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Creating Successful Mentor Relationships With Emma Bostian

Emma Bostian discusses mentorship and all the benefits of being a mentor.

Emma Bostian launched, a free, open-source project that connects mentees with mentors. Emma discusses how she launched Coding Coach before she had a real database. It's better to have your product out there than to sit on it until it's perfect, you can always iterate.

Mentoring doesn't just help others, you improve your teaching skills, and it also just looks good to be a mentor.

Mentees should respect a mentor's time since they are doing it for free. When asking someone to be your mentor briefly describe where you're currently at, and some tangible goals that you want to work towards.

Mentorship doesn't strictly have to be a one-on-one relationship with someone. You can mentor people through content creation as well. Blogging, recording videos, writing books, and giving talks all teach people.

Often people's goal with their mentor is to be ready for the technical interview. Many companies are wising up to the fact that someone's ability to write algorithms doesn't correlate with their expertise as a front-end developer. Kent advises to keep your HTML, CSS, and JavaScript skills sharp, learn the abstractions you are using so you can talk about them intelligently, and remember that you are interviewing the company as well!

Emma Bostian

Emma Bostian


Kent C. Dodds: Hey everybody. It's your friend, Kent C. Dodds, and I am here joined by my friend. Oh, Emma, I actually forgot to ask you how you say your last name.

Emma Bostian: You don't want to give it a go? Come on.

Kent C. Dodds: Okay. It's Emma Bostian.

Emma Bostian: Oh, that's how I would've said it before I moved here, but it's actually Wedekind.

Kent C. Dodds: Wedekind. Okay.

Emma Bostian: Yeah, it's very German. It's very German.

Kent C. Dodds: I should've known. I knew that German Ws were pronounced like a V. My bad.

Emma Bostian: Yeah. Now you know and now you can spread the word.

Kent C. Dodds: Okay. Well, we'll do that in this podcast. Everybody listening, it's Wedekind. So, cool. So, if you haven't heard of Emma, she's just a fabulous person. I'm actually going to give her an opportunity to introduce herself. So, Emma, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? You don't have to specifically talk about what you're doing technologically wise or career wise. You can tell us a little bit about your interests or whatever you want to say about yourself.

Emma Bostian: Yeah. For sure. Okay, cool. So, hi, I'm Emma, and thank you for having me on, I appreciate it. So, I'm a UX Engineer currently which is a fun new role that's kind of like a hybrid between an engineer and a designer. Who am I as a person though? Let's see. I'm an American who moved to Germany about a year ago, which is a lot of fun. I am a proud mother to two cats. They're horribly behaved but I still love them. I thoroughly enjoy reading as many books as I can possibly digest. So, yeah.

Kent C. Dodds: Nice. I'll try to get my fantasy novel finished for you.

Emma Bostian: Yeah, I can't wait to read it. I'm chomping at the bit for this.

Kent C. Dodds: That's so nice. It makes me feel good. It encourages me to get it finished. Cool. So, Emma, there are a silly amount of things that we could talk about together. You have a very active blog and your Twitter is just on fire all the time. But, I wanted to talk a little bit about this mentoring app that you are working on. I think it's a really cool idea, and mentoring is actually a subject that I have mixed feelings about. So, I'd love to chat with you about that a little bit. Along with the fact that this is an open source app and all of the nuances that come with managing open source projects. So, why don't you tell us about this project and kind of the why behind the project and what you're trying to accomplish here.

Emma Bostian: Sure. So, this actually starts several years ago when I was working at IBM as an engineer and I was working on a design team. I was working with the IBM Quantum Design Team as the only front-end developer on the team. I had so many questions for technology staff and all of that. I was still, I would say, pretty new. I had a steady job all throughout college, so switching to a team where now I had the authority to kind of choose my tech staff, and I chose VJS, which is so much fun, but I was so new to the industry. I had so many questions and I had no one to ask. Because as a developer on a design team, you don't have anyone you work with in person day to day. So, I had this idea of, well, we should have a mentorship program and so, we actually had held a workshop with several women executives within IBM. We had a full day workshop and we had some tangible outputs and I had a small team together. It was like a cross functional team. We had some designers and Jason Lengstorff was actually there. He was there from the beginning. He was trying to help.

