This summer was an educational summer for me. When I saw that Akamai was hosting a Girls Who Code session this summer, I couldn't have been more excited to contribute to the program.
I volunteered as a mentor for the summer, but I would be mentoring in a way I never had before. I've spent a summer teaching middle school students about Newtonian mechanics and how to program in C, but this was a new dimension of mentoring for me. Instead of developing technical skill or intuition, I would be talking through the experience of a woman in tech.
In the process, I learned a lot about mentoring. Here are the five main things I distilled from the experience:
Mentoring doesn't always have to be advice. I spent a lot of time listening to the projects my mentees were working on with Girls Who Code. I ended up asking them a lot of questions about what they were doing. At times, I would share my experiences, what I used for work, what I used for fun, what I was looking forward to trying in the future. This wasn't really advice, but instead folded what they were doing into real-world experiences. A natural part of mentoring is just demystifying the next steps in a career, everything from relating their projects to my work to even just giving them an an in-depth tour of the office.
Mentoring doesn't mean having the answers. I tried to stay away from prescriptive advice when I was mentoring. If I was asked questions about what works in a situation, I'd give my experience in similar situations, and talk about friends' or coworkers' experiences as best I could, especially if they varied wildly. I found that showing them different paths available, and maybe pointing them at places where they could find out more, worked really well for helping them see paths that they hadn't necessarily considered before.
Mentoring takes time, but not necessarily a huge amount. Originally, I was supposed to meet with my mentees once per week for an hour - and for the most part, that's what I did. But mentoring didn't stop there. Sessions always brought new questions to my mind, and I always wanted to bring information back. I spent other time finding out answers and finding others' experiences to share. But it was never onerous - it was new and interesting information for me too!
Mentoring benefits the mentor. In the end, I realized that mentoring had actually turned around and hugely benefited me. I realized how far I had come and how I had gotten there. I realized what choices I had made that had a great impact, versus the things I worried about but didn't matter either way, versus the acts of luck and chance that redirected me in different ways. This process of evaluating my own past was more effective than thinking about my experiences in a vacuum, and gave me a better idea of how to apply my own background to future endeavors.
Mentoring can be unofficial. Part of reflecting back on my own experience meant realizing that I was being mentored in ways that I didn't realize. While I was struggling in difficult classes as an undergraduate, I always had alum friends who were there to encourage me and give me advice. While applying for jobs, I had friends who pointed me towards interesting things. I never had one single mentor - I had loads of them, for many aspects of my life. And for that, I am very grateful.
From official mentoring to unofficial acts of support, from developing technical skill to being a sounding board for ideas, there are so many ways to improve the experience of underrepresented groups in tech. The girls in this program walked away with newfound skills, someone to bounce ideas off of, and a better idea of opportunities they have and how to access them.
It's exciting for me to see programs like Girls Who Code develop and thrive, and I'm glad that I don't have to be at the end of my career to support people at the beginning.
Melissa Hunt is a platform operations engineer at Akamai.