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Serene Yew Provides Mentorship

Serene Yew chats with Kent about why you should be a mentor, how you can be an excellent mentor, and how to find a mentee.

Serene Yew runs Pixeltree, a software consultancy that focuses on sourcing junior talent and providing them with the mentorship that they need so they can bridge the experience gap and get a job.

What better way to incite change than to be that change? You can have a huge influence on someone by taking on a mentorship role. And, not only does mentorship benefit who you're mentoring, but it also benefits you. Serene finds that every single person that she's mentored has changed her in some way for the better. They all taught her something that she didn't even know she needed to learn.

A good mentor is going to listen to you, understand who you are as a person. They're going to guide but, more importantly, they're going to listen. A mentor is compassionate, empathetic, and personally invested in their mentee's success. They're humble and they recognize that they also have more to learn in this ever-changing world. Mentors are to be the cheerleader in the mentee's corner to support them and maybe provide a network connection or even just a good book recommendation.

Homework

  • Serene Yew

    Serene Yew


    Transcript

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Hello friends, this is your friend Kent C Dodds, and I'm joined by my friend, Serene Yew. Say hi, Serene.

    Serene Yew:
    Hi, everybody.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    I'm super excited to have Serene with us. Serene and I met last year at React Amsterdam. I had arrived into Amsterdam at like 8:30 in the morning, I had flown all night, I was not feeling awesome. I somehow managed to find my way to my hotel carrying all my bags, and the hotel wouldn't let me stay there because I was too early. They didn't offer to take my bags, maybe I should have asked. In any case, I still had all my bags; I was really, really hungry; I needed to use the bathroom. So I was like wandering all over the place, and our hotel was not in a very convenient location.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    I was just super sad. Then I pulled up Slack, and I saw Serene mention that she was just looking to hang out with people before the conference. I was like, "Me, please me. I need people." We met up at this little restaurant and got these enormous shakes that were so delicious. Yeah, that's how I met Serene. It was a good time. That is my experience with Serene, and we've been friends since. We've run into each other a couple other conferences and things. Serene, why don't you give us your side of the story? Why don't you introduce yourself to all of us here?

    Serene Yew:
    Hi, I'm Serene. I live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Like Kent mentioned, we've been friends for about a year, and it was pretty funny how we met, because I was just kind of looking for people to hang out with and I had no idea he was a Twitter celebrity. We just met up and I was like, "Hi, I'm Serene." He's like, "Hi, I'm Kent." I was like, "All right, what do you do?" And he said "JavaScript." I was like, "Oh, sorry to hear that."

    Kent C. Dodds:
    We were at a JavaScript conference.

    Serene Yew:
    I guess it was to be expected. So we had some ginormous milkshakes, and the rest is history. I'm a single mom of two boys, hi Owen, hi Keegan, who, incoming cliche, they're my inspiration. I have been working in software for about 14 years doing everything from front end to backend, dev ops and project management. I've worked with shareholders and boards to build technical strategic direction. Now I am running Pixeltree, which is a local software consultancy focused on helping builders build their ideas with a really strong sense of community stewardship. We source local junior talent for these projects and provide them with the mentorship that they need through these projects so that they can bridge the gap between getting a job with no experience and requiring experience to get a job.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    That actually is pretty relevant today. I didn't realize that's exactly what you do. Well, cool. Let's just lead in with that. What exactly is your role at the company? Can you describe what you do there a little bit more?

    Serene Yew:
    Pixeltree, I am basically the technical director. I am in charge of sourcing local talent and also mentoring them, providing them with the training that they need. From a technical perspective, I would review all their code and make sure that it's up to par so that our clients still get the guarantees that they need, that we're still delivering a really solid product while getting a little bit of a discount because of more junior resources.

    Serene Yew:
    From the talent side, they're provided with the experience that they need. It's not our intention to hang on to this talent forever. We encourage them to move on after training. With our clients, if they start growing, we actually encourage our employees to go and work for them. So we just bake in a path with the clients to begin with so that if these developers or project managers, or whatever, would like to go work for these clients, that they have that path laid out for them already.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    That's really cool. How long have you been doing that?

