Mentorship in Tech with Aaron Sachs

A mentor is one of those things that everyone wants but no one seems to know how to get. My guest this episode is Aaron Sachs, who cares quite a bit about mentorship in the tech world and has quite a lot of advice on finding a mentor, being a good mentee (and mentor!), plus thoughts on what mentorship is and isn’t.

About Aaron Sachs

Aaron Sachs is a home brewer, banjo player, and also happens to like monitoring things. He helps make his customers look like monitoring badasses to their customers at Sensu, where he's a Customer Reliability Engineer.

Links Referenced


Mike:  This is the Real World DevOps podcast and I'm your host Mike Gillian. I'm setting out to meet the most interesting people doing awesome work in the world of DevOps. From the creators of your favorite tools, to the organizers of amazing conferences, from the authors of great books to fantastic public speakers. I want to introduce you to the most interesting people I can find.

Mike:  This episode is sponsored by the lovely folks at Influx Data. If you're listening to this podcast, you're probably also interested in better monitoring tools and that's where Influx comes in. Personally, I'm a huge fan of their products and I often recommend them to my own clients. You're probably familiar with their time series database, Influx DB, but you may not be as familiar with their other tools. Telegraph for metrics collection from systems, chronograph for visualization and capacitor for real time streaming. All of these are available as open source and as a hosted SAS solution. You can check all of it out at My thanks to influx data for helping make this podcast possible.

Mike:  Hey Aaron, welcome to the show.

Aaron:  Hey Mike, thanks for having me on.

Mike:  So I want to start with a a little bit of an origin story because everyone loves a good origin story.

Aaron:  Oh yeah.

Mike:  You and I met over hot wings many, many, many years ago.

Aaron:  Hot wings, pizza and garlic knots. All good stuff.

Mike:  Right? Sadly the place is closed now, but we ended up going..

Aaron:  No.

Mike:  I know at the time I think you were working help desk support while studying for a communications degree?

Aaron:  Oh yeah, yeah. I was at a University of Tennessee's Office of Information Technology doing desktop support with a bunch of other students and yeah, working on my communication studies degree. Yep.

Mike:  Yeah. So the thing I find interesting about all this is that you never intended to go into IT at all. Like you weren't planning to go into tech in any way. You were really planning to go into something communication related.

Aaron:  Yeah. Yeah. So I was planning on being a communication professor and kind of aligned my career up to that point to do just that. And yeah... It was during that time, like so I was the whole reason I got out of that was I was writing my thesis on how one determines a blogger to be credible. Like what sort of behaviors do they exhibit when they were writing a blog uh and because that was nowhere near the specialty of the department I was in, there was just a lot of politics and I got so fed up with it and I was like, I'm done. And I'm already working at the Office of Information Technology to, do you know my grad assistantship, so why not just do IT?

Mike:  I remember you and I went out for beers, I want to say it was like a month after we met, and you you asked me a question of, "What if I stopped doing communications and went into tech? What would that look like?" And like the immediate follow up question was, "And can you help me?"

Aaron:  Yup. Yup. That's correct.

Mike:  Yeah. So, me not knowing what I was getting myself into of, "Yeah, let's just totally change the course of someone's career over beer."

Aaron:  By the way, for the listeners out there, if you ever want to sucker Mike into something, get him real drunk and then asking me if ask him for help. Totally works.

Mike:  Yeah apparently. So…

Aaron:  Haha

Mike:  This kind of started an interesting thing of you and I weren't really initially friends is more of a, you were looking to me for help on how to change your career and how to get better at a thing that you had not focused on at all. We actually became friends as a result of that like going through that whole thing, but it really developed into this informal mentorship situation.

Aaron:  Oh yeah. Yeah. I very fondly recall all of our a Tuesday nights at Old City Java in Knoxville, just gorging ourselves on Meg's croissants and downing gratuitous amounts of caffeine.

Mike:  Right. And wishing for a whiteboard to further explain concepts. Right?

Aaron:  Right.

Mike:  So through all this, clearly you've, you've done well you're working for Sensu now as a Customer Reliability Engineer, helping companies with improving their monitoring using Sensu. But one of your big focuses throughout your career, many years after us working together, has been to help other people improve their careers and improve their professional lives.

