One of the duties I have at work is to mentor some of the Rails developers on our team. I enjoy this immensely, yet struggle with at the same time. In a previous life, I wanted to be a professor and help people learn computer science and programming. I became jaded with academia, so left it and have been working in the software industry ever since. However, I still have that urge to teach, which is why I enjoy mentoring so much. My struggles with mentoring come from my long background in software development. I have been programming in some form since I was nine years old and have been paid for programming since I was eighteen. As such, I have somewhere between 13-22 years of experience across myriad different computer-related backgrounds. I spent the majority of my waking hours from the age of fourteen to the present building my skillset. Can I really ask more junior developers to do the same? How on Earth do I reconcile that when suggesting ways to improve to my colleagues?
Others ask this too
I’ve been thinking about this for two years, ever since I started at Flywheel and joined a team with a range of skill level. Prior to that, I worked at small companies where I was the only engineer or where all of the engineers were senior. I long thought this was something that only I struggled with (hah, hubris!) and didn’t really know where to look for advice. Then, in the span of a single week1, two Twitter threads popped up discussing this exact issue!
Charity Majors asked herself why she deliberately tells people to focus on things other than work instead of her own path of spending many hours working on computers. Charity struggles with this throughout the thread and wrestles with the impulse to tell people that they need to put the time in to get better. While some part of her feels that way, another part wants to nurture a life outside of work for her colleagues. I empathize with Charity because I have the same internal struggle.
Similarly, Alice Goldfuss shared how she worked herself ragged in overtime just so she felt that she was doing well enough to avoid being fired. This is, obviously, not a good place in which to find yourself. Feeling like you are running on an advancement treadmill just to maintain your current position is an indicator that something failed somewhere in the chain. This, specifically, is what I would like to avoid in my mentoring.
I fundamentally believe that a work-life balance is important to have. You’re more effective in your work when you unplug for a while and do something else. But, to this day, I don’t practice this. Through numerous side projects, open source contributions, and endless reading about my craft, I am, in Charity’s words, not a “moderate creature.” Software design and construction is and has always been what I enjoy doing. I love to figure out how to build something that communicates its purpose and solves a real problem for people. That must be my manifestation of the “maker gene” that you hear people talk about.
But I can’t — and won’t — force my immoderation on those who I mentor. It’s unreasonable to pressure others to follow this path. My near-obsession with my craft has not been without cost through my life. To this day, I find myself getting grumpy when I don’t spend enough time designing and building. This affects both my wife and my coworkers, albeit in different ways. I can’t really recommend this path to anyone, but I also struggle to see another solution.
How can I reconcile my two halves? I know that I wouldn’t be where I am in my profession without my immoderation. I also know that I want to help my colleagues grow in a balanced way. These two sides are the balancing act that I, myself, have to play. Each time I find myself starting to recommend a path that I would enjoy due to my craft being a large part of my identity, I check what I’m going to say. Usually, I find a better way to approach it, but it’s difficult work.
Do you struggle with this problem? Have you come up with ways to manage the temptation to disrupt your colleagues' work-life balance in the interest of advancement? If so, please leave a comment and share your story!
This was two months ago and I’m just now writing this. Crack reporter, I am not. ↩︎