Looking For a Mentor? Don’t Forget This Important Step!

With the insanity of the pandemic and the knowledge drain that we’re seeing across IT in general, there’s never been a more important time than right now to help out those that are getting started on this rise. The calls for mentors across the community is heartwarming. I’ve been excited personally to see many recognizable names and faces in the Security, Networking, and Wireless communities reaching out to let people know they are available to mentor others or connect them with potential mentors. It’s a way to give back and provide servant leadership to those that need it.

If you’re someone that’s reading this blog right now and looking for a mentor you’re in luck. There are dozens of people out there that are willing to help you out. The kindness of the community is without bounds and there are those that know what it was like to wander through the wilderness for a while before getting on the right track. They are the ones that will be of the most help to you. However, before you slide into someone’s DMs looking for help, you need to keep a few things in mind.

Make Me One With Everything

The single most important step you can take to increase your chances of being mentored or being set up with someone to help you out is simple in theory but hard in practice:

You NEED to do your homework.

Sound contrite, right? You don’t know what you don’t know. You need to figure out what you have to have, right? Why not ask someone that has been there and have them tell you everything?

Let me give you the perspective of someone who mentors and teaches in all aspects of my life. The scouts, professionals, and students that come to me and say, “Tell me everything I need to know” are usually the ones that listen the least and forget the most. They are the people that haven’t done their homework. They haven’t looked up what interests them or tried to figure out what knowledge they’re missing. They want answers but don’t have questions. Without questions, answers are meaningless.

Moreover, telling someone “everything” is a recipe for disaster. How does a mentor know what to focus on? What areas interest you? In security, are you offensive or defensive? Do you enjoy writing reports or using tools? Do you want to be a per-work consultant or have a steady, if not smaller, paycheck from a single organization? How can a mentor know where to point you if you haven’t done this basic homework?

Let me give you an example that happened to me in the last week. I got a DM from someone I’ve never talked to before. They politely asked if I could answer a couple of questions for them. I said sure with some hesitation. Usually this means they’re looking for some very broad advice or they need help with their homework. When the questions appeared in my inbox, I asked for some clarification. In this instance, it was someone that needed to understand queuing mechanisms. Once I determined I wasn’t doing someone’s CS homework for them, I read up on the topic and explained what I thought was the case. I was pleasantly surprised to get a response that they had read the same paper and it sounded right but they wanted to understand deeper. We talked for a bit and I feel like the person walked away from the exchange with a greater understanding.

What made me happy in this situation is that the person did the work ahead of time instead of just saying, “teach me how this works”. They wanted to understand, not just get the answer to a multiple choice question. They were curious and wanted to learn the right way. These are the kind of people that benefit from mentors. They are self-motivated and willing to do the work to get ahead.

Help Is Always Given To Those Who Ask

You may have heard the phrase, “Help will come to those that help themselves”. It’s another bit of cliche that means you need to be as active in the process as the person you are seeking knowledge from. If you just show up and say, “I need to know everything starting from scratch”, you’re sending the message that you aren’t invested. Mentors don’t want to help those that aren’t invested.

On the other hand, if someone comes to me and says, “I tried this and it failed and I got this message. I looked it up and the response didn’t make sense. Can you tell me why that is?” I rejoice. That person has done the legwork and narrowed the question down to the key piece they need to know. They don’t need to “boil the ocean” so to speak. They have a specific need that can be met.

Mentors are people too. Maybe they enjoy teaching and guiding more than others but they have limits on their energy just like you would. If a mentor spends more time exerting themselves trying to teach someone everything starting from zero, they’re going to burn out. However, teaching someone that just needs a little extra push to get over the hump of a hard problem is a much better use of everyone’s time. The mentor gets the reward of seeing their student understand and the mentee gets the satisfaction of getting it right and doing the work before they ask for help.

Asking someone for help is never easy. It’s an admission that you don’t have all the answers and you need to rely on others. In a profession where being smart and knowing everything is seen as a sign of success it can be humbling to admit you need something from someone. However, I find that those that need the least amount of help from having exhausted their capabilities are usually the ones that learn the most over time and rely on their peers and mentors the least. They know what to do and where to start. They just need a helping hand to get over the line.

Tom’s Take

I am always willing to be a mentor for anyone that needs help. I can help you understand protocols, tie tripod lashings, and teach you more than you ever wanted to know about building space probes or speaking in public. That’s the life I’ve chosen for myself. However, I ask that all those that seek my mentoring help also commit to learning. Do the extra work ahead of time. Narrow your focus to what is essential to get over the hump. Realize that the more you do for yourself the more meaningful it is for you. And remember that those that mentor you are also on the learning journey themselves. Just as they help you, so too do others help them. And one day you will find yourself in the position to mentor others. Showing the investment and determination to go the extra mile for yourself is the example that you will set for those that come later.

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