There is lots to digest and think about after last weeks Tableau Conference and I still plan to write down a summary of my experience. One thing I wanted to write down before however were my thoughts on “Mentorship” because it was kind of a red thread through some of the sessions and discussions during the week.
There are lots of things to be said about the Tableau Community – about the people that spend hours and days in forums, on Twitter or using Tableau Desktop in order to come up with new ideas, teach others how to create visualisations and answer even the simplest questions patiently until everybody understood the answer.
On the other hand, there are the different teams in Tableau who engage with the community in order to gather feedback and improve the products and platforms they offer. All of us have the possibility to contribute and while there are certainly a lot of other considerations in addition to my single opinion from the other end of the world, it is still great to know that there are channels through which my opinion will at least be heard.
One of these channels is the annual “Fanalytics” session at the Tableau Conference, organised by the Tableau Public team, it aims to gather feedback and brainstorm ideas on what improvements should be made and how.
This year I volunteered to lead a table discussion about “Finding a Tableau Mentor” and it became the unofficial theme for my conference week. Now, that I am back home, I will try to gather my thoughts and the results of our discussion for everybody to read.
What is a Mentor?
The first boss I had talked about one of the Country Managers in the office as “his Mentor”. Until this day I am not 100% sure what that meant but my impression was that it was a very informal relationship in which my boss could go to this manager whenever he needed advise on how to deal with a problem or when he had to take a difficult decision. One notable thing about this relationship was that the manager my boss considered his Mentor was probably around 10 years younger than himself.
Since then this was my concept of a Mentor. More a councillor than a teacher and more an organically grown relationship than a concious decision.
Then I went to watch Mike Cisneros’ and Alicia Bembenek’s talk on their Mentorship relationship and it turned my concept upside-down. I highly recommend watching the session below.
Just as a quick summary, Alicia consciously selected Mike as her Mentor, Mike agreed and they set up a very formal arrangement in which he supports her to reach her goals (spoiler alert: successfully).
In our table discussion we had roughly 20 participants and most of us agreed that there is no right or wrong when talking about a mentorship relationship. From formal like Alicia and Mike to ad-hoc in which it is really just an answer to a specific question, anything can work. Typically however mentorship is associated with a more general advisory role which does not only cover technical expertise but also removes general roadblocks. Somebody who can build your confidence, follows up on your work but also holds you accountable for the promises you made. A Mentor might introduce you to their network of people to help you progress or point you into the right direction while you still have to do the legwork yourself and a Mentor might actually just ask more questions rather than just providing answers.
I had a teacher who I asked about a research project and whether it might be advantageous to put effort in it. He told me to go for it and research the topic. Only later I found out that he did it himself already 10 years ago and knew exactly what the outcome would be.An anecdote from the table discussion
Who can be a Mentor?
The short answer: YOU!
Everybody can be a Mentor, the challenge most people face is that they are not confident enough in their level of skill and how it relates to everybody else. One of our participants who administers a huge Tableau Server environment for two years and is completely self-taught came to the Conference to improve his skills and learn from others. After being one of the most knowledgeable people in a discussion following a server session, it turns out that he knows a lot more than the average person and might actually be better suited as a Mentor than a Mentee. He summarised it very well by saying that people tend to look up a lot more than look down. It’s easier for people to see their lack of skill when few others are better, than to see how much more experienced they are in comparison to the majority.
At the same time, being a Mentor doesn’t exclude you from being a Mentee. There are many things to learn and your Mentee could at the same time be your Mentor for a different subject.
Who wants to be a Mentor?
If you are in touch with the community already, it will hardly surprise you that many people love to help others. The rate at which questions of all sorts are answer in the forum and on Twitter is just staggering!
At least of the people I talked to, many would also consider being a Mentor to somebody. I myself enjoy training and helping people however this is mostly very technical, and while I am confident doing this, I feel that I am too inexperienced for the whole “life-coach” side of things. At the same time, if I step back a bit and try to compare my experience to other peoples experience, I might actually have some insights to offer – similarly to the Server guy from our table discussion I can only find that out by talking to others and comparing experiences. Again, taking a step back and understanding “how skilled” you are is probably the most difficult here.
What does a Mentor gain?
Mentorship is one of the things where you might actually gain at least as much as you give, if not more. In every training that I gave there was always this one question that I never thought of. This question made me think about the topic in a different way and maybe I even had to google something or try it myself to find the answer. At the end I usually found an answer which satisfied the person who questioned and taught myself something that I didn’t know before. A Mentee will ask all these weird things which you just took for granted. Why is it this way? Wouldn’t it be better if it was that way? Why can I do this here but have to do that there?
Having to find answers to these questions is hugely valuable, can teach a lot about the topic and helps you grow and consider different perspectives. In this sense, the job of the Mentor AND the Mentee should be to raise questions for each other so that both can grow with each other.
How do you become a Mentor or Mentee?
Everybody I talked to agreed that it is mostly the Mentees responsibility to find a Mentor. The Mentee is the one who has specific goals they want to reach. It should be on them to demonstrate their commitment by researching and approaching potential Mentors. It should be a conscious and thought-through approach rather than a quick one liner in a Twitter reply (again, if you haven’t already, watch Alicia’s and Mike’s talk, they cover this bit in detail). As a Mentor I wouldn’t really want to invest time in somebody when I don’t know that they are serious about it and actually want to grow through my help.
How can you help?
Put yourself out there and make people aware of what you need or offer! Mike and Alicia handed out pins and stickers saying “Mentee” and “Mentor”, write a blogpost, put it on Twitter. Don’t force it and keep in mind that either party can say “No!” if they don’t feel comfortable. I would rather have no Mentorship relationship than one where one or both parties are unhappy with the arrangement. I would be happy to help somebody, assuming our personalities and goals align but especially considering that I can fill my spare time with enough other things, I definitely don’t want to find a Mentee, just so I can say I am a Mentor.
I am happy to help people and to invest some time in teaching others and giving back to the community. I honestly feel a bit intimidated by the idea of a formal Mentorship, as I am not sure I could satisfy all the expectations it would bring with it; at the same time it’s great to see somebody else’s progress and to know that I contributed to it.
Let me know if you have experiences with Mentorship either being a Mentor or a Mentee. I am curious to hear how other people set up a relationship like this, if it was conscious or by chance and how it all worked out for either part.
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