Mentoring in a Pandemic

2020 has been quite a tough year for human relationships. I'm naturally inclined towards recharging my batteries alone, but even I have been feeling the effects of a lack of human relationships. One area that has surprisingly benefited from our physical distancing measures is during mentoring. I have been mentoring UBC Computer Science undergraduates for about 15 years now. My role in the relationship is to help students understand what the tech industry is like once they graduate, what types of jobs are available, and what life is really life. This year, 2020, was the first time it was brought online.

Bringing mentoring online is an odd thing really, since I mentor students who will usher in hyper-connected applications and services. There is a benefit to meeting in person and establishing a relationship with someone just starting out their career in tech. So I figured bringing mentoring online would be very difficult at first. I am happy to report that I was completely wrong in this regard, and my mentees exceeded my expectations.

I found it very easy to schedule meetups with them. In past years, I would meet up with my mentees 1-2 times per semester, about 4 times total. Between my work, commuting, family commitments, exams, and assignments, we can't meet up that often unless we are collocated in the same area (i.e. UBC campus). These 4 mentoring sessions are not a lot of time to build a lasting relationship, discuss job prospects, and someone's real desires. Mentoring is part exposure to new information, and part psychology. Many students need to be drawn out of their shell, feeling safe that they can talk about what they want, and then make a plan to get it. Mentoring online consisted of Zoom meetings, of which we attended almost weekly (about 8 so far this semester). We have been able to discuss so much that our conversations have a nice – but awkward – lull as we look for things to say. This is great and it means that we've achieved many of our goals.

Our Zoom meetings were scheduled well in advance, and we jumped onto the call within 5 minutes. This is much different from the Before Times when we would make a plan to meet up at a location, then we wait up to 30 minutes to the group to assemble. For some students, venturing outside of the safe haven of the UBC campus is a new adventure, and that in itself is a tough thing to do. Hopping onto and off of a Zoom call allowed us to setup weekly mentoring sessions and because none of us had a place to go to (thank you pandemic and lock downs), we were always available.

Another benefit of online mentoring is that it was not bound by geography. One of my mentees was on the other side of Canada, but still able to attend every single meeting. It was fantastic, and something that was definitely missing from the Before Times. Online mentoring opened up possibilities that weren't available before, and was immensely more inclusive.

Another neat aspect of mentoring was being able to talk and show the students what real life is like at a tech company. Zoom gave me the ability to share my screen and I could show the students the workflow for tickets (e.g. Jira), what Cloud infrastructure looks like, and other things that I could only talk about before. I was even able to provide an demonstration of what a code review session looks like. In previous mentoring engagements I would take my mentees on a tour of my workplace, but I am 100% remote now (not including the fact that almost everyone is working from home anyway) so I couldn't really give such a tour. Instead, I was able to talk about the differences working at home versus in an office. The students have already worked in an office, so I was able to show them the Work From Home aspect, the benefits and drawbacks.

The only major drawback is lack of physical presence. There's something – I can't put my finger on it – missing from online meetings. We're not looking at each other in our eyes when we talk, we are all feeling skin hunger, and I can't see their entire body when they talk (our bodies speak a much louder language than the sounds that come out of our mouths). Put it all together and there's a "sixth sense" missing from being remote. That said, the same type of connection can be made over a Zoom call, it just takes a bit more time and more effort from both participants.

The other drawback I have seen is with group chats. Any Zoom call with more than 3 people (inclusive) is too much. Too much cross-talk. Too easy to remain quiet and on mute in the background. Too much bandwidth used displaying video. The kick-off had about 85 people on the Zoom call and it was too much. My gift of the gab is inversely proportional to the number of people listening, but on Zoom it is just information overload (for you and your computer). Keep your mentoring chats to 3 people max and you'll do fine.

I know that the pandemic won't be fixed in the next 4 months, and that means the mentoring will continue to exist online. I am looking forward to that. I hope that there are opportunities with continuing remote mentoring in future years. That said, I also look forward to meeting my mentees in person. It would only serve to enhance the relationship that we've already built remotely, but there is a certain power in both forms of communication co-existing together. So while 2020 was a pretty terrible year, it was also the greatest year for opportunities and to show the resilience of human adaptation.