    Serene Yew:
    About eight years.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Wow. Somehow in all of our introductions, I must have missed that story of what you do. That's really very, very cool, I think, and, honestly, pretty noble what you do. You're really helping people. Because I find countless junior developers, especially like anytime I go to a meetup, there are tons of junior developers that are there because their bootcamp told them to show up, and whatever the case may be, and it always ends up being like I'm looking for a job, or is anybody hiring? Every single one of them is just really struggling hard to find a good place that is interested in hiring juniors. I have some thoughts about that, but I'm actually curious, why do you think it's so difficult for these new developers to get into the job market?

    Serene Yew:
    I think most companies are looking for just people they can hire who can deliver quickly. They believe that the more senior people are going to have that delivery skill. While that is true, they don't recognize the importance of fostering training of junior developers in order to maintain continuity in the ecosystem. I don't think they do it intentionally. They're just trying to do the best that they can for the company. I think part of my job is to help them to understand the importance of this and still provide them with the guarantee that they need so that their products are still going to be delivered on time with the quality they expect, but with the additional bonus of being able to train out some juniors.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    I think that's a pretty accurate assessment. I would add that I think lots of companies, not only do they want somebody who can deliver right away, but they also implicitly maybe don't have trust in their own ability to train these people to do the right thing. When I was at PayPal, we hired an entire team of almost exclusive juniors just coming right out of boot camps, and they were all just marvelous; super, super talented, skilled developers that just needed a little bit of direction and PRs every now and then, and maybe more architectural like bigger picture thinking conversations, as well. I always found that to be really enjoyable, honestly.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Why don't we shift over to mentorship as the general topic of what we're talking about today. Obviously, for the last eight years, mentorship has been a huge part of what you do. Why is it so interesting to you? What do you get out of mentoring other developers?

    Serene Yew:
    Maybe I'll step back and tell you a bit about how I got into this and why I think it's so important. When I was a junior [inaudible 00:07:29] University, I was so fortunate to have leadership on my team with managers who were willing to mentor me. It was never a formally declared mentorship, but they would always sit down with me one-on-one to really understand where I was struggling. I didn't understand at the time how valuable it was, but now I can just see so clearly how it's completely shaped who I am today as a programmer, a manager, a leader, and even a mentor. Sometimes when I encounter a difficult problem, I think back and ask myself, what would Ted do? What would Joseph do? I hope that one day I can make such a difference in someone's life. What better way to incite change than to be that change?

    Kent C. Dodds:
    That's a great takeaway. Everybody write that down. I think that's great. It's kind of like paying it forward. I'm assuming, and anytime that I've had that sort of relationship with somebody, there's a great deal of satisfaction out of that. Do you get a lot of satisfaction out of the mentorship that you've been doing for the last many years?

    Serene Yew:
    I do, yeah. Actually, I find that every single person I mentor has taught me something that I didn't even know I needed to learn. Part of being a mentor is being able to listen. I find that every single person I've mentored has changed me in some way for the better. I don't do it for that reason, and I also go into it explicitly looking for something I can take away from that relationship, and I find everybody has something to contribute to your life.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Absolutely. I know that there was one company I worked at, the one right before PayPal, that I hired on Justin McMurdie, who actually will be in this same season, so you may have already heard me talk with Justin, but I hired him on, and he and I were the only front-end engineers. I'd been working on this project for a long time, and he would ask me things like why are we doing things this way? I would have to justify the decisions that I made, and sometimes I wasn't able to do that. I wasn't able to articulate the things that I'd done. So I always really appreciated the questions that he asked because it required me to think critically about decisions that I'd made. Maybe I hadn't really considered it super well, and we were able to improve the product just because... His ignorance was a huge benefit to the product overall.

    Serene Yew:
    Absolutely. You can learn a lot from the questions that people ask.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    We've got mentorship as like a concept. I think maybe people define this concept differently. What does mentorship look like to you? How have you seen it be super effective and not very effective?

