Thursday, September 04, 2008

A mentoring experience

About a year ago, I was introduced by email to a young fellow I'll call Pankaj, and we had lunch together for the first time yesterday. We had a great time. Here's how it happened.

I had signed up with MentorNet as an available mentor for a student or someone starting out in my field. This is a high-tech and focused version of what we used to call "penpals." The idea is that prospective mentors and mentees sign up and give their preferences: want a male or female counterpart*, how close a match to their current field of work/study they want, etc. Then, like a dating service or something, they match you up and encourage you to email each other regularly (weekly or biweekly).
*"counterpart" isn't quite right; neither is "partner", but the idea is "your mentor or protégé." (the mentornet folk use "protégé.") The Japanese word 「相手」 is what I want, but I'm not sure what the right English word is.
So I was introduced to "Pankaj" and we exchanged emails from time to time.

But MentorNet don't just leave you; they send reminders, suggested discussion topics, etc. Sometimes I used the MentorNet reminders as a starting point for discussions. Once, when I had sent emails a few days or weeks apart without getting a reply, the MentorNet reminder said that students often felt overwhelmed with their studies, with their part-time jobs if they had any, etc., so don't be discouraged if they don't always write back right away, and don't give up on them. That one was well-timed.

Sometimes Pankaj would ask me about something and I would send him a pointer to one of my blog posts. Occasionally I'd write a new blog post based on something he asked. But most of the time I tried to give him sage advice (yeah right) about careers and life. And somewhat inspired by 1 Thessalonians 2:8, I talked about life outside of "business" -- family, vacations, church, etc. And when he wrote about his travel (back to his home country), his family, etc., I responded as I'd want someone to respond to my daughter living on the other side of the continent. And I tried to imagine how his parents must feel with their son half-way around the world.

As it turns out, I didn't really have much sage advice for him. He asked me how to select a topic for a research paper, and I didn't know. He asked how to avoid getting "pigeonholed," and I didn't know that either. But I told him what I did know, and how I would think about these things.

So at the end of our designated 8-month period, when the MentorNet folks asked me how I felt about the experience, I wasn't sure. Sometimes my emails would go unanswered, sometimes I had no clue how to answer his questions, and overall I wasn't sure how useful I was to him.

Then Pankaj asked to get together in person, which I immediately agreed to.

So yesterday it happened. He came to the NetApp office and we had lunch on the patio. At one point, he paused to thank me for being involved with him, being his mentor. I mean he was effusive! He said my emails were always so encouraging (and I'm thinking, What did I say? ), that I kept emailing him even when he didn't reply for a while (I never gave up on him), etc. And, he said, he was especially happy that I didn't email him only about classes and careers, but also told him about my family, and that I responded from my heart when he wrote to me about his.

Wow, I thought, those things never occurred to me as being unusual.

What really made me feel excited was his comment that because of his interactions with me, he was now volunteering to teach a computer class -- at a community center or something. "I felt like I was busy," he said, "but I'm sure you're a lot busier than I am. And yet you took time to encourage me and give me your advice..." And so he felt that he could take time to give something to others. "I don't have the experience to be a mentor to somebody," he said, "but I have skills with computers..." and so he gives back to the community. How cool is that?

I told him that was a great thing to do, and a great habit to get into. It reminded me of the habit of giving, so I hijacked the conversation briefly to tell him about the church we attend, where there are a lot of rich people. I mean, our household income is below average there! And on the subject of giving money, this is also an area where people need to get in the habit early. They don't necessarily have to do all their giving to the church, I said, but they should give to disaster relief, helping the poor, development, to something anyway. And if they can't give $3,000 on a $30,000 income, well, it's harder to give $20,000 on a $200,000 income because it's so much more money (or whatever their target giving % is). But I finished that digression by telling him how glad I was that he was in the habit of giving his time.

During our conversation, it came out that he'd agreed in the spring to take a certain summer internship, even though that company doesn't hire its interns as permanent employees. After committing to that internship, he got internship offers at other companies--companies that might have converted his internship into an offer of permanent employment. He turned them down because he'd already given his word to the first company, even though he really wants to find "permanent" or regular employment here.

I applauded him for keeping his word, because so many people these days don't.

We talked about what it takes to find a position with a good company, and I told him that a lot of it is being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. I mentioned someone in our office who came in as an intern and is now on track to be a regular employee once he graduates. This ex-intern got in basically because his resume was in the pool and happened to fit what we wanted in an intern; he showed that he could do what we expect a new college hire to do. I also summarized part of the story of how I got hired at NetApp.

Of course, I said, it's important to do what we can -- study hard, search diligently, live wisely -- but those things improve our chances; they don't guarantee success. You can graduate at the top of your class, get a great offer from a terrific outfit, and be hit by a truck on your way to work.

He asked about my kids, and I told him how they are enjoying their current adventures. He said I was a successful parent, and I said a lot of that is out of our control too. We read bedtime stories to our kids when they were younger, we read the Bible to them when they got older, of course we prayed for our kids... but a lot of people do those things and have big troubles. So, as one of our teachers at church told us, we cannot raise Christian children; we can only be Christian parents, I told him. (I also translated this for him into "raise moral children... be moral parents.")

In fact, I told him, everything that really matters in life -- everything -- is out of our control. We can study and work and pray, but we can't make someone give us a job offer. We can read to our kids, pray for them, go to all their games, help them with their homework, etc., but we can't make them turn out the way we'd like.

We walked around the building a bit, I showed him some of our products, and let him have a look at my office -- he saw some family photos and some of the kids' artwork. We also talked about the kind of work we're doing at NetApp; there are lots of significant problems to address that lie outside of the filesystem itself.

I certainly plan to stay in touch with "Pankaj" in the future, but probably not as frequently. And I am going to point my browser at mentornet right now and sign up for another "protégé" for the coming academic year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the introduction of church based activities and bible information was intrusive. One should be satisfied with improving oneself and leave evangelical goals to those insecure in their own faith.

I am a mentornet mentor to many and an active church goer. Yet I find this desire to convert and influence on church, bothersome.

On a more positive note, I liked that you communicated that just an upbeat hopeful note can help someone, even if they don't respond.