Mentors can play a multitude of roles in your life. The only thing you have to do in order to get all of those benefits? Take the first step.
One of the best any person can do to move their career forward is find a great mentor. And for women in tech — who are underrepresented across the board — mentorships are especially important. A solid mentor/mentee relationship can not only help you learn more about your field, but can open doors that you didn’t even know existed.
“We talk very often about the old boy network as an established network, but you never hear about any girls network,” Avast CISO Jaya Baloo says. “But I get called quite often by headhunters who want CISOs and I reflect back to women who are competent. Primary is competency; female part is second. But there’s a lot of opportunity out there!”
Avast Director of Product Management Fiona Cliffe sees mentorship as a possible “pipeline” for women who are looking to change their careers and get into tech.
“As much as it’s great that younger women are doing more STEM at uni, I also think it’s great to mentor and do presentations,” Fiona says. “People forget that you can change your career — it’s not the be all end all if you don’t get a job right away after uni. There are lots of different ways to get into tech.”
Both Fiona and Jaya have extensive experience on both sides of the mentor/mentee relationship. Here are their top tips for getting the most out of your tech mentorship.
1. Start within your own organization.
When you’re starting your search for a mentor, start close to home. Or, at least, close to work.
“Start looking within your own organization,” Fiona says. “So many now have mentoring programs but if they don’t, don’t be afraid to reach out. If there’s someone you think looks interesting or good, just reach out. It’s really flattering to people to be asked to be a mentor, so don’t wait.”
Fiona points out that in-company mentorships are a great place to start because there’s already an established relationship — you already work in the same organization. Therefore, not only is it a “warm” intro, but it’s also beneficial to both of you and your workplace. It’s a win-win-win.
2. Use your professional networks.
Professional networks are also a great place to find mentors. Fiona says that she’s had potential mentees reach out on LinkedIn asking for advice. After connecting that way, it was clear that they were a good mentor/mentee match and they continued in that capacity.
One of Fiona’s former mentors also recommended her as a mentor to a couple people in her area.
“It turned into a couple of great mentoring sessions,” Fiona says. “We’d meet once a month and I’d ask them to guide the sessions. We’d take about what was going on in their lives and how I’d dealt with similar situations in the past.”
Jaya also recommends checking out organizations and programs that are specific to women in tech, like Girls Who Code, or conferences that are focusing on women in tech.
“There are so many good things out there that not just raise the bar, but allow the door to be opened,” Jaya says. “It’s wonderful to see more of these types of programs. Not to say audience should only be women, but it’s great to see so many incredible women speakers.”
3. Come prepared.
When you do have a mentor meeting, make sure to come prepared. Remember: You’ve chosen your mentor because they’re successful and successful people don’t have a lot of free time. They’re choosing to use some of that free time to help you, so don’t waste it. In Fiona’s sessions, she asks each mentee to come with a specific incident that highlights something they’d like to work on in their career.
“One of the girls I mentor is brilliant,” Fiona says. “I think she’s so good at what she does. But she has this fear about getting up and speaking in front of everyone. She’s really struggled with it, so we’ve practiced that and tried to figure out what exactly it is that frightens her.”
Sometimes the incidents are mistakes her mentees made — or, at the very least, they’re mistakes they think they’ve made.
“They’ll come to me with something that’s been weighing on their mind and ask to go through what happened,” Fiona says. “Then we talk about what they might do differently next time. Honestly, 99% of the time it’s them overthinking and they haven’t really done anything wrong.”
And other times her mentees want to work on a specific goal or get feedback on a project or presentation. But regardless of the specifics, Fiona is happy to help as long as her mentees come with a clear vision of how to spend their time together.
4. Have more than one mentor.
Finally, Fiona recommends having more than one mentor — and from more than one industry.
“I’m a big advocate of having more than one mentor because everyone is different,” she says “Everyone approaches things in different ways. It’s quite important to have a cross section of advice.”
In her own experience as a mentee, she originally focused on other product managers, until she started a mentorship with a head of marketing.
“It really helped me from a job perspective to understand how working with other people in other parts of the industry,” Fiona says. It was great to hear a different approach to leadership, too. I think I was able to take in all of those things and make what suited me as a leader.”
Jaya has also found that mentors from other industries can be particularly helpful. “Just like you’re not going to look at your boyfriend as the source of all your emotional needs, I think it’s the same when you look for your mentor or coach to all be coming from the same person,” she says.
One of her favorite relationships is with a male photographer who is a generation older than she is. While other mentorships focus specifically on her career, Jaya and this mentor “talk about all kinds of random stuff.”
“We talk about, ‘Isn’t it time we all had our nuclear device at home?’” Jaya says. “But you can’t get it for home because it would power a small city! Or like, the fact that it makes no sense that we still need rocket fuel for space flight.”
As the experience of both of these women illustrates, mentors can play a multitude of roles in your life. The only thing you have to do in order to get all of those benefits? Take that first step.
“It might still be scary to do new things, but your ability to actually get past that fear is greater than you think,” Fiona says. “Get a little bit braver. You don’t want to waste any more time.”