Kent C. Dodds: [inaudible 00:03:36]

Emma Bostian: Yeah, he's so great. But unfortunately, it just wasn't the right timing. It went dormant for a few years and then, in September of last year, I was in the Berlin airport, and I don't know, I think I maybe had a thousand followers if I was lucky at that point. I was like, "It seems like there is a real need for mentorship, and maybe this is the time." I don't know. I just felt like it was the time. So, I tweeted out and was like, "Hey, is anyone interested in creating an open source membership app?" and the response is overwhelmingly positive. So, I bought a domain name and you would not believe how hard it is to find domain names that aren't taken. So, I bought, and I was a little on the fence about it because coach can kind of mean several things, right? But I was like, "You know what? It still means kind of someone who guides you to a certain extent." So, I bought the domain name, I opened a Slack organization, and people just started flowing in. It was a little overwhelming because I had no idea how to manage anything. I had never managed something to this extent before. Originally, I thought I was going to develop it. Kai, my husband, was like, "You can't develop this app. Because if you develop it, it's going to fail because no one will be pushing this project along." So, I was like, "All right, you're right." The other thing I had to get used to was delegating. I'm a control freak, believe it or not, and so, to find talented developers that I could trust to groom the backlog in Github and to kind of push this thing forward and choose the tech stock, it was kind of nerveracking. But, I found two really great front-end engineers who one of them, Chris Bell, works for Envision as a senior dev, and the other one, Mosh, who was the force behind this, [inaudible 00:05:28] site that you see up today,, he works at Wix as an engineers. So, I got super lucky on the front-end side, and I have a great back-end guy too. I don't know as much about back-end, so I can't praise it to the same extent. [crosstalk 00:05:44]. So, yeah, I think it's grown. We have over a few thousand people in our Slack [inaudible 00:05:51] we have, I don't know, like over 7,000 followers now on Twitter and for something that's just as simple as like a database that's pulling in data from a package.json file, for our first release I think that's pretty incredible. So, yeah.

Kent C. Dodds: It's pulling data from a package.json file? What is that?

Emma Bostian: So, we have a CLI tool right now. So, the first iterations you had to actually like clone the repository and add your data in and it had to be like the same exact structure of course or our code would fail on it and you'd open like a pull request and there would be like a ton of merge conflicts, but they created a CLI tool where now you just say like add mentor or create new mentor, I can't remember and it guides you through the information you need to add and it's super easy now. Yeah, but it's all just sitting in a package JSON right now, there's no back end.

Kent C. Dodds: Okay, cool. Interesting. So, if I were to go to the coding coach project on GitHub, I would just see this massive package JSON file in there?

Emma Bostian: Yeah. It's not optimal, and we're in the process of, I think the word is obfuscating all of our email addresses. I don't know how people that don't speak native English can pronounce that, because I can't pronounce it. Yeah, we're in the process of like building a fully fledged site, but I think the short term goal was like, hey, we need something out there, right? Just get something out there that people can reference and in the meantime, we'll build our full stack application where we'll have a proper database and whatnot.

Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, that's great. The reason that I asked that was just to call out the fact that if you had waited until you had like the perfect solution, then you wouldn't have something shipped already. I mean, maybe it's not optimal, but it's shipped and shipped is way better than not shipped most of the time. I think that's an important good takeaway for people is to get as close to, or yeah, ship as fast as possible and then you can iterate to a better solution.

Emma Bostian: There is two pieces to that though, because I personally am a proponent of like getting something out because defining done is like nearly impossible, right? Nothing is ever fully done. So, at some point, you just have to be like, okay, these are the MVP or like the Minimum Viable Product, just ship it. So, there's that. And then, I was reading this book, I think it was called The Originals and they discussed the fact that occasionally with products you see, they're not always first to market, right? The most successful aren't necessarily first to market which I found very interesting, because you would assume that whoever's first wins the whole thing, but it's kind of a balance of like making sure that it's completed enough to provide enough value to the community, but not waiting too long.

Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, that's an interesting point. That makes me think of what happens if you ship too early and it's a bit of a disaster, right? Then people are going to say, oh, I used that last year and it was just not good, so I'm not gonna [crosstalk 00:08:49]. That makes me think of the jest testing framework which a couple years ago was like really bad, like everybody ... it was kind of a joke, but then, over time, they iterated to just the most amazing testing platform and then they were able to win people back. So, yeah, there is a delicate balance there I think.

Emma Bostian: I feel like I've only ever seen one product though like actually ship something that was like utterly beautiful it's first go-around. I think it's called CB compiler. It's like the coolest site. They have an amazing site, you go check it out. Basically you upload your resume and it like uses artificial intelligence to like deduce how effective of a resume it will be and their first launch, I was like, oh my god, they built that and that's their first release? That's incredible. But yeah, normally you would see like all the products, if you go back in time to like Google and Twitter and Facebook, like the first releases, I mean, they weren't beautiful. So, don't push yourself too hard.

Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. So, I want to talk a little bit about mentoring just like the topic in general. I was wondering when you created the Slack group and released everything, my impression would be that like 99% of the people who joined would be people seeking a mentor and then you'd have one mentor for 200 people or something. So, how has that played out in reality and what do you think ... if that is a problem, what do you think a good solution to that problem could be?

Emma Bostian: Yeah. So, I think that's a safe assumption that like the majority of people coming to this site are looking for a mentor, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many people avidly wanted to sign up, because I think mentorship is such a positive thing that people want to promote the fact that they are a mentor. I think it ... I mean, selfishly, I think it looks good to say I'm a mentor to people, but yeah, I think there are so many good-hearted people in the community that they want to help people, they want to help beginners, because we all know how it feels to be beginner. I will say as much as I do love mentorship, it's kind of a double edged sword in a sense, because ... I get a lot of messages and I know a lot of people in the community get a lot messages saying, hey, will you be my mentor? And that's it, that's like the end of the message. I think part of that is they don't know how to start this conversation. So, that's why I wanted to create these mentorship guidelines. It's on Google Drive, for anyone to go look at, but how do you start this conversation? Because, just sending a message saying, hey, will you be my mentor? That doesn't tell the mentor anything about yourself, like who are you, what are your career goals? What kind of things are you looking for to get out of this mentorship, right? Is this a career mentorship? Is it a technical mentorship? In all honesty, these mentors are giving up their free time. So, this platform is free. That was one of the things I really had wanted, because many people can't afford a high-quality mentor in terms of money. So, these mentors are giving up their free time and what that means is, as a mentee, you need to do the bulk of the work. So, have a clear plan, have three to five tangible goals laid out that you can send them and be like, these are the things I want to work on. At that point, that's where you can begin to like sketch out like a learning plan and then you can measure your results against those, but if you just come to someone and say, hey, will you be my mentor? It doesn't really tell them anything about yourself. So, you're just going to make sure that you are the one doing the majority of the work.

Kent C. Dodds: Yeah and sometimes ... so, this happens to me a lot. I get a request to be a mentor about once a week and it's pretty exhausting honestly as an individual responding to these people and I pretty much always say no because I don't have the bandwidth for it, and I feel bad about that, but sometimes I'll get the one-liner, will you be my mentor? Other times I'll get this like, this giant story of like life story and I never have time to read that. So, what would you say is a ... I guess you have the mentorship guidelines and we'll link over to that, but if you can quickly describe some good specific tips about the type of message that somebody would send to someone.

Emma Bostian: Yeah. So, on our platform, we want to make sure that our mentors are able to, I don't know what the right word is, politely decline, right? Because that's kind of a weird situation. You don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. You don't want to like shut them down and make them feel bad about themselves, because they haven't done anything wrong. It's just simply that the more busy you are, the less capacity you have. So, one thing we'll be doing is adding like capacity indicators to our cards, like our mentor cards, so you can quickly see like, hey, this person's like full, they don't have any time, so I won't even bother reaching out to them right now. So, that's one phase of it, but if you're a mentor and you receive a message and it says will you be my mentor? And you just don't have the capacity or maybe, this happened to me today, there was a woman who was looking for a back end, like a node js mentor and I'm like, hey, I'm sorry, I'm just not the right person for you. I don't have the skill set to be able to effectively mentor you. In those instances, you can be honest if you want. Say, hey, I'm unfortunately just too busy, I'm happy to pass your name along to other people I know who might be looking to take on new mentees, or you could say, my skill set isn't the right fit and I want you to be successful. Right? But, I think being authentic and being honest about the reason, you don't have to give your whole life story or all of these excuses necessarily, but just make them feel like there is someone out there who will mentor them and who is a better fit maybe.

