Mentoring and Giving Feedback

At 8th Light, the beginning of an apprenticeship is marked by the signing of a contract. In writing, both the apprentice and the mentor willingly agree to devote the time and energy required to make the apprenticeship a success.

The contract signifies both a daunting task and an immense opportunity. With each person entering into the relationship willingly, the ability to give honest, critical feedback at every turn emerges.

This combination of focused learning with timely feedback can lead to amazing jumps in skill and knowledge for an apprentice, and it's why 8th Light values the apprenticeship process so much.

It's not as easy as finding a willing apprentice, though. Mentors must be skilled in the feedback process, and if you have never mentored someone before, it's tough to know how to deliver feedback well.

Here are some general points about giving feedback, followed by some specific steps I've taken as a mentor to ensure a successful apprenticeship.

Effective Feedback

Be Specific

It is easy to tell someone they did a good job. It makes them happy, and you feel good for making them happy. It is much more difficult to tell someone they are doing a bad job. Feelings can be hurt, and intentions can be misread.

In both cases, it is not enough to just say "nice work!" or "you screwed up!" - the most effective feedback is specific.

Consider a code review. Saying the code is good overall may make an apprentice feel good, but it doesn't help them focus on where they did particularly well. By calling out specific methods that are well-factored, or pointing to classes that are well named, the apprentice gains understanding of what "good" code actually is, and can replicate it.

On the flip side, saying code is bad isn't helpful on its own. Instead, by calling out lines of code that are duplicated or untested directly, the apprentice sees what "bad" code is, and can avoid it the next time.

Be Timely

Do not wait to give feedback. The impact of the conversation will be much more effective when details are fresh, and it will help you avoid holding minor incidents against an apprentice later.

As a mentor, one of the worst situations you can be in is having a different opinion of the apprenticeship's progress than that of the apprentice. If things are not going well, don't wait to tell them until months later. Deliver it now and save yourself a painful conversation.

Be Relevant

Praise or criticize for the right reasons. If your apprentice is doing something that goes against the principles you are trying to teach, explain why and reinforce the big picture.

If your apprentice is doing very well in one area, but it's not critical for the success of apprenticeship, don't praise too highly. You can tell them they are doing a great job in that area, but remind them of the end goal and ask them to focus their efforts there.

Specific Steps

Stating Intentions

In the first talk I have with a new apprentice, I tell them three things:

  1. My goal is for you to succeed. I will do whatever I can to help you grow.
  2. I will tell you when you are doing well, and I will be as harsh as I need to be when you are doing poorly.
  3. Remember the first thing when you are getting negative feedback.

The benefit of this willing relationship is that an apprentice is far more likely to be receptive to criticism. However, negative feedback can still be demoralizing. By stating up front that my goal is to help them succeed, I remind them (and myself) that we are going to do what is necessary to learn and grow.

Keeping a Schedule

I also like to designate certain days of the week to assess progress and give feedback. At least two to three times a week, take 15-30 minutes to meet with your apprentice and do these things.

As an apprentice grows, you may be able scale back the number of meetings. Once a week, plus quick check ins here or there, can be enough to keep an experienced apprentice on track and can keep you from micro-managing their daily schedule.

Reviewing Goals

Like I mentioned above, it's important to keep your feedback relevant. At the end of each month, step back and review the goals of the apprenticeship. Is the apprentice falling behind in some areas? What is their impression of the apprenticeship so far?

These monthly reviews help you step back from the details and assess overall progress. Get on the same page with your apprentice on their progress, and make expectations clear for the next month.

A Willingness to Receive Feedback

At 8th Light, we make the mentor/apprentice relationship clear from the start, which makes it simpler to open up apprentices to the idea of honest feedback, postive and negative. This willingness can be the difference between success and failure.

It's not always that easy, though. Often the role of manager, supervisor, or lead developer implies some level of mentoring, but it's not necessarily a willing relationship. If you are looking to mentor someone, be honest with them and ask if they are willing to receive feedback from you, good or bad. If they are, they will appreciate it and you can both focus on the task of learning.

Mike Jansen, Vice President of Operations

Mike Jansen is a former 8th Light employee.

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