Aaron:  Absolutely. Yeah. It's so you're ready for that, by the way.

Mike:  Yeah. And so I know you've given several talks on this and you've had several other mentees over the years as well. I believe you were involved in a pretty formalized program at Rackspace on that topic as well.

Aaron:  Yeah, there was actually... I did a lot of mentorship with my team at Rackspace, so as I moved up in the admin ranks, I always took it under, rather took it upon myself to mentor the people that were coming in. And then that somehow turned into me mentoring folks that were in my wife, Ashley's department. We actually started like a meetup that would happen once a week at Rackspace and these are folks who came in as customer service technicians. They knew enough to spell DNS and grow them from just that to actually progressing into paths as like a one guy is a, I think he's a customer success manager for a startup in San Antonio and other guys as systems engineer now at Rackspace still, and then I've got another great friend of mine who's constantly blown away because she's actually taking this whole mentorship principle that we worked on at Rackspace and she's doing it with other people that she knows now. Her name's Elle, she works at I think Lennox Academy or Jupiter Broadcasting. So yeah, it's, it's been a crazy journey.

Mike:  Yeah, that sounds pretty awesome. So I want to dig into that. Let's back up and say what is mentorship?

Aaron:  So let's talk about what mentorship is not because I think that that's an even more useful way of discussing the concept of mentorship.

Aaron:  So mentorship, in my view is not simply... It's not transactional. It's not just the like... I mean I came to you initially and thought it was a transaction. I'm going to go to Mike and Mike's going to help me, which is fine, but that's not mentorship. Right? Mentorship is about growth and it's a two way street. So it's definitely not a, "I'm a senior year, you're a junior, I'm going to mentor you." Which I think is something that can get really easy to get mixed up in that sort of head space of thinking, well, "I'm older, I know more, I'm the more senior, more experienced person. I know more. Therefore you are learning from me."

Aaron:  In reality, I've learned a ton from the folks that I've mentored, folks who have forced me to learn things to dig into different concepts.

Mike:  I remember the first time you asked me how does DNS work? And I'm like, "Oh, this is a simple answer." And about five minutes into it I realized, "Wait a minute, I don't actually understand DNS well enough."

Aaron:  Yeah, that definitely... Oh gosh, I had that same thing happen to me too when I was mentoring some folks because that that's, that's a rabbit hole for sure.

Mike:  Right? So it is a two way street. You, as a mentor, you learn from your mentees as well.

Aaron:  Right. So mentorship, right, if I were to sum it up in, let's see, like the elevator pitch, it would be mentorship is a relationship built around learning, I guess it'd be a really simple way to put it, but you could probably, I mean there are all sorts of things that happen with mentorship. Like you could put some time bounds on it if you want to, you could put a goal around it. I've seen different organizations like the Apache Foundation has a very specific targeted way of doing mentorship. There are much more long term mentor, mentee relationships like yours and mine. I'm still learning from you, even though we're not meeting every week at Old City Java anymore. So yeah…

Mike:  Mentorship, does it work better with a formal or informal program? Do they work differently?

Aaron:  I think it, that depends entirely on what a mentee wants to get out of it. So if a mentee says, for example, "I want to learn to code X, I want to learn to code this thing in Go or I want mentorship through a specific project." It can be very formal, and very targeted and it can meet the need of what the mentee is going for.

Aaron:  I think you can also do the informal, right? Like ours has been very informal and continues to be very informal and it's not so much... I think you and I have a has sat down and said, "Well, I want to get this out of mentoring Aaron. I want to be on the receiving end of whatever from Mike." It's been more along the lines of how can I learn, how can I grow, what phase of life am I in right now? Or what phase in my career am I in? And like where do I need the help? And that to me it seems pretty open-ended, right? Because it could start with, well, I need to learn Linux as the way that you're and my relationship started. And it's progressed through learning all sorts of like different business practices or communicating more effectively or organizing conferences, which is it's one thing after another, right? Um so I think it just depends to answer the question. It depends on what the mentees goals are.