Kent C. Dodds: I think that's good. So, we've talked a little bit about some of the things that the mentees can do or people looking for mentors. Why would an experienced engineer be interested or even an inexperienced engineer, why would a person be interested in mentoring other people, like from the outside looking in, you might think, well, I mean, this is not serving me in any way, what do I stand to gain by donating my time to mentor other people? So, what should motivate people to desire to be the mentor?

Emma Bostian: There are a couple of things. So, one is, you just genuinely want to make the community a better place and by shaping the future of the engineers that are joining this industry, I think that's one way to do so. Secondly is, there are a lot of professionals who need to be a mentor in order to get a promotion. When I was at IBM, once you hit a certain level or a certain tier, you needed to be a mentor to someone and prove that you had been a mentor to actually get a promotion. So, it's kind of twofold, right? I think we need to stop thinking, yes, I would say in general, there's a hierarchy, like a mentor's typically the person instilling knowledge in the mentee, but you should remember that it's a two sided relationship. So, actually the mentor can gain knowledge from the mentee as well, right? Perhaps, I'm a mentor and I'm looking to get into teaching, right? So, I love writing blogs, I love creating courses, I like to teach and mentorship is one way for me to kind of like shape my skill set and figure out where I can improve as well as a teacher.

Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. I feel like when people ask me to be a mentor, neither one of us have any idea what that even looks like and half the time they say that. I don't know what I want you to do or what you want me to do, but I just want you to be my mentor and it seems kind of like ambiguous, but I feel like the most successful mentorship relationships that I've been involved in are the ones where you don't even really think of the relationship as an official mentor, mentee type of situation, but it's more just, on occasion I do something and receive feedback. Most of my experience, being mentored has been, I contribute to an open source project and they give me feedback on my contribution and that is like a really strong mentorship situation there and it's actually something that I've started doing when people ask me to be a mentor, I say, well, I have these issues open on some projects, you go ahead and try to implement those things and I'll give you feedback on your code. And then, not only is it serving me as a mentor because I get those things finished, but it also serves the mentee because they get that feedback on their code. Have you seen that work in your situations? Does that seem like a pretty good type of mentor-mentee relationship there?

Emma Bostian: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you had mentioned earlier, I get a lot of messages asking if I could be someone's mentor. My typical answer is, I am happy to answer any questions that you have any direct questions or give you advice or give you resources, but I just don't have the time to get on Zoom all the time and have 30 minute conversations. So, there's this kind of like asynchronous type of mentorship where if I have a question I just cannot find the answer to, I can ask this person, right? So, that's a nice easier type of mentorship. When I was at IBM, I did have a mentor. He now works at Google and he was someone that I had looked up to in the industry. So, I asked him if he would be my mentor and he said I'm not really sure where to go from here. I think our first meeting was him kind of giving me like a fake technical interview and seeing like where my gaps were. So, like if I was interviewing with him, where would I need to improve? So, that was one aspect of it. And then the second was taking a project. So, I needed to rebuild my portfolio. So, he was like, all right, so you want to build your portfolio, these are the technologies you want to learn, because learning [inaudible 00:18:57] at the time and he said, all right, so, each week you're gonna have like a set of checklist items that you need to meet and what we'll do is, we'll review your code in person together and by the end of it, I had a fully fledged portfolio. So, I got something out of it and we had like tangible items to go through each week or every other week. So, I think those types of mentorships are honestly the best when there's something tangible that you can look at together and as the mentor, you can walk them through, like okay, well, this works, right? But, it's maybe you can optimize the performance a little bit by not doing a nested for loop or something similar like that. I think those are the best types, right? Unless you're looking for just general career advice. If you're looking for a technical mentorship, I think hands-on is definitely the way to go.

Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You mentioned that this mentor helped you with the interview process and we talked about earlier that you kind of wanted to talk about that a little bit. What are some things and often like these mentees, they're kind of hoping to land a job through this relationship or like getting some feedback and stuff. So, what are some things that people can do to prepare for a job interview and to eventually land a job where they want to go?

Emma Bostian: Yeah. So, every time I have a technical interview, I cry a little bit on the inside, because as outgoing and confident as I seem, I still have impostor syndrome and I think everyone, most people will to some extent. So, I will say there's kind of [inaudible 00:20:30]. Do you need computer science principles in web development specifically? I don't want to fully get into that now, but I think just as a caveat, like I have a computer science degree and I don't feel like it put me in an advantage in terms of technical interviews, because I didn't digest the information during my degree and so, every time I have an interview, it makes me extremely nervous and I spend so many hours preparing. I have written a blog post called decoding the front end technical interview I believe it's called, which kind of lays out the general process, right? I think the majority of us are terrified of the technical white boarding interviews and that's kind of where we trip up, but we also need to remember that like the HR interview and like the cultural fit interview are just as important because we kind of forget that as engineers we need to ... we need to work on our soft skills. So, yeah, I mean, from like a technical side, I don't know what kind of tools that you use to prepare, but I personally love hacker ink, I think for algorithmic coding, I think gives me great ideas to practice with, although, like I said, that's hard to get feedback on. So, this would maybe be a great activity, if you had a mentor that you could take to them and be like, hey, this is my solution, how can I optimize it? Or what would you say if a candidate submitted this? But, yeah, I think as a whole, I feel like the industry is a little bit flawed in the sense that like you can apply to ten jobs and you'll have ten completely different interviews. You don't really know exactly what to prep for, but if you ... if you were preparing for an interview, what would you ... how would you study?

Kent C. Dodds: Oh, I remember especially early on in my career, I was going through all the hack the interview books and blog posts and everything that I could think of and when I interviewed it at Facebook and interviewed at PayPal, I was really surprised to find that the interviews were very practical. So, I think unless you're going to Google, I think a lot of companies are starting to come around and realize that, hey, these trick questions are just not helping us hire the kind of talent that we're looking for. So, I recommend to people to study the things that they do on the day to day job just like ... so, maybe solidify the fundamentals a little bit, think about the abstractions you're using and try to figure out how those things work so that you can talk about them intelligently. Especially for front-end engineers, really solidify your understanding of the fundamentals of HTML, CSS and JavaScript and then go into the interview as confidently as you possibly can and don't feel like ... remember that you are also interviewing them and keeping that in mind can maybe help relieve a little bit of the nerves, because you're not the only one on trial in this situation.

Emma Bostian: It's so true. I see this a lot too with recruiters, where I'll notice people will bend over backwards to accommodate a recruiter, especially if they're from like one of the fortune 500 companies, right? The recruiter will reach out and be like, hey, we want to interview you and do you have time at like 6:00 in the morning or like 10:00 at night and like most people will say yes, because there's like a stigma around these big companies and like you want to impress them, but they're also ... you're interviewing them too, right? They want you. You're talented. They wouldn't be interviewing you if you weren't. So, we need to be more like forthright with being confident about those kind of things.

Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, absolutely. So, we're coming down close on our time, but one thing that I wanted to talk with you about as well is ... so, kind of back to the mentoring aspect, as a mentor, the reason that I don't have as much bandwidth to be a one-on-one mentor for people is because I spend my ... when I was at a company, it was my free time, now I'm at my own company, so all time is company time I guess. I don't know. But, I spend that time that I'm not actually working making content, producing videos or blog posts or this podcast, whatever, to give out to the world and that's kind of how I see myself as a mentor now where I'm mentoring anybody who is consuming my content and I increase the value of the impact by creating that content that's consumed by a lot of people, and you do this yourself quite a bit. What are your thoughts around creating content as a form of mentorship?

