Where do old webgeeks find a mentor?
October 7, 2006 12:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my mid-30s and am feeling like I need to find a career/professional mentor. But I'm a mid-career (7+ years) web designer/producer. How do I find a mentor in a field that's not much older than my job?

I just got promoted into a more senior role doing web stuff for a graduate school (specifically, one at the University of Washington). I'm now running web communications, though it means I wear a whole bunch of hats. I've been doing web stuff for 12 years, 7 of them professionally.

But, now, I'm unsure what to do next. I feel like I need some professional mentoring, someone else who has been through the mid-career stuff who I can talk to about what I should be doing next. The problem is, I have 7+ years in a field that's basically 12 years old. I should be the one doing the mentoring (and, in a sense, I am -- I meet irregularly with a brilliant early 20s designer here at UDub to help her work through CSS nightmares).

So. I don't know what to do. Anyone else in the web industry been able to find a mentor? Anyone else thought through these issues? Or should I be looking elsewhere for the sort of things a mentor can offer?
posted by dw to Work & Money (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like (based on your comment that you 'mentor' someone else, which seems to define mentoring as help with obscure CSS problems) you're looking for a technical guru of greater knowledge than yourself, rather than a mentor. Web 'technology' is like the Platte river: "a mile wide and an inch deep," so if you've been doing it for 7 years, you should have the technical side of it knocked. If you want to deepen your knowledge of systems that support Web technology, you may need more help. Hardware, file systems, DBMS, SQL, transactional systems, SDLC methodology and managment, SOAP, etc. are each aspects of CS that could practically inform what you know of technology from your Web experience, and you can recruit people in those disciplines easily in a university setting, if you will but ask nicely, and drink some coffee.

You might still do well to find a mentor.

A mentor is one to whom you look for insights into yourself, with respect to career and life choices. A good mentor has wisdom and life experience with which to inform your own. A mentor's mistakes are often as valuable as his/her successes, as a solid "lessons learned" story is often more valuable than a hit parade of industry or life awards. A professional mentor may have industry contacts and a wide work history, which can be important if you are looking for career specific advice and networking, such as in a situation where you want to make a geographical or sector career move, and need insight and connections about conditions in an area with which you have no personal experience or network contacts.

A professional mentor of the type I've just described is harder to recruit, than a technical guru. Basically, you have to offer something worth the mentor's time and experience, in order to establish the relationship. Sometimes, that is as simple as providing a pot of recognizable talent, a decade's less mileage, and the opportunity to share with the mentor the excitement of living your 30's creatively, so that they can see how things might have gone for them, had they made different choices.

You find such people by example and suggestion of others whom you admire. You meet them at industry workshops, or through their publishers, or by emailing them respectfully, with interesting questions to which they can respond succcinctly. You do not ask them about obscure CSS constructs.
posted by paulsc at 2:19 PM on October 7, 2006

There are plenty of people, even younger than you, who have considerably more than 7 years of experience in web development/web design. If you're just looking for people with more years of experience, it's not hard to find.

I think you need to be clearer on what your goals are in seeking out a mentor. Do you want to change you career? Then you need to talk to a career counselor who can guide you in other directions. Do you want to move upwards in your organization? Then you need to gain management skills -- and there are *plenty* of people with decades of management experience.

I don't see what being mentored in a purely technical sense would even mean. If you just want to learn new technologies, talk to people who know those technologies. It's as simple as that.

If the real problem is you don't know what to do with yourself at this point, then you don't need a mentor. Mentors are mostly useful when you know where you're going and need guidance on how to get there. If you're figuring out your path, this is something that takes more internal work. Try to remember what you wanted to be when you were a child. One good book to serve as a guide (although you may find some of the language exasperating) is Wishcraft by Barabara Sher, which offers a series of exercises which are intended to get you to focus on what you really want to get out of life and through a career. I'm sure there are hundreds of equally useful books out there. They don't have the answers, but the exercises are useful in exploring your options.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:01 PM on October 7, 2006

Oh, and to answer your actual question:

A good place to start looking for webgeek mentors would be by contacting the authors web programming books you like. Many of these authors are extremely friendly and are probably only too happy to respond to your emails. I know this is true for Hal Helms who, aside from being a former woodworker and philosophy major, is a web programming guru, particularly in ColdFusion. Many programmers have worked in a variety of professions before choosing programming and so could offer you advice on how to deal with a career over time.