Mike:  Well, what about the mentors goals? Like presumably, there are times when someone sets out to become a mentor and starts looking for people to teach and to help grow.

Aaron:  So let me backup to my time at Rackspace when I was doing the mentorship initiative on our team.

Aaron:  There are people in the world who are not teachers. They're not gifted in it. They don't have that skill and they don't really desire to have that skill. And so I think with a mentor, right if we're talking about mentor goals, you can immediately eliminate those people from the picture and say, "Okay, well they're not going to be mentors. They don't want to be mentors. Whatever."

Aaron:  The people who want to be mentors, I think kind of go through phases. So that initial phase, at least in my journey, has been, I want to help people improve. Right? That could be the first goals. I want to take whatever knowledge I have and impart that to somebody else. Cool. Great. Great place to start. I think from there it can become like you're getting at, which is a mentor could have a goal or specific set of goals with that. So it could be how do I teach better? Do I understand what I'm teaching? Right?

Aaron:  So that could be another thing where it's a little bit self-reflective or it's like, "Okay, well I want to mentor somebody who wants to know about DNS so that I can go down this rabbit hole and understand what's going on." That's a very valid goal.

Aaron:  In my reading of some of the literature on mentorship, and actually one of the guys that I know here in our neighborhood is somebody who he did his entire doctoral work on reverse mentorship. I don't think there's been a whole lot of discussion around the mentors goals so much. So it's actually really interesting that you bring it up.

Mike:  If I'm someone looking for a mentor, then presumably there are people who would be interested in being a mentor and that means they might be looking for someone to mentor themselves. Rather than just being open to the idea, they're actively looking for it.

Aaron:  Yeah. Yeah. And I remember actually, gosh, days gone by when you and I were in LOPSA. LOPSA had a mentorship program and I think from what I recall of that program and some other programs, people will sign up and say, "I want to be a mentor in X. I want to mentor somebody through security concepts or I want to mentor somebody in Python." Right? So if you're looking to learn python, come talk to me. Or if you're looking to learn how to do pen testing or become a security professional, talk to me.

Aaron:  But that's always been kind of a implicit thing rather than, I think somebody talking about like from the mentor perspective, like what are your goals going into being a mentor, you know what I mean?

Mike:  Mmmhmm yup. I want to shift gears a little bit. We've been talking about mentorship and the concept of teaching has been kind of central to this whole thing. Is there any big difference between training and mentorship?

Aaron:  Yes. Yes, I would say there is certainly.

Mike:  How do you know difference?

Aaron:  So I do both. Professionally I train other people on how to use Sensu, okay. So training to me has a more transactional focus, right? I am the teacher, you the student, I am imparting knowledge, you ask questions to gain more knowledge but the goal is very much like a one to many transactional sort of act.

Aaron:  Whereas if I think about mentorship, there's like a constant feedback loop there and it's usually one-to-one or one to several.

Mike:  It's much more relational it sounds like.

Aaron:  Right right . But but, let's take it a step further. There are commonalities there, right? So he…

Mike:  Okay. Tell me more about that.

Aaron:  The folks who know how to teach well or train well, can take those skills because again, teaching and training can be very different from mentorship, but they can take those skills and kind of dovetail them into being a mentor. Right? So the imparting of knowledge is just one thing in that journey and what I'm getting at here is like you can be be a great teacher and be a terrible mentor because you don't understand relationships and you don't understand how the relationship is two way. Right? But I don't think you can be a good mentor and not be a good teacher.

Mike:  Gotcha. So it sounds like teaching is really is central to this entire concept. To be a good mentor, you have to be good at teaching.

Aaron:  Yup. I would say that's true.

Mike:  So how can I be a better mentee? Like when I say when we talk about being a better mentor, it comes down to get better teaching, get better relationships, how can I be a better mentee?

Aaron:  So there's several thoughts floating right in my head. One of those thoughts is exactly that. Get better at teaching and get better at relationships because you as a mentee will definitely have something to offer your mentor as well as other mentees, right. So this is like, gosh, I would hate to use a Star Wars analogy and be like... You know master and student when it comes to like the Sith, but it might somewhat fit, but there's a chain there, right?

