Last September I turned 40. You know, in the movies, when someone turns forty he buys a new brand card, gets divorced and tries something new. I still don’t have a car and, although I’m not married, I still live with my partner, but I did start something new. In my case, was an old “aspiration” (I tried it 7 years ago): learning to play guitar. Not that I want to be the next Angus Young but I never had any musical education and I always wanted to be able to play an instrument, especially guitar.
So, I decided to enrol in some guitar classes in a community centre near my house. We were around 15 students, some of them with a good level, and I was the most junior one. The class was the same for everybody: here you have a new song, I will play once for you so you can see how it works, and then you’ll practice a little bit. No Vicenç, don’t practice this new song, keep practising Good ridance. Same thing for three hours every Monday for two long months. And the end of those months I learned a couple of things. The first one is that fingers hurt after playing guitar for three hours, especially if you’re not used to it. The second one is that I end up hating Good Riddance. And the third, and most important one is that you can’t set the same rhythm and expectations for a group of people, say a couple of things, and expect that they learn. Every one of us has different paces, different backgrounds, different points of view, different goals.
So, I left those classes because I was not learning anything. I had been practising a song for two months and I wasn’t able to play it. I’m not saying playing it well, I’m saying playing something that reminds the original one a little bit.
Then I decided to take one-to-one classes with Dave. Dave is an excellent guitar teacher with lots of experience. The first thing he did was telling me to show me what could I do, so he could know what was my level. And then, he made a high-level plan of what could be my learning path. First some easy songs very slow, no chords, no strumming. Then a bit more difficult songs to improve muscle memory and make my fingers move faster, then he introduced some chords and so on. In a few classes, I’ve learnt MUCH more than in my previous attempt.
Same happens in the companies when they try to mentor people, especially less experienced people. You can’t pretend that by just saying “Hey guys, sit together for an hour and learn things” they will improve. Some of them might, but people need a plan, a structured plan to learn an improve as professionals and you should talk to them to set up that plan. And that plan needs to be a personalised plan, not everyone wants to learn the same, in the same way.
But mentoring people is not just allowing them to study for a couple of hours every week. Mentoring people is an 8 hours job every day. Learning by doing is the best method to learn, and what can be better than learning 8 hours per day? Here it’s when, again, eXtreme Programming comes to rescue: pair programming is your best friend. If you want people in your organisation to improve (amongst other nice outcomes) make them pair and make pairing the default coding practice in your company. You don’t, of course, need to be pairing 8 hours a day, but make pairing a very common practice at work. Make junior people pair as much as they can, with different people. It will be good for everyone, they will improve, the code will be better and you, as a senior, will be asked some questions that will make you reconsider how you think, how you develop, or that will make you explain how and why you work that way.
Hiring is very expensive nowadays, especially senior people. Why don’t you try to convert that junior who is willing to eat the world in a great senior for your company and a future great mentor for other people?
Author Vicenç García