"A Stronger Team, Not a Weaker You"

Greg Ferro has Ethan Banks’ “Five Things About Mentoring” in in his link post today, from which I’ve stolen the title of my post (sorry Ethan, too good to pass up). ┬áMentoring is a big part of being a successful system administrator, and Ethan is dead-on in his points. Go read it quick because I’m going to comment:

  • “Not everybody wants to be mentored” — time management & prioritization of tasks are probably the biggest things IT staff should work on. Properly identifying a coworker as a waste of time seems harsh, but you’ve got better things to do. I suggest heavy automation as an appropriate answer to a coworker that has given up. A script can learn new things.
  • “You can’t expect people to ‘get it’ the first time” makes me remember how I learned how to do all this stuff: practice. Why do I know how to configure Linux VLAN tagging & bridges & iptables rules from memory? Just done it a lot, that’s all. Compiling web servers from scratch? Practice. Diagnosing storage performance problems? Practice. Afford your coworkers the same luxury by having a lab or test machines to practice in/on, giving them good documentation (Ethan’s fourth point), and space and compassion.

When I’m showing someone how to do something I walk through it with them and help them document it if it isn’t documented. I then have them do it once with me there, trying desperately not to say anything unless asked. Then I leave them to do it on their own, with the express instructions to call me if anything looks different or goes sideways, any time of day, any day of the week. I’d rather a simple phone call than a catastrophe. It’s win-win, the team gets documentation for something that was in my head, and I get someone else that can do my stuff when I’m on vacation. “A stronger team, not a weaker you.”

When I started in IT the people that were supposed to mentor me had the popular idea that if they shared their knowledge they wouldn’t be indispensable anymore, and may be let go. As a result they didn’t teach me anything worthwhile, and actively fought and discouraged me when I figured stuff out on my own. Those people have served as a model for my career, in inverse. The organization eventually figured out that that corrosive, unproductive attitude was hurting them. You can guess what happened next. Self-fulfilling, some might say.

Being a good teacher and/or documentarian is a skill, learned like many others in life. Like Ethan I truly believe that it makes for better work environments and stronger teams. I’d suggest that everybody it IT start practicing for the good of their own career.