Aaron:  A mentor has a mentee, that mentee at some point should be in a similar stage. Also as a mentee, I think if you're going to be in a targeted, formal sort of mentoring relationship, have an idea of some goals that you want to accomplish.

Aaron:  So if I were to go to somebody and say, "Hey, I want you to teach me python. I want you to mentor me and python. I want to get better at python."

Aaron:  Okay, cool. What do you want to know? Where are you at? Where are you in your journey because as a mentor, if I was mentoring somebody in python, which God forbid because I don't know that they would ever be able to code their way out of a paper bag, but I would want to know what specifically do you want to learn? You know? Am I teaching you fundamentals? Cool. All right. I can start there as a mentor, I've got a good good reference point. You know do you want to learn specifically about like packaging your python applications? Cool. We can talk about that, but if you go in and just say, "Well I don't know. I just want to learn." If the mentor isn't prepared for that, I think it can set you up for failure.

Aaron:  I think two, kind of establishing as a mentee some sort of regular cadence for meeting with your mentor is super important. And that goes to both a mentor and a mentee, right. Establishing a cadence is important. You and I had our Tuesday nights at Java. I mean it, it just ended up working for us. But I think as a mentee you should say like, I don't think the relationship works if you aren't regularly checking in. You know what I mean?

Aaron:  If I'm like, "Okay, well I want to learn about I want to learn about pen testing, right?" And I go to somebody, we start that initial you know mentorship relationship and then we never meet again. Well it does neither the mentor or the mentee any good.

Mike:  Right. You've just wasted time and effort on both sides.

Aaron:  Which is the last thing you want to do in that relationship because that relationship can keep giving a long after that engagement has ended you know whether formal or informal.

Aaron:  And I think boundaries are another important thing, not just as a mentor but also on the mentee side. Being able to respect boundaries, right?

Mike:  Okay, tell me more about that.

Aaron:  So I can be a super eager mentee and want to learn all the things I'm going to... I could be one of those types of people who hounds my mentor and if my mentor is a working professional like most are being constantly hounded is going to be like put a pretty big wedge in that relationship because that's going to foster some resentment there in my mind. You know like if I had somebody constantly pestering me and be like, "Hey, I need help with this. Hey I need help with this. Hey, I need you to do this for me. Hey teach me this thing." Okay, slow down hoss, let's take a second. You know I've I've got my day job, I've got a family, let's work on some boundaries. Right so making sure that those are established pretty early on and that you're both respectful of those is another key thing I think as a mentee, more on the mentees side, like respecting boundaries, but then also as a mentor, being able to set those boundaries.

Mike:  Do you have any thoughts on how to find a mentor?

Aaron:  There's an old Mr. Rogers quote about finding the helpers that I'm not going to quote because I can't do it justice. That would be one thing I would say, if you are looking for a mentor professionally, one, start by looking around. Look at your company, look at the folks who are doing the teaching, look at the folks who want to impart knowledge or are looking for a good excuse to to teach. That's usually a good indicator.

Aaron:  There are are also great programs out there that, LOPSA offered one, the Apache Foundation has offered some, I think there's that talk at scale in 2015 that Jen Greenaway gave, that went over several open source organizations that do just this, they offer some sort of mentorship program.

Aaron:  So that goes back to as a mentee having an idea of what you want to be mentored in, if it is if it is that formalized structured engagement. There are organizations out there that provide that. If it is more of the informal, I think it takes a little bit of patience because you can't just you can't just walk up to a senior engineer and be like, "Hey I want to be your mentee."

Aaron:              Because that senior is going to be like, "Uh okay..." It's like you know having a puppy or a kitten from off the street, all of a sudden come up and start following you and you're like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on. You're cute and all." Maybe don't say that to a mentee, definitely don't say that to a mentee.

Aaron:  "I'm excited that you're enthusiastic about learning whatever but you know let's let's let's take a step back for a second." Because they may not be prepared for it, they may not be in a place where they can do that, but be patient and start paying attention.

