The Importance of Good Mentors

Mentoring a Demography trainee

The importance of having great mentors in your career or company cannot be emphasized enough. Mentors can generally provide you with a structure and feedback that school or books alone cannot provide. If you don’t have access to great mentors where you work, look for them in structured mentoring programs such as Seedcamp’s if you are a startup, or in your school’s Alumni if you are a student, or your industry’s groups if you are an employee. Look for mentors that can help you on functional areas as well as ‘bigger picture’ areas. Build your own ‘advisory board’, per se, of people who can help ‘polish’ you, your skills, and your thinking process over time.

From a personal perspective, I’ve been lucky in having had some great mentors throughout my career, and lucky enough to have had them as my co-workers as well. In my first post-university job as a network consultant with what was then called GTEi Professional Services and led by one of the most supportive bosses I’ve ever had, Adam Lipson, I had the pleasure of working with two great mentors: Allen Gray and Walter Urbaniak. Allen Grey is one of those guys that if you ever had a weird technical problem, he was the guy to call. He was the Navy Seal Team Six, all by himself, for any problem a client had. He was a hacker in the truest sense of the word. One of the most impressive things at the time for me, was when I visited Allen’s house and witnessed what had to be the closest thing to having a “HAL” from the movie 2001, controlling every aspect of his home environment both locally, and even more impressively, remotely.

Walter Urbaniak, shared many traits with Allen, in that he too, was a one man army, but if Allen was the Navy Seal, Walter, ‘Doc’, as we called him, was the General who laid out the plans and arranged troop movements. Being one of the contributing creators of ‘Layer 2 routing’ and someone who regularly collaborated with the inventors of the internet’s backbone (you can read more about some of the early works here: Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet), Doc always ‘knew’. In its simplest form: Doc excelled and the “Why”, and Allen at the ‘How’.

Working with Allen and Doc together taught me the value of not just smart mentors, but about the process of smart mentoring. Allen would inspire me to come up with cool ideas and hacks, but would never ‘finish’ the job for me.. always leaving me halfway for me to figure out the rest. I can vividly remember us playing around with a Gnome hack for Red Hat Linux on my live ‘work’ machine and him leaving me mid-way through the hack and with a full work day ahead of us and my basically having to blunder my way through to ‘a’ solution.

Doc’s teaching style was 180 degrees from Allen’s. I remember one day when I was stuck with some subtlety of TCP/IP and Doc took me to his blackboard and asked me to walk him through every step a packet takes from the moment it leaves your computer until it arrives where it needs to go, with him heaping me fill-in the blanks along the way where I couldn’t. This ‘overview’ of the bigger picture helped me understand where things could go wrong, rather than just focusing on the specific micro-problem that I had, and getting bogged down with just those details.

Fast forwarding to a closer time period after my days as an engineer, I had the pleasure of working with Ivan Farneti & Nigel Grierson while I was at Doughty Hanson Technology Ventures. Ivan was personally responsible for some of DH’s greater exits, including the sale of Gomez to Compuware back in 2009 for $300m and had seen many a deal in all their varieties leading to his deep understanding of just about any situation and question I could throw at him. What made Ivan great as a mentor was his ability to help you analyse & dissect businesses for their business and not get distracted by other attributes. He regularly admits not understanding the ‘technology’ of a company (or at least that’s what he likes to say), but curiously, he is always dead-on in understanding the business challenges that a company can and will have. Nigel, similar to ‘Doc’ from my days at GTEi, was excellent at providing the greater context of an industry and explaining how things came to be. Nigel is also passionate about teaching and more importantly, learning about teaching, a key attribute of good mentors.

Of course I can’t say that these mentors were ‘it’ for me, quite the contrary, I have a number of friends and colleagues spread out throughout the industry who have provided me with invaluable direction over the years in every aspect of a company’s development and my own personal development as an investor. I know I still have so much more to learn, but am glad that I work within an industry and environment where I can continuously learn from others.

Over the past several years, I too have become a mentor to others. The feeling is always a bit strange when it starts happening to you, but many people underestimate their ability to help others. As a mentor, other than developing your own style of mentoring, I believe your three main duties are 1) to have a passion and desire to continue learning about the subject your are mentoring on, 2) to know what you know and what you don’t know and be clear about it during mentoring, and 3) to continuously seek to improve your mentoring skills so that you can structure the advice you are giving for best effect. This does require a discipline of self-analysis to catch yourself when you are falling short on any of the above, but that is a good price to pay when you see the progress you’ve helped others achieve.

And with that, I encourage you to seek out the best mentors that you can for what you are trying to achieve, but also, perhaps so you can also be a great mentor to someone. Don’t discard the idea until you try it!

Summary of “The Importance of Good Mentors” (via

  • Mentors are very important for your career and your company. They provide a structure and feedback that scool or books cannot give.
  • Build your own “advisory board”. You need to have mentors that help you on functional areas and mentors for “bigger picture” areas.
  • Over time, you will also mentor others. You need to have the desire to continue learning about the subject you’re mentoring on.
  • You must be aware of what you know and what you don’t, and be clear about it during mentoring.
  • Finally, you need to continuously seek to improve your mentoring skills to achieve the best effect.

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