Mentoring Through Challenges

Peter Buckingham

VP of Software Engineering at SambaNova Systems



As a leader, being a mentor and a coach is critical. Typically, people in your team will be very interested in their career path and growth and as a leader, we have a role and responsibility to grow and develop people. However, you need to find a balance - while there are times you will be the only person who knows how to get your team to where they need to go, when growing and developing someone you shouldn't try to give them all the answers. Instead, you should try to challenge them.

Actions taken

A good tool for doing this in a guided way is peer programming. However, it's also important to know when to take control. Generally, I try to give my teams the space to learn and to understand and to guide them to an answer. However, there are times when work just has to get done quickly.

"If you were good, you would be able to..."

When I was working for NVIDIA, I had a boss who would challenge people by telling people this quote. For some people, this approach worked, however, for others it discouraged them. Mentoring requires you to understand the people you have working for you and their underlying motivators. When your team members can't come up with a plan for growth for themselves, it's your role to come up with a plan and facilitate it for them. With more junior engineers, it's useful to guide them along the path and give them challenges and growth opportunities. This can be as simple as sending them to a conference or discussing growth opportunities in one-on-ones. However, with more senior engineers you need to also challenge their thinking.

I have someone on my team here at waypoint who joined as a data scientist. While he had experience with machine learning, he wasn't so comfortable with system development. By taking the time to work closely with him to explain how we design and build things, and why we do those things, he has grown and developed a lot over the last two years. This wouldn't have happened unless I'd taken the time to invest in his development. This approach is critical in terms of getting what you want out of your engineers, but also in terms of employee job satisfaction and retention.

Lessons learned

Ultimately, we all have to make money for our companies, so it's important to understand what your business' needs and constraints are. At the same time, our responsibilities as engineering leaders are to support, grow, and develop our team because, ultimately, this will help the future of the company. Understanding when you have time to challenge your team and when you don't due to business constraints, and understanding what is reasonable to ask of individuals is important. Have regular one-on-one's with your direct reports and consider skipping levels if you have multiple levels reporting to you. These meetings will help you to understand what motivates your team, how to get things done, and how to grow and develop your team.

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Peter Buckingham

VP of Software Engineering at SambaNova Systems

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