Aaron:  So if I were to ask myself that question right now, like, Hey, how would I find a mentor?" I would again, look at the people that Sensu, look at the people who are teaching, look at the people who are very free with their knowledge. I would look for somebody who I respect right because the last you want is to be in a mentoring relationship with somebody who like you have no respect for or come to not respect.

Aaron:  And then from there I would even make it a formal thing at first. I would do something like, "Hey, let's go have a cup of coffee or like have a FaceTime chat at some point. I'll hear your thoughts on whatever." And start from there.

Aaron:  Like the mentorship relationship is not something to rush into because I think there's an element of trust that has to happen there because it is a relationship, right? Both people kind of have to agree on it. So being very choosy with who you pick and how you pick them is something to definitely keep in the back of your mind as far as if you are looking for a mentor, do it wisely.

Mike:  Right. Take a slow and crucially, something you said earlier that I think is worth reiterating here is come with a clear ask in mind. You can't go to someone to "Hey, I want to be, I want you to mentor me." And that's it. It can't possibly work that way.

Mike:  It has to be, "I want to learn this thing from you, this very specific thing." Otherwise it's kind of too open ended and no one really knows how to help.

Aaron:  I'll give you a great example.

Aaron:  So I just moved, I know maybe a handful of people in Chattanooga and one night I'm out wearing my some old vendor swags actually it's old DigitalOcean swag from when I was there. The guy comes up to me in Target and is like, "Hey, do they do cloud things?"

Aaron:  And I was like, "Why? That was not the question I was expecting in the middle of the baby aisle at target. But sure. Yeah they do cloud things. Why, what do you do?"

Aaron:  Over the course of the last couple of weeks, this guy and I have started meeting just to grab lunch and in the course of that found out that, "Hey, I don't really, I don't really like where I'm at." Kind of similar to like how your and my relationship started, Mike.

Aaron:  And I was like, "Interesting, tell me more about that. What do you, what do you, what are you hoping to do? Like what do you want to do?"

Aaron:  And so we started a kind of informal mentor, mentee relationship around building his career. Right so it wasn't the explicit ask of, "I need help with my career." Because that would have been really weird in the middle of Target asking somebody with vendor swag but over the course of a couple of lunches he made it pretty clear, "I think I can do better than this."

Aaron:   "I agree, let's get stuff in order." Right. So it's, it's been an interesting last couple of weeks but yeah, I mean even as a mentee can, if you don't feel comfortable like flat saying, "I don't like where I'm at in my job, I'm not respected. I don't make the pay I deserve or think I deserve."

Aaron:  You can say, "I think I want to do something else. Can you help me?" And even that's a great place to start.

Mike:  Yeah. Because most people had been there before and they're immediate next question is going to be, how can I help? Like most people actually want the help and especially so if you are asking about something that they have knowledge of and pretty much every senior person has quite a bit of knowledge about how they could have grown their career better. Like I think that ones is a great place to start of how do I just improve my career?

Aaron:  Oddly enough, I talked with the mentees more about that than I do the technical side of things, to be honest.

Mike:  Yeah. Right.

Aaron:  So it's like, "Okay, well what does a hiring manager want to see on my resume? Should I use a green font on it?" Which everybody out there and will probably go, no, no, don't do it. But I mean it's happened, right?

Aaron:  Do I need a chronological listing of all my accomplishments and all my past roles? No, let's tweak things. Let's make sure that we can get you in front of hiring managers. Let's make sure that it's not just a, "Hi, I'm here to interview, but let's kick some tail at it." Let's be prepared for the questions, so let's anticipate what hiring managers are going to ask and blow them out of water. That's that's more of the conversations I tend to have lately.

Mike:  If I'm someone listening to this episode and thinking like I would really like to help on a thing, whatever the topic is I want to in time find a mentor and develop that relationship and get help around whatever this thing is, what can I do? What's my next step?

Aaron:              That's a great question. So one of my old mentees started this Hashtag on Twitter, it's I-O-T-B-N, it's okay to be new is what it stands for, and she started using it as kind of a rallying point for folks who want to help as well as folks who need some help. So that's the most salient thing that comes to my mind is I would tweet out like, "Hey, I want to help." And include that hashtag, in your tweets, if you are so inclined to tweet.

