A Lesson in Mentoring – Part II

The Universe is trying to tell me something.

Over the past 18 years as a programmer/developer, I haven’t been the most patient person when it came to someone not knowing something “I” thought they should know.

I even had a “Three strikes and you’re out” rule: I’d happily answer your technical question the first time, more frustratingly the second time, probably sarcastically the third time – and then I was done. If you dared ask me the SAME question the fourth time – you would not get an answer.

Pretty darn smug of me.

And then..after obtaining a master’s degree in Educational Leadership, and going on to various other leadership-focused training, including the excellent program from the good folks at ODTUG, I looked around and found myself on higher ground.

I was promoted at work, to an Assistant Director, and had been elected to serve on several board positions for some of the organizations I had been involved with. All that leadership training was paying off.

One of those board positions – particularly, the one as Social Responsibility Chair for the Philadelphia based Network of Women with Careers in Technology (NWCT) led me to an opportunity to participate in a city wide initiative, “Philly Tech Hire”. 

Philly Tech Hire was created in response to the White House’s “Tech Hire Initiative”.  Announced in the spring of 2015, the program slated Philadelphia along with 21 other communities in the nation, such as NY and Detroit, to spearhead local programs to help people living in the margins, for example: low-income workers, women and veterans and other non-traditional “techies”, become tech-savvy developers through non-traditional paths. The ultimate goal is to lead participants  to speedy employment in the technology sector, where talent is needed and where jobs are usually stable and plentiful. (See more at White House Tech Initiative and Philadelphia Works)


Key partners in Philly’s Tech Hire Initiative are Randstad Technologies, Comcast, PNC, LinkedIN, The City of Philadelphia and Technically Philly. Part of the campaign includes a “Shark-Tank” like pitch competition, the brain-child of Greg Payton, Vice President PNC Asset Management Technology. In the pitch competition, four teams of 4-5 participants from the pool of job-seekers are headed up by two mentors, who’s task it is to come up with a technical solution to meet a need for a local non-profit.

Myself along with a few other women from the NWCT board, were invited to be mentors for one of the four teams. Project Kickoff was to be early August, and the final pitch night would be the end of September.

On August 5th, I met the four people participating on my team, “Team Randstad”, and we were given our challenge: Develop an app and process for the Free Library of Philadelphia, which would support their “e-Gadgets” desk – which is basically a “help desk” where people in the community can bring in their electronic “gadgets”, e.g. smart phones, iPads, and get on-the-spot tech help for any issues they may have.

My team initially was made up of a young man attending the Code Academy, who had a few java courses under his belt, a Project Manager working a temp job, a young father of six children under the age of seven who was working full time and going to school, and another young man from the Code Academy who could not make the kickoff meeting. After a few bumps in the road and scheduling conflicts, we ended up losing the two Code Academy students and my final team now has a young woman who has come from the restaurant industry, who is just learning to code, and a Navy Vet, who has been learning to code, but has now been called up to go to Afghanistan in October.

It was pretty much around August 5th that the universe started tapping me on the shoulder and said, “Hey. You. Helen. Yes you..are you ready for the testing of your patience and leadership?” I, along with my co-mentor, had to take this diverse group of four people, complete strangers to myself and to each other, from completely different backgrounds and completely different skill sets and levels, and create a tangible product for the free Library, pitch it, and win it, all in about 8 weeks time.

What an amazing experience it has been. We have had teleconferences, webex meetings, and only one face to face through the past six weeks. I have bitten my tongue so often I’m surprised it hasn’t fallen off. There has been a complete absence of eye-rolling and sarcasm on my part and I’m actually enjoying watching them grow into a cohesive unit, working together. Last night was our “dress rehearsal” for the pitch, and I think we actually have a decent end-product to present to the library on September 30th. There were times in the beginning, with personalities clashing and ideas head butting where I worried it would never happen. But, we did it. They did it, and last night one of the participants told one of the sponsors what a good mentor I had been through it all.

That was the greatest compliment she could have given me. It humbles me.

And also yesterday, this showed up in my inbox: A LinkedIn contact mentioned a quote from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

This is what the universe is teaching me: Lessons in patience, acceptance that not everyone will grasp something the first, second, or even third time. There is no place for smugness in true leadership.

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