About a year ago, Levi Cook joined our team as an engineering and leadership coach because we believe mentorship is a powerful tool for learning. So we sat down to ask him why he values engineering mentorship and how he’s approached it most effectively:
Why did mentorship/coaching become important to you?
I would actually attribute it to open source software and seeing how the developer community operates and supports each other. I also worked on projects when agile development was first introduced. One of the tenets is pair programming, which started me thinking about our work as a crafts model. There were journeyman figuring things out and working with craftsman who were experts. I was a huge beneficiary! I literally worked side-by-side with people who said, “We’ll give you these big problems, but we’ll help you.”
But it wasn’t just this industry that shaped me. My wife is an academic. As I was adopting this craftsman view, I watched her go through grad school and get her PhD. She didn’t have bosses; she had advisors. I recoiled from terms like coach and mentor, but advisor is a term I like. It respects that the person is a fully formed adult—there’s no hierarchy.
My transition to official leader was interesting. I know on the calendar when I was a leader, but I always took ownership and probably—definitely—was a pain in the ass to manage. I preferred a communal environment, which, led to some orgs thinking I was coloring outside the lines. So I become an entrepreneur so I could define the lines. Of course, you still have roles but when I could grow teams, I looked for people who had a strong sense of themselves.
So I was subconsciously a fan of mentorship long before that role became official.
When did you make it official?
I was “anointed” around early days of gSchool, now Turing. This early bootcamp model originated because Amazon had this problem where they needed engineers all over the place. So they decided to create their own business inside the community and as a part of that, they looked for mentors.
I was at a startup at the time, so it was helpful for me to step aside to get out of my own head and think about other people’s problems. Of course, a side benefit is that I was quasi-recruiting. What we can accomplish depends on the team we can assemble. There are insanely talented people and I wanted to meet them.
My first “mentee” was a Rhodes scholar. He had studied philosophy, lived in New Zealand, been in the military. I said, “I can only help you learn ruby.” That really gave shape to my view of mentorship. I was working with people who needed to learn to write code. That’s all they needed.
How have mentors played a role in your life?
I didn’t necessarily seek it out at first, but we all have people we emulate. I personally think I didn’t have mentors in an engineering role ever. It was all informal. I would look at good ideas and take them and look at bad ones and avoid them.
In fact, before MetaRouter, I asked myself, “Do I believe mentoring is right?” I realized, being explicit has a real power. I thought about different conversations I’d had than if I were just collaborating with someone. Maybe I never had mentors as an engineer but as I was further along as an entrepreneur, I had board members who were explicit in telling me, “You’re out of your element.” It was important, and I considered them mentors.
Do you think mentorship is a part of the engineering industry now?
I see a hunger in people; maybe it’s a generational difference. I don’t think my generation broadly understood that mentorship was a thing. People much younger than me actively seek this. Maybe they don’t worry about what other people think. And I love that it’s still built into organizations like Turing. My son is actually starting at Turing, and I’m interested in who he gets. I think it can make a massive difference in his experience and could be a relationship that lasts for decades.
Mentorship silently impacts the way this industry works. Much like craftsmen. A mentor will likely influence the job opportunities someone sees first and where he gets his experience. Social fabric is critical: it’s not a thread, it’s a fabric.
So what was it like to deliberately build mentorship into MetaRouter’s culture?
I came in to build peer relationships with leadership and a functional connection to devs. Everybody is busy, and the relationship needs to be organic. The “coaching” also needed to be Socratic. I believe that most people have a good sense of what needs to happen. To understand where they were, people need to be able to explain themselves and reach their own conclusions. Coaching is about empowering them and their positions.
If you could give one piece of advice to other engineers who haven’t made mentorship a regular part of their lives, what would it be?
Make room for it. We get so busy and we suffer from not contextualizing with other people. Find two hours in your week to talk to advisors. And let them know that you consider them advisors.