Contacting a regional user group might also be a good idea. I think you might find that some of the members are wiser than you'd expect.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:07 PM on October 7, 2006

OK, to be clearer: I don't need any help on the technical side. I only cited the CSS help I give the web designer because it's the closest thing I have to anyone regularly coming to pick my brain.

The problem I'm having is I have no idea where I'm going with all of this and what I should be doing with it. I'm now managing a school website. What comes next, though? Am I at a dead end? Should I be looking towards starting my own firm in the coming years, or is there reason to continue on as part of a larger organization?

What I need is guidance. I need someone with history in this history-less industry to point me in the right direction. It's not about career counseling or a career change. I'm OK with my career for the most part, and right now everything that interests me vocationally involves the web.

So, maybe I don't need a mentor if I don't know where I'm going. Just wish I knew where I was going, tho.
posted by dw at 12:04 AM on October 8, 2006

dw, I don't mean to sound harsh, but your questions may involve more pragmatic and broader issues than merely vocational ones. Making great vocational choices is only possible if they support larger life choices, and can be integrated with them. We all know many, many people who would describe themselves as being pulled in too many directions, over committed, and even stressed or harried, because of conflict, or at least unreconciled vocational and life choices. So, you may need to give those tensions greater articulation internally, to guide yourself to the mentors best able to help you. How much do you really know about setting up your own business? How much do you know about finance, personnel, and accounting, that you would need to know, to function well as a independent business person. What can you do in terms of project size and sophistication, as a member of a larger organization, that would be impossible to do as an independent businessman? What is your appetite for risk, and your need for reward?

If you want to see a broad spectrum of Web professionals, thinking broadly and publicly about the future of the Web, and the opportunities it will bring, you could make a point of attending some of the W3C conferences. You could volunteer for organizing projects in the Educational track at upcoming conferences. You could subscribe to mailing lists, in your hunt for mentors and advice. You could investigate local user groups for Web application packages, and hit a few meetings. If none exist in your local area, you could start or revitalize one for topics that interest you. You could research and write for industry publications. All of these are ways of injecting yourself into the broader conversation of ideas about the Web, and of meeting colleagues with whom you can network.
posted by paulsc at 12:52 AM on October 8, 2006

I think then my recommendations re: Barbara SHer are a good choice. You can use her techniques (and techniques in similar books, such as What color is my parachute, which I haven't read but I understand to be similar) to focus your mind on what's important to you and use that as a guide to steps you take in your future career.

If you like your job at the school, the person you should be talking to is the head of the IT division; they will make an excellent mentor. However, I would hazard a guess that depending long term on the school website for a career is not a wise choice. With technologies constantly changing, it's possible that you'll be replaced--not by a very short shell script, but perhaps a self-contained CMS server--within a few years. So, you should definitely be taking this time to learn lots of new skills. If you can, teach yourself at least one good programming language (Java and C++ are always safe choices) so that you can flip from one technical field to another if necessary. Also, learning project management techniques is essential if you haven't done so already.

I'd recommend against starting your own firm unless you have excellent business skills. I worked in a web design firm for 10 years. Trying to acquire clients and keep them happy is much harder than finding a great company to do ongoing technical work for. If you really relish the thought of being your own boss, though, the firm might still be a good option, although it *will* be difficult. My brother now has a job at a large organization, having left the web firm, and he's never been happier. He does a lot of tasks, most of them web based but not all of them.

Working for an organization means you can diversify your skillset, which is a Good Thing.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:57 AM on October 8, 2006

If you want to see a broad spectrum of Web professionals, thinking broadly and publicly about the future of the Web, and the opportunities it will bring, you could make a point of attending some of the W3C conferences.

Great, except it's in Banff... I'm not seeing the school or me having the money to get there.

But I do know that there's a lot of W3 activity here in the Seattle area, so I'll look into getting hooked up with them.

With technologies constantly changing, it's possible that you'll be replaced--not by a very short shell script, but perhaps a self-contained CMS server--within a few years.

True, but I'll be the one recommending and deploying them. In fact, I've been trying to shell-script my way out of a job for a while now. But since the organization doesn't have a marcom structure in place that I can hand the keys to the website to, I'm it. The school is eternally short on cash.

And I really can't talk to anyone senior in the school. I'm it. And at the university level... woo boy. The head of press relations handles the site, and he/she fell into bed with a Flash developer.

So, I guess what I'm trying to figure out is what the next step up the ladder is for me. And I agree with paulsc -- it's not completely a vocational question.

I appreciate all the discussion. Lots more stuff to think about.
posted by dw at 8:17 AM on October 9, 2006

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