Emma Bostian: I have never actually seen myself [inaudible 00:25:24] I produce as mentorship and it's so funny because you're not the first person to tell me that that's like mass mentorship, but it makes sense, right? I don't make ... this sounds terrible and I don't want this to come off terribly, but I don't make content for other people. I make content for myself that I would want to read or ingest and it just happens ... I feel like that's the best way to produce content, because if you're interested in it and you want to read it and you can learn from it, then more people can do that than just you. When you try to produce content for people, I feel like you can get bogged down with producing content that you're not passionate about and at that point, if you're not passionate about it, your audience will be able to tell. So, I think producing content that you're passionate about is a great form of mentorship. It's a lot easier to reach many people. I struggle though personally with like prioritizing my time and not getting overextended and this has happened to me recently and I realized I can focus on two, max three things at a time, whether [inaudible 00:26:24] courses or creating like conference talks or writing blogs. So, I would say if you're nervous about producing content, just go for it. Just make sure that you enjoy the content that you produce.

Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. I think that's fantastic advice. If you're not interested in it, then you're probably not going to produce super useful content for other people anyway. That lack of interest will show in the, I don't know, the value of the content that you create. So, I think that's super great advice. So, what would you say to people who are like, well, yeah, sure, I'm interested in writing blog posts or I want to make a screen cast, but a bunch of people have already done this before. I don't even know how many blog posts there are about how this works in JavaScript, but there are probably many. So, especially people who are kind of beginners, they're like, I mean, I'm not inventing any new patterns or there's certainly nothing new under the sun that other people haven't seen that I can create. So, I guess I'll just wait until I'm a super experienced engineer, making up new programming languages or something before I start producing content. What would you say to people with that fear?

Emma Bostian: Firstly, you don't need to be an expert in something. I started blogging ... I still don't feel like I fully understand the scope of everything that I write about, but just start whether that's writing, blogging or making videos or whatever your medium is. Secondly, yes, there might be a plethora of information out there, but no content is bad content unless it's just like blatantly wrong, like don't go preaching that you should just use [inaudible 00:28:14] for everything because like the standards say otherwise. But, if you're producing content that's like legitimate and you enjoy it, go for it and if it reaches one person and it helps one person, then you have instilled value into the community. So, it doesn't matter how many blog posts there are, you have a unique vantage point and if you enjoy doing it, go for it.

Kent C. Dodds: Absolutely. I would say that even if that one person that it reaches is yourself in the future, then that ... it almost [inaudible 00:28:46] journal in that sense, but often, it's going to reach more people and in fact, especially if you're talking about like a meet-up talk or something like that, then all the people in the room, many of them may not have read that particular blog post that inspired you to create this meetup talk. So, you're able to reach those people in a way that that blog post wasn't able to reach them. So, there's definitely opportunity there. So, I wrote this blog post a while back called solidifying what you learn and in it, I mentioned the ... have you ever seen a Burger King next to a McDonald's or across the street or something?

Emma Bostian: Yeah.

Kent C. Dodds: [inaudible 00:29:30] the same purpose, but people still go to both of them, because they have a different take on the burger or whatever. There's actually even some place where they have three Starbucks on one corner in Seattle. It's crazy. People go to all three of them, right? So, just because it exists, doesn't mean that you don't have an opportunity to share there.

Emma Bostian: Right. I love that. I think that's great advice.

Kent C. Dodds: Cool. So, Emma, it's been awesome chatting with you. Just to wrap us up, what would you give people as a call to action something that they can do to either improve themselves personally or professionally?

Emma Bostian: Okay. I would encourage people to be open to feedback and also to actively ask for feedback. I am a huge proponent of learning about myself and how I work with others, especially now that I've switched into a new culture where people communicate differently. So, if you're looking to improve, the best way to do that is to ask for feedback. What are the things that you're doing well and where can you improve? Because often, we don't see these things about ourself. So, go find a colleague or even someone in your personal life and ask them for feedback, right? What areas can I improve upon? Make an effort to work on those things and you'll see over time that your skills are getting better slowly but surely.

Kent C. Dodds: That's fantastic advice. Thank you so much for that. When we finish here, I'm gonna ask you for feedback.

Emma Bostian: Oh good.

Kent C. Dodds: Cool. Thank you so much Emma, it's been awesome having you on here and chatting with you. I've wanted to have a chat with you for a while, so that's what this podcast is just an excuse to-

Emma Bostian: Thank you for having me.

Kent C. Dodds: chat with people.

Emma Bostian: Yeah, it was really a pleasure to talk to you.

Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, thank you. All right. We'll see everybody next time. Goodbye.