On Friday I was thrilled to find out that an old colleague of mine, Steve Todd, was honored as one of EMC’s Distinguished Engineers. I worked with Steve when I was fresh out of college, building Navisphere out of twigs and rocks (well, it seems like it was that long ago).
It was when I tried to tell this news to someone else that I realized just what role Steve had played for me in those early years — he was a mentor (and a fine one at that). Now, I doubt anyone ever sat Steve down and said, “Take this new guy under your wing.” And nobody ever told me, “You could learn a lot from Steve.” But somehow that’s what ended up happening. Maybe he didn’t teach me about the inner workings of any programming language, but he taught me a heck of a lot about every other thing that has mattered in my professional life.
Thinking about this reminded me of the importance of mentors, and from drawing knowledge and wisdom from those around you. Knowledge comes at a difficult price — usually a failure of some kind. Being able to somehow benefit from the experiences of others who have gone before you can save you some of that pain.
Now, I’ve been in formal mentor relationships, where two people meet regularly to talk about specific topics, one supposedly learning from the other. I’ve had mixed results with them — the best times have been when the people in question had a level of connection outside the mentoring relationship. The implication here isn’t terribly obvious, so I’ll say it more clearly. Your ability to build connections with your co-workers directly influences your ability to absorb their skills and experiences, making you more effective.
In Polly’s post announcing the promotions, she concluded by asking people whether they felt humbled by their co-workers. I say that you should always feel that there are people around you who have something to teach you. Build your network not along lines of people who can get you jobs (ok, that might be important too) but people who have life lessons they can impart to you.
Think about the people you talked to at work last week. Think about who among them you want to learn something from. If you’re not coming up with anybody, you either need to think harder, or make some new connections. It’s an interesting exercise.