I don’t want to be your mentor.
During a particularly cynical time in my employment career I worked as a project manager for a mid sized
retail marketing company. It was as I would later define it a pit of vipers. In metaphor, it was a large whole
filled with stupid mice and a bunch of snakes. The ownership were the snakes who would feed themselves
on the mice at will. They were fat and lazy snakes. The mice would frantically run to the side of the pit
away from a hungry snake looking for safety that is until the snakes on the other side of the hole got
hungry. Then of course they’d run back to the said they had just come from never realizing that there was
no safe place in the hole and they were just too stupid to try to get out.
It was my first real position as a project manager. I had responded to an inquiry for an intermediate
programmer. I had been wined and dinned so to speak and talked into the position. Which was funny as I
was going to jump at it the first time they actually offered. I needed the money but they didn’t know that.
After a week on the job I had a follow up meeting with the general manager and he asked what I thought. I
have never had a problem giving my opinion so I said, “You don’t need a programmer. You don’t have
rights to the code. You need a project manager.” I was thinking that added the term manager to my title
and would get me a higher wage. It didn’t really get me any more money but it made my life a bit more
comfy with a coffee maker in a private office, with a company credit card, and quit a bit of freedom. So it
worked for me. It also gave me an underling. They assigned an intern from the IT hardware side to me as
an assistant. In truth he was a computer science major at the local university and was just aching to get
into programming instead of networking and helpdesk. In fact, he had more programming knowledge then
I. What he didn’t have was some age, some real experience, and self marketing ability. In most cases I’ve
found that once you get to an acceptable level of knowledge or skill in something, once you’re qualified, it
doesn’t matter who has the most anymore. It becomes a matter of who can market themselves best and
interact with the people at the top in a way to inspired confidence. I wouldn’t say flimflam, even though for
some that would not be to far off. Lets just say that the one that can sell themselves best is more then
likely to be the one that gets the job even if they can’t really get the job done. This should also explain the
endless amount of project failures. It seems as though every company has been burnt and everyone has
worked on more bad projects then good.
The intern and I hit it off from the start. We were close in age. I was more like a big brother then a father
or uncle. We had similar interests. And we both liked code. I admit it was a fun time for me as I was really
into the programming back then and would stay up late at night writing code and exploring new
technology. It was as close to geeky as I had ever been. It wasn’t long before I was spouting on
philosophically about work and the work environment and people and the relationship between employers
and employees. Oddly enough the intern ate it up. Which was a bit strange for me as most of the people I
had worked with would just look at me weird and think I was crazy. Maybe the difference was that I was
officially his boss and not a coworker. He had it in his mind, since I was apparently what he wanted to
become in the short run at least, that I knew better. If he just listened he could learn and get there
himself. Or maybe he was just buttering me up in order to get ahead, or maybe he was as crazy as I was.
In any case we got along well and the work got done.
One day, the intern and I were making our customary rounds through the building drinking coffee and
gabbing with everyone along our way. Picking up bits of juicy news and absorbing the company politics for
that day when we ran into the IT manager. He was kind of excited. He said he had arranged for another
intern to help out. The new guy could do some of the networking stuff but had an interest in programming
as well. I thought why did you get a new programming intern. I don’t need him and besides you know
nothing about programming. If we were going to hire one, would I not be the guy to do it? If fact I was a
manager in title alone. All it meant was that I would be left to do what I wanted and the intern would work
with me. I didn’t hold it against the IT manager though, we did not get off to a good start together and he
was doing what he could to make it better and help out.
A few days later the new intern appeared. I don’t remember his name, he was Asian of some sort. Not that
it would have mattered it was just the only remarkable trait about him. I mean that completely. He didn’t
seem particularly smart or clever or skilled. Not in his personality or his programming. What was worse he
tended to hang around like some sort of lost puppy looking for food. It made me feel uncomfortable and
the paranoid thought did come into my mind that he was some sort of sad attempt by the IT manager to
spy on me and his former intern. Like a hired plant. This of course was silly but the mind does
occasionally play tricks on you. After a couple of days of trying to avoid him in a nice way, I ran into him
alone in the hallway. I said, “Hey.” as I passed him and he struck up a conversation. We talked for a bit
and he asked me a question or two about a programming assignment for his class I tried to make it a short
answer but that’s not easy when you are talking about programming sometimes. Often one thing is built
upon another and or leads to another so to really answer a question you can get trapped into a
conversation which will often develop into a lesson.
