On Being Mentored

Apr 12 2013

We Americans hold fast to the myth of the self-made man, and when we give autobiography, we often steadfastly refuse to acknowledge how in so many cases we didn't pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. We were lifted up and pushed forward by others.

I am guilty of failing to acknowledge how indebted I am to my mentors. So I want to start setting the record straight while also sharing some of the lessons I've learned.

Dr. Wes Munsil studied at Caltech, Cambridge University, and University of Colorado. He was on the standards committee for the Pascal programming language, wrote code for the NASA's Voyager project, and has worked on a wide variety of projects, large and small. When I look at my current career trajectory, and even my life's trajectory, his influence is easy to see.

Here are a few of the lessons I've learned from him -- some taught with words, but most by example. <!--break-->

On Tolerance and Challenge

One of the most embarrassing aspects of having a mentors is that inevitably you will find yourself pontificating on something you think you know about to someone who actually knows it much better.

Looking back, I realize that Wes did a lot of smiling and nodding externally while internally he must have been eye-rolling. He was tolerant of my naiveté, and heard me out in many situations in which he could have abruptly corrected me.

But when I was done, he would often transform into Socrates and begin asking incisive questions. "If you say this, then wouldn't it also be the case that…" Many times, he would toss out questions for quite a while before I realized that I was being led by the nose out of my ignorance. It shouldn't hurt your feelings to be instructed by someone wiser, but Wes had a way of instructing that would keep even the thinnest of skins from being bruised by his correction.

Often, when I came to him with a project idea (us programmer sorts are always working on projects), his socratic inquiry would transform into a challenge: Sure, it could work that way, but would it be better this way? Such challenges required me to branch out, to learn new tools, techniques, and technologies. And those stretches in turn taught me how to challenge myself.

Master the Craft

It is said that the sculptor Auguste Rodin would test young sculptors by asking them to sculpt a sphere. Spheres are unforgivingly precise, and to sculpt one well is to show mastery.

I know programmers who cannot work without a carefully tuned set of tools. In fact, at times I was heading in that direction myself. IDEs and debuggers can lead one down a dangerous path of becoming dependent upon tools instead of achieving master of the craft.

Don't get me wrong -- neither Wes nor I are opposed to these tools. But what I learned from a man who codes in VIM and often uses print to debug is that fancy tools should not be used as a substitute for mastery of one's craft.

The rule, as Wes explained, is not "never use these tools". Indeed, becoming dogmatic about your editor may be an equally egregious sin. Rather, the principle is that the good programmer should be able to work just as effectively in a text editor as in an IDE.

Debuggers, too, carry a similar moral. A program is a system of deductive logic. A skilled programmer should be able to make inferences about what code is doing without needing to step through the entire process and view every detail. Again, the rule isn't "Don't ever use a debugger." Wes is actually the one who taught me how to use a debugger. But they're for the really hard cases, the stumpers.

Education is Worth the Effort

Bill Gates didn't need a degree, why do I? When I met Wes, I didn't have a degree (I was still in high school). A few years later, I stopped college for a while, programming full time instead. I hadn't finished my undergrad.

He encouraged me to do what it takes to get my degree finished. That was a hard one. I was making plenty of money as a software developer, and my ego was inflated. Did I really need a piece of paper to prove that I knew what I was doing?

Degrees are, as Wes pointed out, an objective indicator of knowledge. Many jobs would be closed off to me without this "piece of paper." But moreover, he cited the sense of satisfaction that comes with proving to myself that I was up to the challenge. He lived this out: I watched him walk across the stage to be hooded for his PhD. Then I went back to school.

Wes has been a tremendous champion of education. Along with many others, he's ceaselessly encouraged me to keep pushing. In only a month, I too will walk across a stage to get my hood.

More than Work

Finally, Wes repeatedly exhibits his commitment to having a life beyond work. He's involved in the local arts community; he and his wife travel broadly; he sings, acts, and apparently is known to have occasionally danced. He reads voraciously, and loves a good detective novel.

My interests are different, but the principle is the same. After a visit to his house a decade ago, I realized that I had no hobbies, and was letting work fill in all the gaps. I now make a conscientious effort to resist this.

Being mentored is humbling, but it's a different kind of education: one that brings both wisdom and knowledge at the same time.

Updated: It was Voyager, not Endeavor.