My journey of mentoring interns at Fyle

I started my career three years ago as an intern with Infosys. I then found Fyle, where I joined the engineering team as a full-timer. A few months down the line, I had the opportunity to mentor a few interns. In this post, I'd like to share my personal experiences during my mentoring phase. This includes mistakes that I made as a first-time mentor. I hope this will be useful for the first-time mentors out there.

As of July 2020, we have 27 out of 86 full-time teammates at Fyle who joined as interns. More than 50% of the current engineering team started as interns. Many of these ex-interns are now mentoring interns themselves. This summarises that we take internships very seriously at Fyle.

P.S You can imagine the average age of our engineering team and the jargons we use on our #engineering channel :P

Someone famously said:

"You never really know something until you're able to teach it to someone."

I firmly also believe in this concept. I took the opportunity of mentoring because of my quest to learn and grow in my career. I started by mentoring two interns. A week before the start date of the internship, I had planned tasks, estimates, and everything. I had it all under control, or so I thought.

Not long after they joined, I bombarded them with information: about Fyle, our internal processes, the tasks they’ll be working on, and the list went on. In my eagerness to make them successful, I wanted to ensure they made no mistakes. This was my first mistake.

Also, to ensure that they are on the right path, I pinged them frequently - often many times a day. This eventually occupied a lot of my time, and I started failing miserably in my individual contribution. This was my second mistake.

To fix the first mistake, I divided information into two buckets based on urgency. 

  • The first bucket had things that would block their progress on their tasks, e.g., setting up their build processes. 
  • The second bucket had information that would be needed a little later, like the code review process, deploying to the staging environment. 

My lesson: Not all the information for a new joinee is urgent initially.

To fix the second mistake, I set up dedicated meeting slots twice a day. 

  • One meeting was held at the beginning of the day (9 AM) 
  • The other meeting was held a little later in the afternoon (2 PM)

This gave them enough time to figure things out, but not long enough to be stuck in the same place, which could be demotivating. 

My lesson: Scheduling fixed times reduced context switching from my tasks. 

The other lessons I learned while mentoring

Early on, I would give out the solution to a problem straight away. I was more excited to see them merging code into master and less excited to see them spending time searching for the solution. It soon dawned on me that I wasn’t really giving them a chance to showcase their problem-solving abilities.

I started saying, “Why don’t you come up with a solution, and we can discuss it in the next meeting” often. That’s a phrase I borrowed from Adithya, our Director of Engineering 😸. 

If their solution wasn’t quite right, it was often because of some missing context. To fix the context in people’s minds, it took a few more patient to-and-fros, but they would get there more often than not. 

It’s the reconciliation of these initial few mistakes that sped up their learning abilities. Sometimes, their solution would be very different from what I imagined. 

I had to learn to approach my meetings with an open mind and not stay biased with the solution I already have.

My lesson: l had to let them find their way out of a problem and assess their problem-solving skills, as we are not a 'do what I say' team.

There were instances when an intern had to work in a part of our codebase with limited expertise. For these, we would work on a design document and get it reviewed by other experts in our team. In these situations, I got to learn along with the intern. 

My lesson: Mentors are not super humans, and it is okay to admit it.

Long story short, both the interns did fantastically and joined us full-time and have been great teammates (shout out to Shwetabh and Raghuveer!)

I mentored a few more interns in subsequent months. Eventually, I ran into a situation where an intern was not performing well, and I had to give critical feedback about their work. I didn’t want to make them feel bad about the situation but wanted them to succeed out of the situation. I consulted our guru of Fyle Engineering Adithya, on how to give critical feedback. Most interns took the feedback positively and turned the situation around and performed well.

My lessons:

  • Prepare them to receive feedback. Almost all of them were working in a professional setting for the first time, and it was vital for them to understand that this will happen, and it is for their benefit. Without this step, we risk the intern losing confidence and excitement.
  • The most important thing is that the intern should be aware of whether they are doing well or not. So, give feedback relatively quickly - don’t wait too long since undoing work can cause a lot of frustration. Lastly, agree on a frequency that they are comfortable with.

A few months later, we planned on hiring more interns (shoutout to Internshala!) - the earlier batches had done really well, and we felt it was a great way to grow the engineering team.

However, we didn’t have many engineers who had mentored earlier on. We had to scale up the intern mentors before we could scale up our intern hiring. So, Adithya asked me to help all the first time mentors.

For this, I made a document on what practices helped me. I scheduled a meeting with first-time mentors and other experienced mentors of Fyle and presented the doc.

Our first-time mentors found the meeting very helpful and wanted to meet every week. (Frankly, I was not sure of how this forum would turn out.)

In the first couple of iterations, everyone was only communicating the progress of their interns. Over time, mentors started opening up about challenges, similar to what I discussed earlier in this post.

Takeaways from our first-time mentors:

It turned into a safe place where mentors could ask for guidance and share their learnings. It also helped set a common standard for internships at Fyle and brought a shared sense of purpose. This forum has since evolved to include folks from first-time mentors in Customer Success and Marketing as well.

Mentorship helped break many of my misconceptions about leadership I had before joining Fyle. This experience allowed me to learn how one needs to be empathic above all else. As a mentor, I had so many learnings and realizations that helped me in and out of work. I’m grateful that I landed in a job with awesome people around to work with. :)

Gokul Kathiresan

I am a Member of Technical Staff at Fyle. When not busy, I am mostly found ogling at anything that contains sugar.

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