Sponsor, Don’t Mentor

Since I mostly use Twitter to listen to young, underrepresented programmers, I get to hear about things I normally would not. One recurring theme is the role of mentors, and at some point I saw people talking about how they needed sponsors instead. Here’s an example from Nancy Wang in Forbes:

Part of a solution could be via mentorships and sponsors. The difference is critical: mentors can help make introductions and give valuable advice, and sponsors often go one step (or many steps) further, leveraging their own reputation and personal capital to advocate for your success.

I am trying to apply this when people ask for advice. It’s hard.

It’s easy to just say a bunch of stuff. Talk about yourself, tell a story, recommend a book, etc. If you are successful, it’s easy to think it’s because of the things you did and if someone else did them, they would also be successful. But it’s not that simple, because mixed in with our efforts were luck and helping hands. A lot of what we think is good advice doesn’t apply at the very start, where we need someone to just take a chance on us.

When I look back for sponsors in my own life, I remember that my aunt got me a job filing paper invoices in her office and that’s where I learned Lotus 123 and did my first professional programming in high school. At 13 my mom got me a computer at Radio Shack when we went there to return a defective electric typewriter (they were the same price). A few months before that, my wood shop teacher transferred me to computer “shop”. They didn’t give advice—they used their “personal capital” to put me in a position to grow.

Moms, aunts, and teachers will probably always help out a teenager. They are part of our lives, know us well, and probably feel a vested interest in our success. But, as aspiring sponsors, we can do that too. Our goal should be to get to know the people we are trying to help. To become invested in their success.

So, now when someone approaches me for help, my default is to think about how I can get into a position to sponsor them. To do that, I need to know them and what they can do. For programming students, I hire them to help me with my personal projects and consulting. I always pay for this work.

It’s not a lot, but my goal is to get to know them well enough to recommend them without reservation.