    Serene Yew:
    Mentorship is a role. Not every leader is a mentor; not every manager is a mentor; not every teacher is a mentor. Some teachers are mentors and some leaders are mentors, but it's not a one-to-one relationship. Leadership is about helping people, usually a team, work towards a common goal. Leaders set a direction, they provide a vision, and they remove obstacles. Teaching is more about providing very specific skill to a large group of people in a one-time setting; whereas, mentorship is a longer-term commitment with a bit of a broader scope and has a stronger focus on the personal side of things. Mentorship is a one-on-one experience where the mentor shares their experiences with a lesser experienced mentee. Some managers would provide both leadership and mentorship. The ideal manager would provide both, but it doesn't necessarily come with it.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    I like that a lot. Just because you taught somebody something in a setting, that doesn't mean that you're in a mentorship relationship with that person. It really is more of an investment in the relationship itself. Actually, I was interested in why it's important for the mentorship relationship to be a relationship rather than just like a passing comment in somebody's code. Why does it matter that I actually have a relationship with this person, that I have an understanding of their goals and those kinds of things? That was kind of what I was going for.

    Serene Yew:
    A good mentor is going to listen to you, understand who you are as a person. They're going to guide but, more importantly, they're going to listen. A mentor is compassionate, empathetic, and personally invested in their mentee's success. They're humble and they recognize that they also have more to learn in this ever-changing world. Mentors are to be the cheerleader in the mentee's corner to support them and maybe provide a network connection or even just a good book recommendation. Oftentimes for the mentee, just knowing that they have somebody in their corner to go to is already a huge safety net for them that gives them the courage to try something new and try something bigger and reach for something higher.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    I think that makes quite a lot of sense. What does a mentorship relationship look like? Especially I'm thinking about in my own experience where I have had mentors, that was never like an official relationship, I never asked them to be my mentor, they never asked me if I wanted them to be my mentor. Now, since I have the number of people who are aware of me as I do today, I get asked to be a mentor a lot. Several times a week, somebody will ask me to mentor them in one way or another. How could I be an effective mentor in that kind of setting? Or can I not be an effective mentor? Where is effective mentorship best placed?

    Serene Yew:
    Because mentorship is a one-on-one experience, if you do decide that you want to be a mentor, I would not recommend having more than one or two at a time. If I step back and I think about the mentorship roles that I currently hold, I think with the roles I currently have, I usually spend one hour a week with my mentees. That's when I sit down and we have video conference and we chat about what did you do this week? What struggles did you have? What did you really enjoy? What can we do in the week forward? What are your goals? Let's look back at the goals that we had set at the beginning of this arrangement. How are we doing with that? What are you doing to work towards it?

    Serene Yew:
    It's your job to keep them accountable, so you can't have too many at one time. What you do with the teaching is very, very important. I think it's complementary to the mentorship, and it takes a whole village. Someone's got to teach them, someone else has to mentor them. It's not your job to do everything. I love that you're trying, but it's definitely not your job to do everything. If you can, if you find somebody who you find particularly inspiring, I would say you pick them and you schedule one hour a week where you can sit down and really talk to them, understand what their goals are, and hold them accountable to it, and see what you can do to move them closer to those goals.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    That makes me feel a little bit better when I tell these people, "No. I'm sorry. I don't have the bandwidth to do that mentorship," but I do other things to try and make up for that. I'm a senior developer, I'm pretty experienced, I'm looking for more... Satisfaction is not really the right word, but like something more out of my career, or whatever, so I decide I want to find somebody to mentor. What would you say is a good way to go about finding a mentee?

    Serene Yew:
    The simplest way is just to go to your local meetup group. If you have the capacity, try to just even do a talk. It doesn't have to be anything elaborate, or even just attend. There's always time for announcements and you can always say, "Hey, I've had 10 years of experience," and whatever. "If anybody would like some guidance on how to navigate the technical landscape or has any questions, feel free to come chat with me after the meeting." Maybe you can help them. It's not a formal mentorship situation. You can turn it into one if you'd like, but it doesn't have to be; it's nice for people to even just have somebody they can ask questions to at meetups.

