Finding a Mentor

In the 1990 movie "Joe Versus the Volcano," starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, Joe's boss says repeatedly, "I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?" If you're new to the IT field, you might be asking yourself that same question.

Questions will continue to arise throughout your career. The fast-changing nature of the field is such that you'll likely switch certification tracks and change jobs more quickly than you would with other careers. These changes bring new questions: Where do I go from here? What should I do when I'm thrust into situations that are beyond my abilities and experience? What should my next career goal be, and what steps must I take to achieve it? When will I know that the time has come to move on? How can I navigate the office politics and survive?

Such questions have no easy answers, and the solutions are different for each individual and circumstance. What you need is a mentor. Finding a mentor is an important step in ensuring continued growth in the IT field. A mentor can serve as a sounding board, a sanity check, a second set of eyes, a study partner, a cheerleader, and a career counselor--all rolled into one.

So how do you find a mentor? Running an ad in the paper probably won't do. I recommend that you consider friends, certification classmates, IT instructors, and trusted coworkers. The type of person you're looking for is really a friend. If you don't consider a potential mentor a friend, he or she probably isn't the right choice.

A good sense of humor can be an important asset in a mentor, especially because at times, we all tend to take ourselves a bit too seriously. Don't choose someone who's full of "doom and gloom" or who likes to gossip. You're not looking for someone who'll suggest that your company is about to fail, that massive layoffs are eminent, and that the boss is about to run off with his secretary.

Sometimes a friend who isn't too close to IT can provide wise counsel, so don't automatically reject candidates who don't have technical backgrounds. Try to find someone who can provide a "secure channel"--someone with whom you can share career plans and challenges without worrying about those conversations going beyond the two of you. I've found that the best mentors are people with whom I've had an evolving relationship--perhaps from acquaintance to friend to listener to confidant to mentor.

Great truths are often caught and not taught. A mentor can help make the big career decisions easier and the usual frustrations and challenges more manageable.

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