Are mentors dead?

IT isn't exactly the friendliest atmosphere for the traditional master/apprentice approach. Or is it America that's the problem?

No more mentors

I've blogged about this many times in the past only now I've got some new material.  The need for mentors in the IT industry is at an all-time high and not having them is causing a lot of the grief we see in our jobs.  It's just not enough to read a book and experiment with code until we get it right.  Just like in DBs it's not enough to read about backups and learn the syntax, or to read about the different types of backups;   you have to know when and how to use them to achieve your result.  And this is the knowledge that comes only with experience and learning a few lessons the hard way.  Actually that's not entirely true.  There are really 2 ways to learn these lessons:  either by picking them up the hard way, or from someone else who has picked them up the hard way.  Unfortunately, as an industry we really only learn our own hard lessons anymore, and the business suffers along with the customers.

http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/2006/061214/full/nj7121-966a.html
Wouldn't it be so much more efficient if we could have someone who's been there to guide us and to stop us from doing something stupid before we do it?  Well, that's not going to happen because in this country we don't see the value in learning something the right way; we only see the bottom line.  And companies for some reason are unable to see the direct line between their loss of business, increased support costs, and loss of data quality, and letting their people experiment with live processes because they don't know any better.  If you think about it, it's really a powerful statement about the way we do business in this country.  Companies just aren't willing to pay for apprentice positions, and people have been conditioned to expect to be called a master within a couple years of starting a new skill.  People just don't know how to slow down and gain seasoning with their craft anymore.

I would not only love to see more mentoring in the industry, I've also tried to do something about it.  And I wish I could report that it went well, but it didn't.  In the past two years I've taken on 3 people to mentor and with each one it lasted only a short time.  And I'm really not sure why.  I gave assignments, I talked to them on the phone, and on LiveMeeting, and I did my best to teach them how to think like DBAs.  And I put quite a bit of time and effort into it because I believe that so many new DBAs really need a mentor.  But after only 3 or 4 weeks they all quit doing their lessons and things just kinda died.  So I don't know, maybe they weren't the right people for that kind of teaching or maybe they just lost interest in being mentored and decided to go back to books.  All I know is that it was a failed experiment.

I don't know if that means this industry just isn't ready for apprenticeships, or if just those 3 people weren't.  Perhaps I'd have better luck convincing a company to take on such an endeavor, but they're typically too narrow-focused.  Companies want 20yr veterans for $40k.  They want their biggest problems solved with the least effort and the least money.  And they want to know that they'll be the only ones breaking up.  That's right.  If a company is going to put the effort into training an apprentice they want the assurance he will be there until the company gets tired of him and cans him for some trumped-up reason like sending a group email about girl scout cookies or something.  Companies preach loyalty but when it comes down to it, they mean loyalty to them.  They're typically not willing to return it.  That's why I'm always so amazed when I go someplace and they've got people who have been there for 20yrs because that just doesn't happen often enough these days.  Companies routinely trade their senior IT staff for younger, cheaper models.  The key word there is "cheaper".  And it's expensive to keep someone for a long time.  You have to keep giving them raises so after 10yrs or so you've got some IT people making a decent salary.  So the raises just stop or they're traded in.

There's also the problem of experience.  It's much harder to grow in your field if you're only exposed to a single company's methods.  I know I've never worked in a company that was willing to try lots of new things.  It's mostly taken me many months to convince them to try even the simplest new features.  It's funny isn't it?  They'll let anyone who's read a book write code or watch systems that are directly involved with their bottom-line, but they won't let an experienced industry leader make a simple change that could improve their shop drastically.  That's kinda like a hawk picking a fight with a cobra and running away from a canary. 

But it's hard to get techies to want to stick around at a single shop for a really long time because they're just not exposed to enough and they won't stay on top of their game.  They won't get to see all the cool things that are being done out there.  So that's a problem too.  There really aren't any solid answers.  Companies will continue to give their upper brass huge bonuses while everyone else goes without.  Companies will continue to throw away their most experienced IT staff at their whim.  And companies will continue to hire college kids over those who know what they're doing.  I think the words of one of the HR reps in a former company of mine sums it up best.  He said this when I left and my boss was trying to convince him to find a way to keep me.  "So what, he's only a DBA.  They're everywhere, just go find another one."

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