Mentoring your way to better career happiness

Published On 2012/12/04 | By Kurt Bales | On the Job, Shout Out

Yesterday was possibly one of the proudest days in my professional life. My very good friend Anthony Burke sent me a text message just after 9am to tell me that he had passed his JNCIA-Junos exam. This is a close tie with when he earned his place as a delegate to Network Field Day 4 back in October.

So why am I so proud about this? Well Anthony and I have become great friends over the past 18 months all through the magic of social media. One day for no reason (as is the way of things) we just started talking. Tweets became skypes and in January, even though we had only ever met face to face once, my wife and I drove the 10 hour trip to Melbourne to attend his wedding. (Sitting at table answering the question of “So how do you know Anthony?” with “Oh. From the Internet” was a humorous experience)

So how is this different to any other random person on twitter? Well very early one I realised how eager Anthony was to learn more about network and to soak up knowledge from those willing to share it. I’m not entirely sure if he just caught me on the right day (Im pretty sure I commenced our first Skype with a rant about something he never saw coming because I needed to vent at somebody). Over the course of the coming months we maintained a Skype IM dialog open most of the day discussing various networking, technology and career issues.

I spent time helping him learn new topics and sharing any possible pointers and tidbits I had that might help him with what he was working on. In return he acted as a sounding board to bounce ideas off and offering up suggestions. Over time I noticed his advice back to me started to surprise me with how much he had already learned.

In my time as a senior engineer and various management roles I have been required to assist junior staff with both their technical and their career development. I always found this to be a difficult task because I was trying to balance what I wanted out of them as co-workers with what it is they wanted to do with their own careers. I had financial incentive to push them down the path that benefitted me more than it did them. Each time they moved away from “my chosen path” there was a feeling of disappointment or failure (on my part). Even when I worked with the staff to clarify where they wanted their careers to go, I felt they were trying give “the right answer” or at least the one they thought I wanted to hear.

I have since learnt that the most personally rewarding mentoring system for me is one where I get no personal benefit from the success or failure of the other participant. Helping them make the decisions that are right for them without those choices directly impacting my day to day work life has been quite a different experience. I am better able to frame my advice to give both the benefit of my own experiences coupled with knowing where they want to go professionally.

Mop and Bucket

In a recent email conversation, reference was made to the the gutting of the middle ranks of IT. We have a lot of junior staff and a lot of highly skilled engineers, but we are starting to see a thin mid-section (something my mirror cannot attest to). Whether this is due to the focus on specialisation vs generalist IT or not is uncertain to me, but I have seen evidence to suggest this accurate (or becoming so).

So how do we move junior engineers onto the path of becoming journeymen and future experts? I suggest that each of you should keep your eyes open to “up and comers”. The ones who “have it”. You will be surprised when and where you find them, but they are everywhere. Take the time to help them out when possible. Answer the questions that they ask. Take time to get to know their strengths, their weaknesses and their career aspirations. Put them in contact with your contacts and help build their network of resources. Everyone “knows a guy who knows that thing”. Pass it on. Our contacts are not just secret tools to make us look good.

Once they become a journeyman engineer, encourage them to also look for people to mentor and repeat the process. I have found this process to be very rewarding for me personally, and I plan to continue doing it. Having a mentor (or several) above you and below you can do a lot to encourage and maintain your own growth.

When I first started talking with Anthony, he had passed his CCNA and started studying for his CCNP. Since then he has continued on with increasing his Route, Switch and Security skills. He fell in love with the ASA (urgh) and despite much encouragement I couldnt talk him around to playing with Junos. In late October he finally got his hands on his own SRX110 and started using Junos for the first time. I just over a month he has learnt more than I learnt in my first 6 months playing with Juniper kit. He passed his JNCIA-Junos yesterday, and apparently preparing for his JNCIS-SEC.

Taking on new technologies and really understanding them so quickly? This is why I am proud.

If this sounds like a bit of a love letter to a friend then so be it 😀

And Burkey…. #FHP 😉

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About The Author

Kurt is a Network Engineer based out of Sydney Australia. He a the Senior Network Engineer at ICT Networks where he spends his time building Service Provider networks, and enterprise WAN environments. He holds his CCNP and JNCIE-ENT, and currently studying for his JNCIE-SP and CCIE R&S. Find out more about Kurt at and you can follow him on Twitter.
  • Finding a mentor is important. When I started where I currently work there were a number of people above me and I wanted to do what they did. It's easy when you have a goal like that to work towards. I was never afraid of asking a lot of questions (which people generally don't tend to do)

    I've always been happy to help people along the path, but it's amazing to me me just how many people are out there who think of this as a job and not a career. Once they get in a position they are happy to stay there for the rest of their lives. It's easy to spot the ones who want more than that, but it's hard to find them in the first place!

  • Hey

    Great story… I still can't find a reason to tell why he fell in love with the ASA… maybe mentoring failure? hahahaa I'm just joking 🙂

    Anyways, good story. It's always good to see people going fast into multivendor certifications, one thing I learned maybe a little bit late.

    Good job Anthony

  • Great story! Having a mentor is very rewarding, both ways. This is one of those cool stories I rarely hear about. It's great to see what a mentorship can do to both individuals.

  • Willys

    Good Story. Hopefully we also get a tight knit group of Networking professionals in Africa. I come from Kenya, and I love how you guys just Network and help each other. Very inspiring.

    Would love to meet you guys one day.. and share my experiences of being N/W techie in this part of the World, which is highly misunderstood 🙁 .

    Good Job Anthony. Good Job Kurt.

  • A bromance is indeed a beautiful thing!

    I think it's always important in a career in IT to not only have a mentor but to be a mentor to others. There is always somebody more knowledgeable than yourself just as there is always somebody willing to learn what you can show them. You may find the percentages given to each changes over time, most likely moving from mostly being mentored to mostly mentoring, but you can always teach an old dingo new tricks.

  • #FHP mate. Couldn't of done it as quickly on my own.

    Regarding the ASA comment – It was my first real dose of firewalls. I like what it did. I work at an all Cisco Enterprise so I deal with what I have. 5585-X SSP 10's are my flavor. I appreciate what they can do but it is pretty saddening to see that a SRX110 out features it in regards to technology. Throughput, not so much. 😉

    Thanks again Kurt.

  • Damien

    Hit the nail on the head.
    If I may add my own observation to this…… a large number of new engineers beginning their careers are forbidden to advance and by default move to the next company in hope of progression. In the end some either get the mentoring they hoped for and the opportunities or simply find a path of least resistance be it technical or not.

  • The manager vs. mentor dilemma.

    In my experience there is no conflict as long as you (and your management) buy into two fundamentals.

    1: All staff regardless on seniority, will be more motivated and will deliver better results if they are meeting their personal development and career goals while delivering for their employer.

    2: Every staff member will eventually move on (hopefully to bigger and better things). While this may seem counterintuitive…. staff will stay longer if you are genuinely concerned with preparing them for the next big job. Even if that job is outside your team.

    I have found that by taking a mentoring approach with all employees you will increase tenure, motivation and results.