Shaping expectations part 1

What to expect from an apprentice

Like most questions in software development, the question "What can I expect from an apprentice?" has the answer "it depends". An apprentice joining a company as part of a co-op program will have an entirely different skill set than a new graduate. In addition, senior developers transitioning into a project will need mentoring before they are self sufficient with their duties. The important thing to recognize is that each apprentice requires a different approach from their mentor. Apprentices need different mentoring approaches based on personality. The sections below describe the three categories of apprentices that I have seen in years past.  Although the categories are general and not meant to encompass all personality types, they will provide a starting point for finding the motivation for your apprentice. In the sections below, I describe what you might expect from an apprentice and the mentoring approach that I have seen work. I will focus on co-op level apprentices, but the categories also apply to new graduates and senior developers. You may have different experiences, and I hope you share them in the comments section at the bottom of the post.

"The Prodigy"

The easiest apprentice to mentor is the prodigy. When this apprentice is tasked, they will immediately see how to apply the theory they have learned to the task at hand. This is also the apprentice that will challenge the mentor's knowledge by attacking a problem in new ways. Prodigies have a tendency to be over zealous. The mentor that has been assigned this apprentice must take care not to stifle passion, while at the same time, keep the prodigy aware of standards and process.

Prodigies need guidance too. Take care not to smother, but do check the prodigy's progress occasionally. If you leave a prodigy alone too long, they will produce the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings, when all you asked for was a coat of satin latex interior paint. Most of the time a prodigy will complete tasks rapidly, therefore have a to-do list of tasks laid out in advance.  Another aspect to keep in mind with a prodigy apprentice is that they need to be challenged. If given a repetitive or mundane task the prodigy will challenge themselves, possibly wasting time and resources in the process.

"The Good Kid"

The good kid is just that.  A good kid. This apprentice wants to learn and be productive. The mentor will field numerous questions as the apprentice learns standards, process and how to apply the theory they have learned in school. Good kids generally fall into two categories.  Those that spend time researching a topic to figure out something for themselves and those that ask questions before doing research. The mentor's dilemma is figuring out how to guide this apprentice into researching for themselves, and understanding when it's time to ask for help. Often times the good kid will spend hours trying to figure out a problem, when they should have asked for help.

As a mentor, keep track of this apprentice. Check in on them one or two times throughout the day depending on the difficulty of their assignment.  Ask them "How is it going?". If the apprentice has hit a roadblock they are more likely to ask a question if they are approached rather than "bother" you. When the apprentice's tasks has been completed, ask them what they have learned.  Sometimes, the answer they give may surprise you.

"The Slacker"

The slacker will generally miss deadlines and meetings. They will ask for no help, or will ask for so much help that it is obvious they have put no effort into figuring out the task. While this apprentice is frustrating to mentor, they are not a lost cause. A mentor must be careful not to dismiss this apprentice too easy. The slacker usually needs a different approach than their mentor would normally use. For instance, some need to be "spoon fed" their goals and instructions until they become proficient. Sometimes the mentor/apprentice relationship is not congruent and a change in mentor will turn a "slacker" into a "good kid". Then, there are times that a slacker is just a slacker.

Mentoring this apprentice can be challenge, therefore patience on the part of the mentor is required. This apprentice will require more attention and motivation. One of the mentor's challenges is determining the motivating factor. Think about the tasks this apprentice completes to your satisfaction, and try to determine the apprentice's motivation. Often times the motivation is not the task, but how it is presented. Check in on this apprentice more than you would the good kid.  Be sure to ask "How is it going?", "Do you need help?". If all else fails, ask someone else to mentor the apprentice to determine if the apprentice/mentor relationship is strained.

In closing

Obviously not everyone falls into these categories, but I have found that the categories described above are general enough to describe most apprentices. Hopefully I have given some of you mentors the ability to recognize the category of apprentice you are mentoring. Knowing who you are dealing with is important in the mentor/apprentice relationship. If you have more apprentice categories, ways of guiding apprentices or just general comments please leave a comment below or email me via the contact page. Apprentices reading this, don't worry. Part 2 of  the Shaping Expectations series is "What to expect from a mentor".