Mentorship can be a really valuable experience for both the mentor and the mentee. Working with diverse groups, however, can make this challenging as everyone brings with them unique struggles that need to be addressed. Thabang Magaola has experienced this first-hand from both sides and shares his insights on what he thinks it takes to be a great mentor.
Coding is something that Thabang has always been passionate about. Enrolling at CodeX, he quickly discovered that learning new concepts came easily to him. However, it was the collaboration aspect that the bootcamp offered that really excited him.
Because he had always been interested in helping people, he was a big fan of the mentorship program that CodeX was based on: “When I started at the bootcamp, I was told that we would be coding but also spending some time learning how you should communicate with people, collaborate, ask questions etc. They didn’t want us to move on without understanding all of these concepts, and I really liked that.”
Becoming a mentor
After graduating from the programme, Thabang was offered a developer position at a startup in Cape Town. Still wanting to give back to the community, he worked out an arrangement with his new CTO that allowed him to mentor at CodeX once a week. Sitting with a student for a few hours, as his mentors had done with him, he realised that he could make a real difference in their lives: “The more I gained experience mentoring, the more I experienced the pleasure that comes with people saying ‘I did this because of you.’”
Because he was dealing with large numbers of students from different backgrounds who had varying levels of experience and motivation, he found that he was continuously stretched, both intellectually and emotionally. Setting others up for success in a relatively short period of time proved to be both enormously challenging and exciting.
Having now worked as a mentor for about two years, Thabang has learnt a lot of lessons about what good mentorship looks like. Here are some of these learnings.
Listening to understand the other
Something that Thabang really valued about his mentors as a student was their level-headedness: “They were always very calm - even when someone was all over the place. They would take the time to calm you down first, and then listen to what your problem was. They’d try to understand it and then go through everything with you step by step.”
He personally found that his made him feel a lot more confident to reach out when he had a problem or didn’t understand something. “I know that if I felt like the mentors were judging me and getting annoyed with me when I didn’t know something, I would have stayed away from them.”
Now a mentor himself, Thabang recognises that many of the students who enroll at bootcamps face challenges that make it harder for them to feel comfortable to reach out. Something as seemingly simple as the language a course is taught in can make new technical information exponentially more overwhelming.
Thabang sees that these factors often result in students putting up mental and emotional barriers that are hard for mentors to break down.
“You need to know the level that they’re at. Some come with experience and some don’t. So, I think you need to be open and explain to them, look I’m here to help, and hopefully then they will open up to you.”
Establishing trust through listening
In Thabang’s experience, demonstrating the willingness to take the time to hear someone’s concerns establishes a solid level of trust. If a student feels that they can trust their mentor, they will be more likely to share what is really bothering them, and not just what is difficult for them at surface level. This, in turn, helps in the long run: “You help people by motivating them to want to help themselves.”
In addition, Thabang thinks that the more attention he pays to those around him, the more he can broaden his own perspective. He does this by always seeking answers: “I never like to get stuck on things, so I ask a lot of questions. I want to know everything about a situation before I continue.”
Whenever he’s presented with someone’s problem, Thabang follows these five steps:
- Understanding the problem: First, he tries to understand the problem at hand. If he cannot establish this understanding for himself, he knows that he needs to take the time to listen.
- Following up with his students: He asks the student to explain what is wrong and continues to check in with them that they are on the same page. He never wants to mislead someone by not understanding them, and so he makes an effort to get every detail.
- Reassuring his students: Once this understanding has been established, Thabang makes an effort to reassure the student, by saying, “There is nothing that you can’t tackle and I am here to help you with whatever struggles you face.”
- Setting up for the first step: Next, he encourages them to start. Acknowledging that this can be hard to do without giving away any answers, Thabang makes the effort to set the student up well enough so that they feel confident to hit the first key on their keyboards themselves.
- Assisting continuously: Finally, Thabang makes it clear that he is always available for his students to check in with him so that they continue to feel confident.
Being open to difference
Interacting with people with various degrees of experience, both as a student and now as a mentor, Thabang has recognised the challenges that this can bring: “Some people don’t have confidence and some are very defensive with their code. This can be quite hard.”
Because he knows that he will not always be on the same page as everyone that he meets, Thabang has started taking the time to understand people’s backgrounds.
Forming solid connections through curiosity
He has found that being more curious and open has helped him form more solid connections and establish a level of mutual respect and trust. He practices this simply by talking to people:
“I like to learn from others and I can only learn if I know their stories. By asking, I can find things out and then I can help.”
By doing this, he’s seen that ideas become easier to share, feedback becomes easier to digest and the learning experience becomes that much more enriching for everyone involved.
In order to actually implement this, Thabang has found it helpful to consider the following:
- Every person comes from a different background: This means not everyone starts on the same footing or for the same reasons.
- People may lack motivation because of what they have experienced in different education systems, or what they have seen happen in their families: This is more likely to be a learned blockage than an inherent attribute of the person.
- Frustrations can easily be transformed into opportunities to learn: Thabang always reminds himself, “Remember, things only become a problem when you allow them to be one.”
Being vulnerable is a strength
Thabang used to think of himself as an antisocial person. As someone who liked to find his own solutions, he never felt like he needed to ask for help. However, when he started at CodeX and had to work with groups to figure out new concepts, he found that he couldn’t just stick to himself: Putting himself out there was the quickest and most efficient way to make an impact.
“Sometimes you understand, and sometimes you don’t - you just have to tell the person you are working with. Maybe there will be someone else who can explain a concept better, and that’s okay. You don’t have to be like, ‘I know everything all the time’.”
This has only been amplified since he started mentoring. It is impossible for any one individual working with hundreds of different people with different problems to know everything. That’s why Thabang knows reaching out is often the only thing he can do: “Being a mentor has taught me that sometimes I just need help.”
Being vulnerable to overcome hurdles and build trust
By now, Thabang is not afraid to put his hand up and make it clear when he doesn’t know what is going on. This has really helped him overcome a lot of the hurdles that innate feelings like pride and self-doubt set up. As he says, “Being a mentor is not just about helping someone. It can also help you as well.”
Admitting his shortcomings as a leader also hasn’t cost him any respect from his students. In fact, he’s found that his students can better relate to him on a personal level and thus trust him enough to reach out when they need help. Students also increasingly want to contribute and offer support to others because they have experienced someone doing it for them. This is what brings Thabang the most joy: “When the students say, ‘You are my role model,’ I feel like I have really made an impact.”
When Thabang is faced with helping a student with something that he doesn’t know, he tries to put himself on the same level as the person that he is helping by doing the following:
- He shares his story with them: “These people (the mentors) have been in your situation so they know what you’re going through!” Providing this context helps to remove power dynamics from difficult situations so that everyone feels comfortable enough to talk at eye level.
- He shows students that he is excited to learn with them: By acknowledging that he sometimes doesn’t know how to answer a question but is keen to work through it with the student, Thabang has seen that any judgement is quickly dissolved.
- He swallows his pride: By being curious about problems instead of frustrated by them, Thabang has found that it is easier for him to address challenges. He has seen that admitting his deficiencies as a leader has opened him up to the possibility of being better while simultaneously encouraging others to do the same.
When asked about how he feels about making mentorship his full-time career, Thabang said that the decision has made him feel thoroughly fulfilled. He is excited to push himself to keep learning so that he can continue to help make a difference for the people that he meets.
If you have any experience with mentoring, or have someone who has made a profound impact on your life, we would love to hear more about it.