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Ambassadors | Blog | Mentorship

Illuminating Pathways for Our Future Innovators

By | January 16, 2024

Written by Elizabeth Joseph, Open Mainframe Project Ambassador, Chair of Software Discovery Tool, CO-Chair of the Linux Distributions Working Group and Global Head of the Open Source Program Office for IBM

I spent 15 years doing Linux Systems Administration, and early in my tenure I was given some guidance:

“You can’t call yourself a ‘Senior’ Systems Administrator unless there were non-Senior technical contributors who you were actively mentoring.”

It drove home to me early that it was not only a level of technical accomplishment that led you to grow in your career, “Senior” as a title also meant that you were also teaching and supporting the next generation.

I’ve always loved sharing my knowledge, so I’ve always been drawn to formal mentorship programs that helped me do that in a more targeted way. The LFX Mentorship program, which I participated in as a mentor through my involvement in the Open Mainframe Project, is my latest and has proven to be one of my best experiences as a mentor.

Prior to applying to the program, potential mentees can browse mentorships through the LFX mentorship page. This is incredibly helpful for mentees who are unsure about where to start and what skills projects are looking for, but it’s also helpful to the projects – mentees browse everything, including projects that may be more unusual or niche. Several of the mentees I’ve worked with on the Software Discovery Tool had no experience with mainframes before the mentorship program, so it was a great opportunity to introduce more students to the platform and the mainframe community, along with key contributors in Linux distributions I work with.

The mentorship program is competitive, I have dozens of applications to go through each term, and it’s always a difficult decision to make! So I have the following recommendations to potential mentees to improve your chances:

  1. Tailor your application to the project. If the project is a Python-based web application and your application shows you love writing AI tooling in Go, the reviewer may not feel like you’re a good fit.
  2. Visit the project before final mentorship decisions are made – know what you’re getting into! Is this really a project you’ll want to be fully engaged with for 12 weeks? Do you think you’ll learn something new and interesting?
  3. Join a project meeting and introduce yourself. General project meetings in open source communities are open to everyone, so if you see one happening during the application period – join it! If there’s an opportunity to introduce yourself, take advantage of that, and share your thoughts.
  4. Reply to a code review, or an issue. If your name is familiar to the mentors, your chances for acceptance are much higher. So do whatever you can to engage early on and get to know participants of the project.

Once the mentorship begins, your experience as a mentee will be a lot better if you’re not afraid to ask your mentor for help and guidance, especially if you’re struggling. That’s what we’re there for! It may be that you simply have to spend a bit more time learning about a specific technology or implementation. This is expected. The program’s goal is learning, you want to make sure you get that help from your mentor. This is a safe space to share your challenges and get help when you’re stuck.

Additionally, be sure to notify your mentor if you feel like you’re getting off-track and won’t meet the goals set at the beginning of the program. Technical projects are notoriously difficult to scope, so it may be that the work presented to you will simply take longer than expected due to unforeseen challenges. In these cases, the project goals and parameters may need to be adjusted. In one of my projects, it turns out a complicated back-end component had too many variables to consider and work around, so the conclusion of one summer’s work was a Proof of Concept, rather than a full implementation. That’s fine! We simply adjusted the goals, and it was still a very successful program. Plus, it gave our next mentee an implementation to work from.

As a mentor, I’ve also learned some valuable things about running a successful program for the mentee. The recipe for me has always been a lot of communication, support, and kindness. But specifically, I have the following tips for potential mentors:

  1. Solve any logistical/access problems prior to the beginning of the mentorship. In the mainframe space, we sometimes require students to have access to hardware they may not have access to at their school. Make sure you work a way for the mentee to gain access before the program starts so time isn’t wasted finding resources.
  2. Have a clearly defined project that has a clear goal which can be accomplished in 12 weeks. I mentioned above that scoping technical projects is hard, but do your best! And know that they’ll need time to learn the environment, as well as do the work.
  3. Try to weave in some “side quests” – work that may not be part of their main goal, but is relatively simple. Maybe a small bug comes up that you think would be good for a newcomer, send it their way! A small fix to documentation? Have them update that too! Small wins build confidence, and their experience with other parts of the project will be valuable to their experience.
  4. Meet with your mentees at least weekly. This is a big one! Don’t wait for them to come to you. Check in weekly to get a status update, specifically ask about any roadblocks or problems. I also take this time to get to know them a little bit, how’s your cat doing? Do anything fun over the weekend? I’ve found that making that personal connection makes them less shy about coming to me with problems, and in some cases I’ve made some real friends.
  5. Have mentees document what they’ve done each week. You can do this in a shared document online, or in a spot on GitHub, but it’s important because it’s easy to forget what was accomplished. GitHub doesn’t track everything, and even what it does track is not always easily consumable on a timeline level. It seems like busy work at first, but it truly becomes a valuable resource for everyone for mid-term evaluations, final projects, blog posts, and even when your mentee goes to showcase experience and expertise to potential employers.

If you’re still on the fence about being a mentor, I also want to share that it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. It’s a commitment of time, for sure, but the connections I’ve made with students, and how much they’ve taught me about their own experiences with technology and coming into the industry today makes it worth it every time. Plus, there’s now a new feature or improvement to the project I’m running! Everybody wins.

You can learn more about the Open Mainframe Project Mentorship Program here: Watch my mentorship keynote from Open Mainframe Summit Las Vegas 2023 here.

And more generally about how to join LFX Mentorships as a mentor or mentee at Happy learning!