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Hot Tips for Mentors

By Ruth
November 11 2010

Posted in Employer Resources

Thanks to those who shared their learnings and “hot tips” for mentors at our SoT2010 Mentors’ Bootcamp!  Here are some key learnings designed to help new (and even not-so-new) mentors  and managers working with interns (or new grads):

Preparation – as with all things in life, the more you prepare, the more value you’re likely to get out of projects.  By now you have scoped your project, set up a work-station, signed an employment contract and assigned a mentor or manager for your intern.  Spending some time thinking about the work, how the work will be managed and what support structures need to be in place for your new employee is essential.  Some companies have training & induction programmes, work processes, documentation already in place.  If you don’t, consider setting up some guidelines for interns, laying out a process for managing their work that will help them develop good habits in what is likely to be their first “real” job.

Expectations – set the tone, set expectations right from the start.  Are you likely to have permanent jobs available at the end of the internship? What are the deliverables from your interns’ project?  What are your expectations around hours of work, dress-code, office etiquette, etc?  Larger companies may have a formal induction process, if you don’t, remember to treat your intern as a new member of staff.  They’re not mind-readers, so setting the scene is YOUR responsibility early on.

Communication – clear dialogue and communication with your intern is essential.  We get consistent feedback from employers that students & interns need to upskill on communication. If you can give your intern opportunities to present or pitch to the team, share learnings and articulate ideas effectively, you’ll be doing everyone a great service!  Make sure that there are open lines of communication and your intern knows who their “go-to” person(s) are for help & support.

Investment – in hosting an intern you’re investing in someone’s future career.  You want to get value on the way through, but realise that up-front investment of time & attention at the beginning of the internship will pay HUGE dividends later on.  Expect to spend 8-20hours 1:1 contact time in the first couple of weeks.  Set the course, lay the foundations, then you’ll only need to do minor course corrections for the rest of the summer. Regular check-ins are important, but the more time to invest up-front in getting to know how your intern works, what their strengths are and what their aspirations are… the better the experience for everyone.

Learning Style  – remember that everyone learns and works differently, and interns are no exception.  Be aware of whether your new recruit is someone who’s comfortable asking for help or if they’re likely to be sitting quietly trying to figure their way through a road-block for hours or days…  Especially in the first few days, make sure you check in regularly.  You might find it useful to ask open questions that focus on the “doing”: e.g. “how are you doing this?”  “explain to me your thinking on xyz”…  An internship is a chance for someone to learn and develop in supported environment.  Sometimes you’ll be tempted to give solutions/answers and impose the “right way” on an intern.  Sometimes this is appropriate, but in the long term, allowing them to develop problem-solving skills and the ability to figure things out for themselves is the best for everyone.  Asking questions, being there and providing suggestions or hints that’ll help them develop the skills to solve problems in the future are a great way to go.

Strengths – we really like the approach of Tom Rath in his book Strengthsfinder 2.0, which helps people uncover and unleash their talent.  We’ll give all Summer of Tech interns a copy of this book as part of their “swag”, and encourage mentors/managers to have a conversation with interns about what they’ve discovered are their strengths.  It might help you discover what’s RIGHT with your staff, and how best to use their skills & talents.

Mini-project – it’s a great idea to scope up a mini-project for your intern to get some runs on the board and learn about how you’ll work together.  This could be a 1 day or a 1 week type of assignment, giving the intern a chance to do a self-contained project,  follow something through and get used to working within your business.  Examples of past “mini-projects” include everything from non-technical (construct a picture of New Zealand with post-it-notes) to building up their own computer and suite of tools, through to a work-related tutorial (do this online Rails Tutorial and show me the results).

Peer review – past mentors’ recommendation is that you have at least a weekly check-in to review your interns’ work.  This may take a bit longer at the beginning of the project, but it’ll be less and less as time goes on.  Don’t leave your intern in isolation.  Set up structures and processes to ensure you can guide their work in the right direction, rather than being surprised and out of touch with their work at the end of the summer.Â

Real world vs School world -  most interns will get to the end of the summer and say they’ve learned more in these 3 months than they did in the last 2 years of their degree.  Don’t underestimate the value of real world experience!  Your intern is going to be thrown into the “real world” where experience rather than academic learning counts.  Experience gives you an understanding of Trade-offs, Teamwork, Re-factoring vs Re-building, Copying (or shall we say “borrowing”), and many other concepts that you just can’t teach – you’ve got to learn by doing.  Keep that in mind, especially if you’ve been in the “real world” for awhile, and may have forgotten what the “school world” is like.

Celebrate Success – this is management 101, but so often neglected!  Don’t be a Seagull Manager, remember to give credit when credit is due, and find ways to celebrate GOOD work as well as correcting not-so-good work.Â

Support – remember, there is a huge amount of support available … all you need to do is ask.  Your intern can plug into a wide range of support networks (virtual and real-life communties that may include your wider team, user groups, online forums, lecturers and experts in industry).  Interns are welcome to contact info@summeroftech.co.nz for support at any time.  Likewise Mentors/Managers can contact us for support – we can plug you into the wider Summer of Tech community.  Chances are whatever challenges you’re facing have been faced by someone in the past.  We hope things run smoothly for your internship, but if you’re facing a challenge or a roadblock, get in touch with us as soon as possible, we’re here to help.

This is a high-level summary, please feel free to add any comments or new tips below – keen to get your thoughts on how to best manage/mentor interns to maximise the value for your business, and for your intern!

Big thanks to John Clegg and Justin Crawshay for your contribution to the Mentors Bootcamp.

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