Mentoring is something that takes place formally at many companies, and informally at nearly all. It makes sense for those with extensive knowledge to pass this knowledge along to the newer, less experienced employees. The concept of mentoring has been around for many years: even in the Dark Ages, a knight had his squire, and the blacksmith had his apprentice. At best, the experience of mentoring or being mentored is rewarding and beneficial to both parties. At worst, it is an exercise in futility, punctuated by frustration and communication issues.
The autumn of 2001 found me working on a voice-recognition project at the small electronics company where I was employed. I was a senior electrical engineering student at the time and had been working at this company for nearly six months when this new guy showed up and decided to proclaim himself my "mentor". I'm still not sure exactly why I was targeted; probably a combination of being the youngest employee in the company, looking even younger than I was, and being female. There were two other girls working there in engineering roles, but this was not their first job, and they carried themselves with far more confidence than I did.
Kevin was a somewhat experienced assembly language coder, and was actually quite helpful when it came to answering my questions about code itself. However, he also seemed to fancy himself some kind of corporate savior, as well as a therapist of sorts. He got it into his head that I needed special attention to reach my potential. After just a few hours of interacting with him for the first time, I got the impression that he had very little respect for the boundaries dictated by professionalism. He made some very personal comments and started asking questions about my childhood and family history. I am not secretive about such things, but I did not like that someone I barely knew was trying to probe into my psyche. Nevertheless, I answered his questions. After all, he'd been writing code when I was only an infant.
Kevin's job description was actually very similar to mine: software engineer. He held no official authority over me -- he was not my boss, or even my project manager. Yet he persisted in micromanaging my daily activities as if he were a classroom aide watching over a disruptive kid likely to fly off the handle any second. Kevin began sitting right next to me while I wrote code, looking over my shoulder and making comments every few minutes. This was extremely distracting and I began making more mistakes than before. Kevin, of course, saw this as evidence that I'd been messing up all along, and if it weren't for him, I'd have persisted in my poor work habits and carelessness. He refused to listen to me when I explained that nobody in the company had ever had a problem with my job performance before, and that his constant interruptions were breaking my focus. Whenever he left the room my other coworkers would remark on how inappropriate Kevin's behavior was -- one of them even told him off right to his face once!
To complicate matters worse, Randy, the CEO of the company thought very highly of Kevin, and seemed very enthusiastic about this mentoring situation. Of course, the CEO was never there in the room while Kevin was performing his dubious duties, and Kevin painted a very rosy picture of his activities and intentions when speaking with the CEO. Apparently, Kevin and Randy spoke the same bizarre buzzword-laced corporate jargon; their conversations were peppered with paradigms and team-oriented growth strategies and Dynamic Thinking Evolution Mapping. Kevin was a proponent of something called Neurolinguistic Programming, which as far as I can tell might as well be Scientology. And he wanted to teach me his special vocabulary.
One day when Randy was out of town, Kevin "invited" me into the CEO's office so we could
talk about the project. I was told to charge the time to a project-related task, which I did, and I brought along my notebook and some code printouts. When I got to Randy's office, I realized that Kevin and I were the only invitees to this meeting.
"This is a little weird," I told him.
"I just thought we might be more efficient if we had some peace and quiet," he told me."
I opened my notebook, trying to steer the conversation toward actual work. Kevin told me to close it. He went over to Randy's whiteboard and began sketching furiously, drawing lots of lines and arrows, surrounded by a multitude of unfamiliar acronyms.
He's not planning on talking about the project at all.
I wanted to bolt right out of there. But Kevin walked over and shut the door in a manner that distinctly implied, you're not going anywhere.
"Now you listen here, Anne. There are several tiers of people in this industry. I --" he pointed to the top of one of his diagrams "-- am a master. Not only of code, but of understanding people. You are down here at the bottom. A beginner. And if you want to get to the top, to become a master of your art you need to take heed of the masters in your life."
This is getting weirder and weirder.
"Now, I am willing to take you on a journey. A thought journey that will help you reach your ultimate goals in life. But first you need to accept me."
Who did this guy think he was?
"I think I'm doing fine learning on my own," I tried to assure Kevin. "The best way you can help me learn is to answer my questions about assembly code."
"If you want my help, you can't just pick and choose in which areas you get it."
"Then I'd rather not have your help. You make me uncomfortable." (how much more direct could I be?)
"You feel uncomfortable only because you are learning and growing. When we face our weaknesses, we often want to run away and stay entrenched in old negative habits because it's easier. But I know you are capable of so much more than that. You need to move beyond being this...sassy intern.
"I'm a software engineer. Not an intern." I corrected him. This was true: the company made a big point of saying that they did not hire "interns", they hired engineers. Some of us just happened to be in school.
"You're in college, so I consider you an intern." Kevin snapped.
"I really think I should get back to my code," I stood up, heading for the door.
"You mean you're just going to give up? You're going to throw away this great opportunity to grow into the person you were meant to be? Please just let me explain. I won't hurt you." He smiled.
I sat back down, against my better judgement. Part of me was just morbidly curious.
Kevin went on with his near-monologue about how I was immature and stubborn and obviously unwilling to experience real growth. Little by little he wore me down, and eventually I just started crying. I was hungry, tired, stressed, and PMSing. Kevin handed me a Kleenex.
"It's good to cry. It means maybe I'm finally getting through your defenses. I cried at many of the leadership seminars I went to."
I realized that the only way I was going to get out of this room was to pretend to agree with Kevin. So I half-heartedly gave him permission to "mentor" me. He let me go.
When I was released from the meeting, I went back to my desk feeling thoroughly humiliated and exhausted. I didn't even have the mental strength to do any more work that day so I went home. The next few days included Kevin coming to my desk and trying to give me all this buzzword-laced "training" while I was attempting to code. Spheres of trust. Zones of control. Levels of promises. Ugh. It was distracting to my co-workers as well as to me. There were complaints, but he ignored them.
One evening the project team was in a bit of a crunch trying to get a code revision to the client on time. I was typing dutifully away, hitting only a few minor snags in the coding process. It was true that I didn't have much experience with assembly code at that time, but I was learning at a decent pace. K decided I wasn't going fast enough, though, and pretty much kicked me off my computer so he could code my assignment.
"Let me have your seat now, Anne. There's a board with a loose microphone here. Why don't you go solder it back on, if you're even capable of soldering?"
Randy was notified of Kevin's inappropriate behavior: several coworkers complained on my behalf. I guess it took other people's insistence that something inappropriate
was going on to convince the CEO that action had to be taken. Randy told Kevin to "back off a bit". I guess this is the best I could have hoped for. Personally, I think Kevin should have been fired for psychologically abusing a fellow employee. But Randy still remained convinced that Kevin was somehow going to revolutionize the operation.
Weeks passed, and the company struggled more and more. Kevin was diagnosed with some rare form of skin cancer, and though I wouldn't wish that on anyone, it was nice to have him out of the office for a while. When he came back to work, he seemed much more interested in dropping his pants to show everyone his skin graft than in practicing any perverse form of mentoring on me or anyone else. Word of this gratuitous display of flesh reached Randy, a former pastor. "Was he wearing boxers or briefs?" Let's just say that he was finally convinced that Kevin was a potentially dangerous weirdo rather than a corporate genius. Last I heard, Kevin was trying to make a living as a hypnotist somewhere up north.