Our team of engineers is Buffer’s largest team. It has a lot of moving pieces and consists of several smaller teams. As with any large team, we want to make sure that no one has the guidance or the opportunity to grow. In this post, I will share a little more about how we have done this through Buffer’s new program, with which we have already achieved much success, our engineering mentoring program.
Why a mentoring program?
Over the years, in our engineering team, pairing engineers and sharing knowledge have yielded excellent results. We have also seen the development of spontaneous mentoring relationships and we are currently at a point where we have several senior engineers who, of course, act as mentors for a younger team member.
These relationships have proven to be extremely beneficial to the growth of both younger and older engineers and have helped teams be more cohesive and move faster. To expand our mentoring opportunities to more engineers, we have decided to launch a formal mentoring program in the engineering team, boost existing relationships and create new ones between engineers who are interested in growing up or learning from mentoring.
One of the main focus of our engineering management team is to help engineers grow and advance in our careers. At the same time, they learn and apply best practices to improve the quality of our code base over time.
In the past, we have heard confusion among engineers about how code quality and investing in best practices relate to our career framework, and concerns that some technical debts may make it more difficult for newer engineers to move forward. This mentoring program seems to have helped level more younger engineers, which we always want to do more.
How we have set up our mentoring program
There are three roles in our engineering mentoring program: mentors, supervisors, and mentor masters.
Mentors are senior engineers with deep experience in developing other skills. They have regular meetings with their mentees and provide the mentee with a safe space to think hard and explore new ideas and innovative thinking.
Mentors can also be the mentor’s personal joy group, motivating mentors to achieve their goals and inspiring mentors with the mentor’s own achievements.
Mentors share best practices, code quality, testing, refactoring, and how they relate to our engineering careers. Promoting the road is a sign of success! A mentor aims to cultivate mentors technically, and promotions are one (but not the only) way to grow.
Mentors help identify and resolve problems and provide practical, timely advice and a pairing program to help remove blockers and share knowledge.
The mentees are engineers who feel that they could benefit from having a mentor to guide their career and skills development. They do not necessarily have to be “younger”. A senior backing engineer who wants to learn the interface could also be instructed.
This program is for mentors, so they have a relationship and are responsible for arranging and arranging all meetings with their mentor. They should not wait for their mentor to drive this growth. In the discussions, they should prepare the tasks in which they want help and examples of codes.
Mentors are responsible for how the mentor applies and provides feedback to them. The task of the mentee is to take advice and run with it.
Masters of mentoring
We have tried mentoring before, but we have lacked something: supporting our mentors. To improve this, we came up with the idea of mentoring masters. These are team members who are amazing mentors themselves, with extensive experience in teaching mentor engineers, and they are highly experienced engineers.
Mentoring masters meet regularly with mentors to provide guidance and support on how to be a great mentor. They help mentors with potential blockers, challenges, or disappointments, and provide feedback on the program to ensure its success.
The difference between a mentor and a leader
Although there are some similarities in mentoring and leadership relationships, such as assisting and guiding team members to achieve certain goals, there are also key differences.
The leader generally focuses on achieving the goals of the organization and the team and ensures that his or her advice and decisions are consistent with the organization’s vision. The mentor focuses on personal and career growth. The agenda of the mentor-mentee relationship is focused on sharing knowledge and experience.
The leader is responsible for reviewing the employee’s input and providing feedback on the results, while the mentor’s feedback and reviews are personal interactions designed to help the supervisee focus on his or her long-term goals.
Open and frank communication is a key element of the mentor-mentee relationship. In fact, the goal of the whole relationship is to talk publicly about the shortcomings of the mentors and learn how to overcome them with the help of an experienced mentor, while it may be more difficult to talk to the leader about these technical gaps.
✅ Mentors provide answers; leaders ask questions
✅ Mentors a lawyer for you; leaders develop you
✅ Mentoring is accidental; management is official
✅ Mentoring is personal; management is organizational
To guide mentors and mentees, we have identified some of the key principles of this program:
Mentoring is all about the mentee.
It is mentoring time, so the mentor should focus on the session around them, their questions and what they need. The mentor should also be prepared to fill in gaps that the mentee does not create or bother to do.
Mentors help their mentees grow technically by supporting the mentor’s identity and interests.
The program does not aim to take a one-size-fits-all approach. It provides mentors with the tools and support to help everyone thrive in a unique way.
Not everyone needs a mentor.
Some people learn best alone or through casual conversations with many different people, or they may already get everything they need from their leader without the need for further guidance.
An engineer does not have to be a mentor to grow.
Engineers have other opportunities to expand their careers, and our mentoring program is not required in our career framework.
Feedback from the mentoring program
Initially, we ran this program as a six-month trial. After the first 6 months, we asked participants for feedback on the program and whether they would like it to continue.
The feedback from the program was extremely positive, showing that such relationships and the support provided by the program have been very beneficial for both mentors and mentor growth.
Here are some highlights:
- […] I believe this mentoring has been the biggest factor in my growth in Buffer
- […] mentoring sync is definitely one of the most useful syncs I have
- […] it’s a very positive experience overall, I really like building relationships of trust with my mentees, and seeing them progress is definitely a rewarding experience. It is also a good way to deal more with different product areas and problems outside of your rigorous daily work
- This program has been an amazing help to me, I have enjoyed all the calls I have had […], my mentor always challenges me and he has helped me grow by doing the things I love.
- […] “It’s only been a joy full of learning and mutual trust. I felt we were able to commit and discuss many things regarding the career framework, personal growth and technical decisions in our organization.”
Based on the feedback and individual conversations with the engineers, we decided to continue the mentoring program indefinitely with some changes.
What we have changed in the program
Adding more mentor masters
One of the identified benefits of the mentoring program was the dedicated support of mentors through mentor masters. So far, only our human resources engineer has played this role, Mike San Roman, which makes it difficult to scale and add mentoring pairs (support more mentors). Therefore, we decided to add more senior engineers and experienced mentors as masters of mentoring.
We regularly introduce mentoring conversations
This experiment has identified important issues, such as ensuring the inclusion and diversity of the program, supporting and growing women’s advisers, and making the program more transparent and working with engineering managers.
For this reason, we now hold monthly speeches between mentoring masters to discuss the above points, discuss recurring mentoring topics, and share lessons and updates with the engineering management team and the broader engineering team.
We introduce asynchronous opening hours
Gathering mentors and mentor masters for one call has been quite difficult because so many of our teams are in different time zones. Together 4-day working week and more inclined asynchronous communicationwe decided to introduce asynchronous opening hours where everyone on the dedicated day will share our updates asynchronously on our private Slack channel. The updates cover all the successes, challenges, blockers and celebrations that have taken place in the last few weeks.
So far, we have seen great results from the engineering team mentoring program and we are excited to continue investing in it and supporting engineers on their career journey.