Mike:                And that works just as well for people who are looking for help looking. Looking to provide some help. Yeah.

Aaron:  Right, exactly. You're saying like, "Hey, I'm new in the IT field and I need some help with Javascript." Or I keep saying security because there's a lot of security people who have been rallying around that hashtag and helping.

Aaron:  So yeah, I mean if you want to learn security concepts, you know like raise your digital hand on Twitter, include the hashtag and say, "Hey, I could use some help in this."

Aaron:  Again, there's also the formal stuff, so if you're a mentor, you could probably do a quick easy Google search for like technical mentorship or a technical mentoring program. What I think we could probably do is actually include some of those links that I think Jen had in her talk a a while ago as part of the show notes to say, "Hey, these are some places that are accepting mentors. Uh so if you want to be a mentor, go here."

Mike:  One of the places I found that has been really helpful was the meetup groups. So pretty much everyone who is speaking at a meetup is trying to become a better teacher, which makes them more inclined to want to help people that reach out to them.

Aaron:  That's a great point. There's also another way that like if you... Here's a big thing that's come up lately since I'm helping organize a conference here in Chattanooga, if you want to help folks improve their talks, volunteer or to review CFPs. If you're, I know DevOpsDays tons of stuff around the world. So you know, there are a ton of cities out there, but if you are wanting to help people get tighter on their communication and present their talks in a way to audiences, that's going to resonate with the audience, like volunteer to review a CFP. Or likewise, if you're a mentee, submit. The worst that anybody can say is no and you can ask for feedback, right? And then say, well, "Hey, do you have anybody who's interested in helping mentor me on getting better about my talk? That's a great way to both help in terms of mentorship as well as boost your career.

Mike:  Yeah, absolutely. And also if you read a book by someone and you have questions than just email the author.

Aaron:  Yeah. Oh yeah.

Mike:  Everyone is so afraid to email an author like, "Oh God, they're so busy. They're getting inundated with emails and other outreach all the time."

Mike:  The truth is that, no... No, we're not.

Aaron:  That reminds me of a tweet.

Mike:  Anyone that sends me an email about my book, I respond to every single one because I love helping people and no, authors don't actually hear from readers very often and the whole reason we write books is to help people. We're absolutely thrilled to be helped.

Aaron:  Conversely, if the book author has a repo with a code, samples, don't please, please don't go on a repo and just start like trashing the author's code.

Mike:  Yeah. Don't do that unless it is like very blatantly wrong, we will feel a little bad about making blatant mistakes, but anything else?

Aaron:  Yeah. So I was going to say is I'm reminded of a tweet that I think Ian Coldwater put out the other day where she was discussing how a lot of times the folks who follow her on Twitter, are kind of scared to approach her and talk about what she's doing, the type of work that she's doing and she basically echoed your sentiment Mike, which was actually like, "Come up and talk to me. If you see me at conferences come up and talk to me. Like if you, you have questions you want to learn, you want to grow, ask."

Aaron:  I mean to your point earlier, most most senior folks are going to be more than happy to help another person make that next jump or next, you know, leap in terms of either technical knowledge or something in their career. So yeah, don't feel like you know, the amount of followers you see on an author's Twitter page is indicative of how they're going to respond to you.

Mike:  Right. Well Aaron, this has been a fantastic chat. Thank you so much for all the advice you've given.

Aaron:  I hope it's useful.

Mike:  It absolutely is. Where can people find out more about you and your work?

Aaron:  Yeah, so you can find me on Twitter at Asachs01 or I've got a blog that I am starting to maintain a little bit more lately and that's So yeah.

Mike:  All right then. Well, thank you for coming on the show.

Aaron:  Well, Mike, thanks so much for having me. It's always a pleasure.

Mike:  Oh yes. And everyone else, thank you for listening to the Real World DevOps podcast. If you want to stay up to date on the latest episodes, you can find us at at iTunes, Google play or wherever it is you get your podcast. I'll see the next episode.

Mike:  This has been a HumblePod Production.

Mike:  Stay humble.


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