Skip to main content


Why does everyone here have such negative body language?
Do you remember the Saturday morning TV "Shazam/Isis Power Hour"?  Among the many wonders this show offered was young Billy Batson driving all over the US in a big recreational vehicle with his mentor, Mentor.  Despite Mentor's presence, the two of them somehow continually got into difficult situations which prompted Billy to shout "Shazam!" and transform into Captain Marvel in order to save the day.  I always think of "Shazam!" when mentoring comes up in conversation, and I can't help but get a momentary image of Mentor behind the wheel of the RV, eyes twinkling, but looking somewhat deranged.

Mentoring is a tricky business, and it is not for the faint of heart.  Superficially, it's quite straightforward.  You, the wise and senior person, make yourself available to Billy, a person of hidden talents and perhaps flowing brown hair, but nonetheless something of a punk, and give him sage advice in his times of need.  He is grateful and respectful.  You are modest, but you're still totally the one on the ball.

But what happens in real life?
  • Uncertainty:  One chief difference between you and young Billy is that you've been humbled by any number of situations in the past, and of the two of you, you are the one most likely to suspect that there may not be a good option out there in some difficult situations--it may simply be a choice for the lesser of two evils.  Like "if the CEO really thinks that power is the same as knowledge, it doesn't matter how much you empower the team, because he's still going to surprise them with complete changes of direction every four months, and they'll have to start all over again."
  • Rapid (but inexplicable) Cognition:  Your years of experience may give you a tendency to come to quick, shorthand, Gladwell-esqe "blink" type conclusions you can't fully explain to your mentee, like "I think that person is totally evil and probably enjoys inflicting pain but not leaving visible bruises."  These instincts could be very good, but if you can't explain them, the more rational of your mentees may not feel you've transferred anything of use to them in your conversation.
  • The Occasional "Shazam!" Moment:  sometimes you just know exactly what is going on for your mentee, and you can explain it to them in a few deft sentences, and leave them with a clear idea of how to move forward.  Like "if you want to quickly put together a good plan for implementing test automation in a legacy environment, just look at Mike Cohn's blog on the topic--he explains the whole thing!"
Despite our best efforts, we often cannot help our mentees learning difficult lessons for themselves.  Few people can actually learn from the experiences of others.  But we keep trying, and become more humble as we go.

It turns out that "mentor" wasn't originally a verb.  In Homer's literally epic "The Odyssey," Mentor is the name of the person Odysseus leaves in charge of his young son, Telemachus, when Odysseus goes off to the Trojan Wars.  Eventually, Odysseus comes back, and gets young Telemachus to help him wipe out the many suitors who have come to court Penelope, Telemachus's mom.  As part of this nuclear family defense plan, it turns out that Telemachus is actually strong enough to wield Odysseus's bow himself, but he tactfully refrains from doing so on his dad's signal, to ensure the appropriate happy ending to the story.

I'm not sure what Mentor was thinking as he observed this bit of byplay, but for me, part of the strength of being someone's advisor is that eventually the tables turn, and sometimes you learn more from your mentee than they learn from you.


Popular posts from this blog

A Corporate Agile 10-point Checklist

I'm pretty sure my few remaining friends in the "small, collocated team agile" community are going to desert me after this, but I actually have a checklist of 10 things to think about if you're a product owner at a big company thinking of trying out some agile today.  Some of these might even apply to you if you're in a smaller place.  So at the risk of inciting an anti-checklist riot (I'm sorry, Pez!), I am putting this out there in case it is helpful to someone else.

Here's what you should think about:

1.Your staffing pattern.  A full agile project requires that you have the full team engaged for the whole duration of the project at the right ratios.  So as you provision the project, check to see whether you can arrange this staffing pattern.  If not, you will encounter risks because of missing people.  Concretely it means that:
a.You need your user experience people (if applicable) and your analysts at the beginning of the project, as always, b…

The Agile Business Case

Many agile teams have never seen a business case, ever, and they may even be proud of it.

Our mantra is that we deliver "business value," not just "software," quicker, better, and faster, but if so, we certainly don't spend a lot of time reporting on value delivery, and in fact we may be scornful about "analysis paralysis."  As software developers, we consider ourselves to be doing quite well if we can deliver the software every two weeks (or continuously).  And this is particularly if we've enabled this frequent high-quality delivery through automated testing and automated build-and-release techniques.  We've reduced business risk by making results visible more often, and allowing the business to change direction more frequently.  We assert that along the way of course we're also delivering value.  But how would we prove it?

I've recently posited that we shouldn't even think of doing agile projects without capturing and recording s…

How To Write A One-Page Proposal to an Executive

One day you may need to communicate with an executive. Pro tip 1:  executives do not have time for you to dim the lights and show them forty slides with charts composed of animated dancing leprechauns and flashing arrows that emerge from the void in a checkerboard pattern. Pro tip 2:   Guys, and gals with deep voices, executives also don't need you to use your "Radio Announcer Voice."

As a rule, what executives want is simple: one printed page. No matter what it is, it should be one page. And it should be printed, not emailed.  You should plan to hand it to the executive, and then you should be quiet when they read it and wait for their questions.  It's harder than it sounds.
 So how do you do it?  Here are the steps:
Write the deck that expresses your proposal in as many slides as it takes.  Use imaginative animation and blinking letters if you must.Remove your title slide.Insert a new slide at the front of the deck with "Appendix" written on it in big …