For the better part of an hour I took on the roll of teacher. I ended up uses a white board and we went
over the assignment in his book (which oddly enough I used maybe nine months early in a class I was
taking, that book was worthless). At the end of the lesson he was both enlightened and amazed. He said,
“Wow, you really know this stuff.” All the while I was thinking, yeah for about a year and a half. But it didn’t
matter, I had the knowledge and he didn’t. What made it worse was that I had the ability, unlike most in the
field, to explain it in a way so normal people could understand. I would have become a teacher if they
made any real money. But I digress. I thought I had done my good deed for the day and was on the way
out the door when he started commenting on how his class was of no use and the teacher was weak and
how he just needed some one to show him how to do it. I could almost feel the hair rise on the back of my
neck foretelling what I new he was going to say and hoped he would not. He went on, I just need a guide a
mentor. “Oh, No!” I thought, “You didn’t.” Finally he asked, “Would you be my mentor?” “No, no, no!” I
screamed in my head. I screamed partly out of irritation, the kind of irritation you feel when you see a nerd
about to do something nerdy and you know they are going to get picked on for it, and partly out of fear
that I had finally feed the stray dog and I’d never get rid of him.
I pleasantly tried to change the topic, not to answer, encouraged him that he didn’t need one, and showed
him out the door as I went the other way. By this time, unbeknownst to me my intern had arrived and
caught the last part of my lesson. He was impressed and had also heard the whole, “will you be my
mentor” situation. We both made fun of it as I went on trying to explain why I didn’t want to be a mentor.
How I was a bad example to follow and I didn’t want an anchor of responsibility around my neck. We both
had a bit of a laugh and moved on. I later expressed my disapproval or rather my lack of need for him to
the IT manager. The IT manager was also a little less then impressed with his work efforts. It was not
surprising to me as he wanted to be a programmer and only took the help desk position as a step to
programming. Two days later he was no longer with the company. The IT manager let him go and that
was his last attempt to bridge the gap between networking and programming.
The funniest part is that months later after doubling his salary while working under me and following my
lead so to speak. My assistant referenced back to that day and the other intern.
He said, “Remember that guy and when he ask for you to mentor him?”
I said, "Yeah.”
“And how I said I didn’t want to be mentored by any one. That it was sad.” He continued.
“Yeah.” I said, knowing what was about to come.
“Well, you kind of turned out to be my mentor.” He said.
I laughed. “Really.”
I said, “Well how is that working out for you?”
At the time he said, “Great, I am programming, my time is my own and I am making more money then ever.”
I thought, no kidding, having known all the while that he had been my mintee in lu of a better word. I had
delivered lesson after lesson not in programming but in self marketing and in mindset to him from the
start. It was just my way of being, the lessons were not much more then normal conversation to me. The
kind that I would have with anyone. The difference was he listened and took it to heart. What I said made
sense to him and he took from it what he could.
You are on your own and you need to make your way all by yourself. Anyone who has made it or can
make it does not like to have people clinging on to them. It is tough enough to make it yourself and caring
someone else on your back is ridiculous. If you are lost then look around and find a clue. It’s ok to ask
questions but an education is not free and if you suck someone’s time you are stealing from them. Be
careful with people who are more then willing to impart their great wisdom to you for free or to invite you on
to their band wagon. If what they had to say had any real value then they would be selling it. Pearls of
wisdom are not free. But you can still get a hand full of rocks for nothing. And if you fill your pockets with
rock it will only make it that much harder to get ahead.
The Lesson to Learn:
No one likes a follower except a tyrant or a fool and you don’t want to put yourself under the control or
advice of either. People are attracted to strength and confidence so try to hold your own whenever
possible. Figure it out the best you can alone and that way you will have something of your own that you
can bring to the table. In so doing, it is more likely that those who know more then you will impart some
wisdom in the form of correction and advice.
The Brutal Truth:
If you are pathetic people will avoid you.