A look at gem’s engineering mentorship program
May 11, 2022
There’s an aspiration to experience exponential growth baked into most startups. This has certainly been the case at Gem—we’ve planned to double headcount in 2022 alone. But exponential growth comes with its own challenges, one of which is ensuring that we’re thoughtfully developing the team we’re scaling. After all, it’s one thing to hire the best talent; it’s another to mentor the team we have today so that they can, in turn, mentor the team we’ll hire tomorrow. A mentorship framework is an indispensable tool for ensuring each of our engineers is flourishing, has all the tools to tackle the challenges they’ll face in building a stellar product, and is nourishing a collaborative mindset that makes our team ever-stronger.
I joined Gem as an engineering manager in November of last year. During my onboarding process, one of my most pressing priorities was gauging the needs of my new team. As I watched and listened, it became clear that one of the most significant things I could focus on in 2022 and beyond was how to ensure my team was set up for both short- and long-term growth and success. We didn't have any official mentorship framework that I was aware of. But one of the things that’s so unique about Gem is that, while startups at our stage typically won’t take the time to put such frameworks in place, this company is intentional with its early investments. The team understood that a mentoring program was core to the culture we want to sustain.
I had participated in mentorship programs in previous organizations, so I had models to work with. Dropbox, for example, had a very formally-run mentorship program; and some of the concepts below—the mentorship categories, for example—were inspired by my time there. Most of this had been tried-and-tested in some way. But I decided to start small, and implement the program within my own team. And if the results were favorable, I could use the data points and best practices we uncovered together to inform an expansion of the program to the whole of engineering.
So 2022 was our first year implementing Gem’s Engineering Mentorship Program. Gem’s values include velocity, diversity, and customer-centricity; and we knew that implementing such a program would ensure we upheld those values: cultivating a team that could move quickly, that could build the best possible features for our customer base, and whose opportunities and resources were distributed equitably. All of this trickles down to culture. Mentorship establishes strong relationships and lines of communication within the organization. Ultimately, it helps us move quickly, confidently, and collaboratively.
It was important to me, and to the team, that we recognized the types of mentorship that are available. Different teams categorize them differently, but we settled on these:
Informal mentorship, in which mentor and mentee arrive to their 1:1 without a formal agenda. This way, the mentee can discuss whatever is top-of-mind for them.
Formal or active membership, which is more structured and revolves around mentees’ goals (i.e. writing better tech specs) and the steps they’re taking to achieve them
Craft mentorship, which focuses on improving the mentee’s craft (i.e. how to give more effective code reviews)
Career mentorship, which focuses on how the mentee can prepare for the next steps in their career
The point of these categories, of course, is recognizing that mentorship should be personalized, meeting each mentee where they’re at in their craft and in their career arc. So I had many 1:1 conversations with individual team members early on: Where were their areas of opportunity and growth? The pairings were determined based on what I discovered in those dialogues.
With our mentors, we discussed strategies for building trust with mentees: building rapport, staying curious, listening actively, offering encouragement and praise. We emphasized solving problems together, such that the mentor wasn’t handing out a solution but guiding the mentee to identify the principles that underpin a good solution. We emphasized that the best mentorship provides a safe space to learn and ask questions without judgment, and that the highest-leverage outcome of a solid mentorship is that the mentee can now mentor someone else in the same area or skill.
Below are some testimonials from engineers who participated in the first iteration of Gem’s Engineering Mentorship Program:
The value I've gotten from Gem's engineering mentorship is immeasurable. Engineers here have taught me how to think about code while considering both velocity and also long-term scalability and readability. To think not only about shipping things fast but also with standards and best-in-class procedures has been an incredible learning experience. Additionally, mentorship here is not just a strict mentor/mentee relationship. In my time at Gem, I've never felt that I could not defend an idea and had to instead automatically defer to someone more senior. A culture around banter and active discussion is very much alive regardless of your position or tenure. - Maggie Zhang
Mentors did not just serve as first/second point of contact for issues that I'm facing but also asked interesting questions to help me think more deeply about my design decisions. They also shared their experiences with me to help me plan out my professional career. - Ronak Patel
I really value my mentor's perspective. She has added depth to my understanding of what goes into scaling the tech, team, and processes at Gem. In addition, she has made me a better mentor for several of my teammates, which enables me to pay it forward. - Kevin Lee
I learned a lot about development practices, including writing more maintainable code and improving on my product sense. Having mentors who've had experiences building software that serve billions helped me learn about designing architecture to scale with users. Having such experienced peers mentor me was an invaluable opportunity since it let me grow as an engineer and be a more productive member of the team. The fact that everyone was open to answering questions and walking over the most basic of doubts at any time helped me learn from mistakes and not worry about being judged for making errors. - Mayank Kanoria
Coming from a background where all of my coding was done in isolation—both in a bootcamp and in revenue operations—the mentorship program gave me a look into how teams function. It really taught me the value of working as a pod, and perhaps more importantly, best practices for collaborating with other engineers. What I also found to be incredibly valuable was the hands-on experience from taking a feature from a customer's request (or complaint) to meetings with a pod all the way to writing tech specs and going back and forth in code reviews. It not only helped me level up my coding skills but it also showed me what I was about to get myself into with my career change. And I don't regret it one bit! - John Yamashiro
Engineering mentorship is the fastest way to get 'deep' knowledge on a topic. While googling a question might give you surface-level insights like why you're getting a type error, experienced engineers can delve into the tradeoffs of different design choices and explain intuition behind best practices. - Alex Shadley
Of course, there’s always room to grow, which is what makes first versions of initiatives like this so exciting. For example, I had a team of 10 this year to test the program on, which meant there was room to play when it came to matching mentors and mentees. But as we grow the program to other eng teams—including smaller ones—the challenge will be: How do we find the mentors who match what our reports need? So my plan is to keep mapping out what cross-functional mentorships would look like. Mentees might have mentors from design, or product, or another department entirely that they want to learn more about. One team member this year was mentored by a Product Manager because that was where their interest was. So finding the right skills cross-functionally will be an interesting and exciting challenge.
Another thing I hope to put more thoughtfulness into is a more thorough kickoff session for our mentors, to give them more clarity about approaches and best practices. I look forward to iterating on the program with the input of everyone who passes through it, so we can build this program—along with our entire engineering culture—thoughtfully and collaboratively.
For me—and for many on the team—Gem’s Engineering Mentorship program is a great differentiator. I now have a success story for my own team that’s justified the work that so many put into it. Engineers on other teams have reached out to learn more about the program, and I envision it growing and evolving to meet the nuanced needs of our diverse and intelligent team.
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