Sunday, February 1, 2009

What if you're a big fish in a small pond - life without a mentor?

[This was originally posted at]

In the ideal world, you'd work at a perfect company that surrounded you with wise mentors who could guide you past those insurmountable learning obstacles. Of course you'd work hard and take a stab at it first, but you'd know that an experienced guru would always be there to catch your back. But obviously, life isn't ideal, and many developers simply don't have that safety net of available mentors. Especially eager developers who work at small to mid-range companies might need to deal with being a big fish in a small pond. It's great that you can help your coworkers - but who is helping you? For example, I talk to a lot of guys in 5-person shops, and they're always the goto guy, always the one setting the path.


I hear it can get tiring. Here are some ideas to deal with it:

  • Find others who are "bigger" - books, blogs, online forums, user groups. What's amazing about the internet (as opposed to 20 years ago), is that you can get access to all these brilliant minds out there.

  • Leverage your coworkers niches. - Chances are, even with a 5 person team, the total-sum-knowledge of the entire team is greater than yours, i.e. someone there knows things that you don't. Maybe you're a star UI developer, but the DBA can teach you a few tricks. While this may not take you deeper in your own niche, it will help you spread out and be more well-rounded.

  • Potentially leave your job - Sometimes you've out-grown your current job, and it may be time to "move on". For example, a lot of people go to industry leaders like Microsoft because they want that learning opportunities that a star company provides.

While it may provide a learning disadvantage to always be the one breaking-the ice, or drilling through rock to pave the path, there is an advantage. It forces you to pro-actively learn and demonstrate leadership skills, and a lot of companies (and life situations) value that sort of thing.

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