Re-thinking mentorship: Work on your own project and learn what you want

We often think about mentorship as informal coaching within the project when a senior professional helps a junior specialist grow certain skills. Usually, you have to learn something that will help you be more effective in your main job. Can it be different?

We’ve talked to Mykhailo, a middle front-end developer, and his mentor Volodymyr, a tech lead at N-iX, about their mentoring experience. 

Why did you decide to apply for mentorship at N-iX?

Mykhailo [mentee]: Besides programming, I’m passionate about Brazilian jiu-jitsu and work as an instructor. I train many groups and I’ve always had problems with managing all that paperwork, maintaining routine accounting records, the attendance schedule, and so on. 

So a while ago, I started working on an app that would help people like me do all that stuff in a few clicks. I developed the first version with a lot of fancy features and got stuck. At that point, I realized it would be great to have someone with more experience who could guide me.

I read about our mentorship program on N-iX Instagram. And then, my manager advised me to try it. So I decided to give it a go.

How did you decide which technologies to learn and skills to develop?

Mykhailo [mentee]: I work with Vue on my project at N-iX. Also, I have experience with Angular, and the first version of the app was written with it. But I wanted to learn React as well, and mentorship was a perfect opportunity to do it. I could kill two birds with one stone: finish my app and work with the technologies I’ve always wanted to learn.

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How did your menor help you in moving your project forward and ultimately releasing the app?

Mykhailo [mentee]: Volodymyr helped me to organize my work and asked all the right  questions like: “What is your goal?”, “How will your app actually help its users?”, “Is there a better way to implement this functionality?”. And I understood that I didn’t think about my app from a business perspective. I acted as a developer and focused on different features.

Also, Volodymyr was my personal technical consultant. He helped me figure out a number of general approaches regarding routing and state management in React and consulted me on some packages for back-end service. 

For the first version, I used a NoSQL database. But for the second version, I wanted to write the back-end for my app with Node.js and create a server using Express.js, PostgreSQL, and Sequelize ORM. But soon I realized that it is a big project that would take a lot of effort. So I decided to go with Firebase instead of building the back-end from scratch.

Rethinking mentorship mykhailo

How did you combine your own project with a full-time job?

Mykhailo [mentee]: It was challenging. You work all day and then you spend your evenings developing your app. But Volodymyr and I had a clear roadmap and I tried to stick to it. In the end, it was worth it. I released my app and learned a lot of new tools and technologies.

Rethinking mentorship application

What are your key takeaways from this experience? 

Mykhailo [mentee]: Now, I know for sure how important it is to question everything you do. This applies not only to developing your own product but also to working with a client. You can’t just do the tasks and write the code. You need to try to understand the client’s needs and goals. If you ask the right questions from the start, you can both avoid unnecessary rework and make your client happy.

Also, I realized that the user feedback is extremely important. When I asked my friends to try out the app, I gathered a lot of insights. It saved a lot of time and significantly improved the user experience of my app.

Your mentee, Mukhailo, works in the Kyiv office of N-iX and you are in Lviv. How did you organize your work?

Volodymyr [mentor]: There was no problem with that. We are all used to working in distributed teams. Right at the first meeting, we agreed on clear deadlines and a schedule of our meetings. We created a Trello board which helped us track our progress and had the calls every fortnight. We worked together for several months and had 9 meetings. This is how long it took Mykhailo to finish and release Smart Journal.

Rethinking mentorship volodymyr

What do you think helped Mykhailo achieve his goal? 

Volodymyr [mentor]: It’s great that Mykhailo had a clear goal and was not afraid of the challenges. He wanted to learn React and chose it for building his app. He could select the framework he knew, such as Angular or Vue. But who goes the easy way? 🙂 So my task was to direct him, help with the tech decisions, and give a little push. 

What did you get from your experience as a mentor? 

Volodymyr [mentor]: I improved my soft skills a lot and became a better listener. Now, I can better understand my teammates. So I encourage them to ask questions and speak up every time they have some issues. This helps remove a lot of bottlenecks and “burn” tasks in a sprint faster.

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I’ve worked at N-iX for 5 years now, and I’ve mentored people informally on different projects. But it was my first experience in the role of a mentor for a person outside my project. And this is something really different because you need to prepare for each meeting and be ready to answer the questions you don’t expect. It was a great experience for me.

Would you like to mentor someone else again?

Volodymyr [mentor]: Absolutely.