistakes. 

Mentors should always lead by listening.’’

How has a mentorship culture helped your team grow?

With a small team, it’s all about one-on-one relationships and collaborating cross-functionally to learn from each other. Employee needs are highly individualized when it comes to mentorship. Reserve Trust doesn’t hesitate to tap external partners with diverse expertise to help ensure employees are reaching their full potential.

 

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