    Serene Yew:
    If you want something more formal, you could check with the career services department at your local college university, technical schools, bootcamps. There are often programs that are looking for mentors.

    Serene Yew:
    If you're already a manager, you might want to consider stepping back and reviewing if your leadership approach includes mentorship. It doesn't have to be a formally declared mentorship for you to provide somebody less experienced with guidance. It often takes less than one hour per week to just sit down with each person on your team, even virtually, and understand what's going on in their work week and consider if there's something that you can contribute to the goals that they have set. Even if it's just a compassionate ear, it can really make a difference in people's lives.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    I can totally relate to that, having just a compassionate ear. My wife is my compassionate ear, and I think she enjoys that more often sometimes than others, but having somebody just to listen to you talk about how long it took you to figure out this typo bug or something, it's a nice thing to have.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    What are some things that a mentor can do to, or sorry, a mentee can do to make this mentorship as successful as possible? Is this just like it can coast and just do whatever the mentor says? Or is there some sort of investment that they need to make to make sure that it's successful?

    Serene Yew:
    If you are looking for a mentor, I would encourage you to have a specific goal in mind. It would be nice if you define that beforehand or inform the mentor that you don't actually know that you have a goal, but make sure that's one of the things that you're going to set up right away. It's not going to be a forever thing, so set a timeline and say this mentorship is going to go six months. Within that time, I would like to understand more about what frameworks I should be learning that are going to help me in the software development world. That's going to include things like talking about what you're interested in. Do you like front end development, do you like backend development? It might be a bit of a discovery process, but define that.

    Serene Yew:
    Recognize that the mentor does not have an unlimited amount of time and they are not somebody you can just text every day; try to restrict your questions to the one hour a week that you've allocated. Just be respectful of them. They have lives and they have careers, so remember that. Remember to appreciate that you have this opportunity. Every single week come up with a list of things that you are going to do to further improve on your goals and actually do them; show some improvement every week. At the end of three months, if you've mutually decided you'd like to extend the mentorship, then set another three months, but always have an end date in mind with set goals in mind. That's going to keep everybody accountable to the goals that were set at the beginning.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    I like that timeframe, too, because it forces you to make goals that are scoped rather than just, yeah, I want to be the CTO of Google one day, or whatever, which, by the way, I don't want to be the CTO of Google, but that would be a pretty enormous goal. Maybe not a bad one, but probably something to break down into maybe three-month chunks. Do you have other advice on the kinds of goals that a mentor and mentee could make together?

    Serene Yew:
    I think those are pretty person specific. Some of the examples I gave you earlier are ones that I've heard before. Currently, I am mentoring this lady who's doing basically a technical upskilling bootcamp at her local college. She's been through multiple industries in her life. Her kids are grown up and she's decided now that she wants to move into tech. When we discussed in our first call what her goals were going to be, she said she just wants somebody who can help her understand the technical landscape of the city, how to navigate it, how am I going to get a job doing this? Are my skills even relevant? So it's very different. Even though she's in a technical program and I'm a technical mentor, our goals are not technically related at all. I would just encourage mentors to really listen; instead of telling their mentee what their goal should be, to try to understand what their needs are, where they've been, and where they're trying to go, and form some goals based on that.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    I guess that's one reason why that mentorship relationship needs to be more than just a passing tweet every now and then, but an actual relationship where you understand this person. That's great. I'm curious how mentorship has changed over the course of your experience as a mentor. Would you say that with the rise of bootcamps and just the huge amount of people entering this industry, would you say that mentorship has become more important over the recent years?

