Thinking about Mentoring and Documentation

Mentoring is something I think about a lot these days. Particularly in my professional career I find that I am much more interested in sharing knowledge than in jumping on the next exciting bandwagon. Don't get me wrong, I love working with new technology and solving new problems. I think the issue is more that solving the same problem over and over again gets boring. Naturally, you end up dealing with a lot of repetition in a technical career (I'm a computer system administrator).

Thus now every time I start working on a new problem, my first thought is, "I better document this so someone else can do it after me". Sometimes I do that documentation right here on this website. Other times it's on a work wiki or even via email or IRC. Any project I work on, my goal is to make myself replaceable.

Some of these feelings may also be due to my getting a bit older and starting to think more and more about my legacy, such as it is. I've got two young sons at home and I'm keenly aware that my time on this stage is limited. That motivates me even more to document, to share my knowledge, to write blog posts.

I had an experience today that really reaffirmed that approach. In the last few months I've written and posted a number of ruminations about various technical topics here on my website. One of the leaders in my field read one of my pieces and left a few comments. He and I have some vaguely shared work history so he offered to talk to me further in a more private forum.

That seemed like a hell of a nice gesture, given that this guy is successful and busy as industry leaders often are. This is one of those people who has published books and talks at conferences frequently. I emailed him a few weeks later and just said, "hey thanks for the comments, would love to hear your thoughts". He responded very quickly asking if we could chat for an hour later in the week.

We ended up having that conversation today and it was wonderful. We discussed some of the challenges in my organization and he offered some great advice for how to make forward progress on them. The thing that really impressed me is that he had nothing to gain by devoting an entire hour to talking with me. He had moved on to a different company several years earlier and was of course busy with that. Still, he took this big chunk of his time to share his knowledge and advice with me without hesitation.

I found that pretty inspirational and I think there's a great lesson in there. This brings me back to the documenting and mentoring I do myself. Sometimes it's easy to feel like you're wasting your time writing those wiki pages or blog posts. Sometimes teaching yet another person how to use a tool gets to be a drag. It's up to each of us to fight those negative perspectives. I know that I'm going to take extra time to look around me and share my knowledge. I hope that someday I can other make people feel the way I felt today. Taking that small amount of time to personally reach out to your peers can really make a huge difference.

I promise I'll be back to my regular grumpy persona after this. :)




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