    Serene Yew:
    Yeah, I think so. I think especially with all the changes these days, there are a lot of companies who are trying to pivot into the online virtual space, and it's creating a huge demand for technical talent as well, which is great because I think we actually had a whole bunch of new technical talent come in. However, without the proper mentorship, the newer developers, they're going to do their best, but they're not going to do it as quickly or as effectively as if they had a mentor. I think it's actually our responsibilities as senior members of the community to provide this mentorship and give back to the community, because where would we have been without the people who shaped our lives? Let's be that person for someone else.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    I think that anybody who suggests that they didn't have a mentor is probably missing somebody who has helped them in their lives. Because I don't think that any of us really is somebody who just learned completely in isolation from the rest of the world. Even if you never had an actual official mentorship relationship, you probably had several people who kind of helped you along your way as you got started. Definitely you can see that moral imperative that we have to mentor and help others. Let's say that I'm not convinced, I don't want to go out and mentor. What am I going to miss out on because I just want to play my Xbox instead, or whatever else I want to do?

    Serene Yew:
    I'll start by telling you a story. One night I was just absolutely exhausted. I had spent weeks preparing for this intro to Ruby on Rails course that I was offering for free the next day at the local library. I was just taking a break, sitting on the couch, just snuggling with my kids. In a moment of weakness, I said to my son, "Oh, honey, I am just so tired. Why did I offer to teach this class?" Owen, my son, who was eight at the time, he said "Mommy, it's so important that you're doing this to help people. It's like you know how I'm in student council, it's to help the younger kids, even though I have to give up my lunch break once a week." So I decided then that if my son can step up and take one hour of playground time out of his week to help the kids in the lower grades, then at least I can take one hour out of my week to help someone else.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    You've given Owen a reason to listen to more of the podcast, so mission accomplished. That's a great story. For those listeners who don't have children, you don't know what you're missing. They are very special. Everybody's situation's different, I know, but boy, I learn so much from my children. Thank you for sharing that story, and I agree. There are things that we are missing out because we're not sharing the things that we know with other people. It's actually one of those things that it's kind of hard to describe what it is exactly that you're missing out on, but you know it when you've experienced it, when you've had that experience of making a significant impact on the life of someone else. Did you have anything else you wanted to comment on that?

    Serene Yew:
    I guess in terms of takeaways, I want to encourage people who have ever been interested in mentorship to know that there are tons of opportunities to do so. Go to your meetups; check your local colleges, universities, bootcamps, technical schools. If you're able to, I really, really encourage you to try and spend some time with a mentee. I promise you that you will learn something you never knew before, and you're going to make a huge difference in someone else's life. Change can only happen one person at a time, so we should never underestimate the power of changing one person's life.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    That makes me think of the starfish story where this guy is throwing the starfish into the ocean, and everybody was like, "There are hundreds of starfish, you'll never be able to make a difference." He's like, "I made a difference for this one," and throws it in the ocean. So it matters. It really does.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Honestly, I have a pretty big impact with the work that I do because I make these courses, thousands of people take them, and it's awesome. But the impact that I've made on individuals has been more satisfying to me to see that change that's come on to an individual than all the tweets that people send me, like this helped me in my job or whatever. When you have a relationship with an individual and you see them growing and succeeding and accomplishing their goals, there's something special about that experience, absolutely.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    As we get down to our time here, we want to give some homework to those listening, so here's your homework. This should be pretty easy. Just put it on a list and give us a check mark. Reach out to your local college and ask them about mentorship programs that they have, or attend a meetup and find a mentee. This is a relationship, so you can go to that meetup and talk with people and see if you'd be a good fit for each other. If not, then maybe you can find somebody else. That's a huge thing that you can offer is connections between other people. See if you can find yourself a mentee and experience the wonderful experience of mentorship that there is. Serene, do you have anything to add to that?

    Serene Yew:
    No, that's all. I had a great time chatting with you again.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Yeah, likewise. What is the best way for people to reach out to you, Serene?

    Serene Yew:
    They can reach me on my fresh and shiny Twitter account at so Serene. That's S-zero, S-E-R-E-N-E, or they can look for me on LinkedIn or at Pixeltree.ca.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Awesome. Thanks so much, Serene. It's been a serene experience with you.

    Serene Yew:
    Oh, boy.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    I'm sorry. That's a groan. We'll see everybody in the future virtually, I suppose. Thank you.

    Serene Yew:
    All right, thanks. Bye.

    Kent C. Dodds:
    Bye.

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