Mentoring Program Web Tools and Process

Web tool design is a technical art which requires an unusual combination of software programming, usability engineering, and program management skills. As Director of Sun Microsystems’ SEED Engineering-wide worldwide mentoring program since 2001 (and the program’s Process Architect), I have been gifted with two talented staff members who can do this work. Tanya Jankot has been SEED’s Applications Engineer since 2003. Before Tanya  Justin Yang held the position of SEED Program Manager for two years.

SEED developed its own set of tools for mentoring program and information management. These tools have not been “productized”. Why not use an external-to-Sun set of web tools? For the answer, read my 30 June 2009 blog Internal or External Mentoring Program?

Tools and Process Overview

The original SEED program was based on a year-long need analysis and program design in 2000 by a team mostly made up of Sun Human Resources (HR) and Engineering staff. The process itself was created on-the-fly during the first pilot term in 2001. The SEED mentoring program has expanded to a much larger audience in recent years and SEED’s web tools have developed and been redesigned accordingly. In the program’s first year, 2001-2002, there was just one term. In 2008-2009, there have been 12 overlapping terms in four groups (Recent Hires, Established Staff, PreSEED, and special pilots). Since the SEED team and I were creating a new mentoring system essentially from scratch in the 2001 pilot term, our guidelines for process and tool development were:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Check in with customers and stakeholders frequently
  3. Only include the minimum: question the need for each step before it goes in, and again at every review, and again before publication
  4. Let the process define the web tools
  5. Assume that process and tool users will have access to only the most basic web resources and performance
  6. Collect and analyze data routinely and make decisions based on those data

These guidelines have continued to serve SEED well. We also kept using the concept of a “pilot” to expand the program. In pilot terms, the rules, process, and/or scope are somewhat different from the regular SEED program. The Established Staff group was created in 2002 and the PreSEED program was created in 2008 using pilot programs; both have been very popular offerings. A pilot allows us to put something imperfect out there to see
what works. Sometimes pilots fail (for example, the SEED-2 or SEED Alumni term in 2007 only attracted ten participants).

SEED now has two major formal processes, for participant selection, and for mentor selection. These processes are published in full detail for the use of Sun internal program participants. Flow charts are also available in the appendix of “Sun Mentoring: 1996-2009” the Sun Labs 2009 Technical Report  (includes a copy of the Research Disclosure Database Number 482013, defensive publication from Research Disclosure, Published in June 2004, Electronic Publication Date : 17 May 2004).

In November 2008, Tanya created and gave an internal-to-Sun presentation on developing simple web technologies using the SEED tools as examples. Her presentation was created to educate other Sun project teams and web teams. The information following about SEED web tools is derived from Tanya’s presentation. Her overview statements about the SEED’s current web tools:

  • The technology was built to model SEED mentoring processes which were already designed and pilot tested (we tried to fit the tools into the existing work flow rather than build processes around the tools).
  • The tools have evolved with the program: need for greater automation to allow scaling, new requirements as the program expanded across geographical areas regions, organizations, etc.
  • SEED relies on existing Sun corporate data systems as much as possible, only
    gathering additional information not already available elsewhere.

More specific details follow about SEED’s web tools and the technology and process behind them. Screen shots and other confidential data have been removed from Tanya’s original presentation material.


Developing Simple Web Technologies for the SEED Mentoring Program

Tools Behind the Program

  • The systems supporting the SEED program have evolved with it over time. They currently include:
    – A system to manage each term’s application process. Details are in Term Application Materials and Term Application Management, below.
    – A system to support the mentor matching process. Details are in Mentor Request Management, below.
    – An archive of program applicants, participants, mentors, etc. which enables long-term program management and metrics. Details are in
    SEED Program Database, below.
    – Applications to support regular program activities, such as regular quarterly feedback reports and bi-annual events for mentees, mentors, and the mentee’s managers.
  • Tool development goals:
    – Ensure the integrity and confidentiality of applicant and participant data.
    – Increase the ease-of-use for program participants and SEED staff.
    – Increase program efficiency and quality of data available to the SEED team, extend the number of participants, raise the value of participant experience, and justify their trust in the program

Simple Technologies

  • “SAMP” (Solaris, Apache, MySQL, and Perl & PHP)
  • htaccess and Sun confidential employee records access authentication
  • Queries to the Sun confidential employee records system
  • Email
  • Other technologies available within Sun and Sun Labs, such as a name auto-suggest widget and a survey tool.
  • And still making use of old-fashioned static web pages

Term Application Materials

  • SEED terms have an application period, usually lasting two to three weeks, with firm deadlines.
  • htaccess and Sun confidential employee records access are used for authentication
  • In addition to submitting a completed application form, applicants must also submit their resume, their manager must submit a letter of recommendation, and in some cases they must also secure additional letters of recommendation from Sun executives. All materials are submitted through web-based forms.
  • Design considerations
    – Applicants are located worldwide.
    — Application materials need to be as clear and simple as possible because for many employees, English is not their primary language.
    — Applications must be functional on all Sun systems and locations. This includes Sun hardware with Solaris software, Sun Ray systems, experimental systems, as well as a variety of Macs, laptops, and PCs.
    – Application materials must reflect Sun’s organizational structure and HR policies in an understandable way. Many applicants are new to Sun and are not familiar with its organization or policies.
    — Divisions, organizations
    — Job Codes, titles
    – Manager and executive recommendation letters are submitted confidentially but are a required part of an application. A secure mechanism is needed for applicants to view the status of their application but not the details of all materials.
    – In order to ensure that all materials are submitted correctly and not “lost” (i.e., a recommendation letter is submitted against an incorrect applicant SunID), Sun confidential employee records system lookup, email confirmations, and SQL audits of the database are used.
    – Each term’s application materials are stored in a separate database for easy management. Key applicant data that needs to be tracked long-term is loaded into the SEED archive database at the end of the application period.

Term Application Management (SEED Team Website)

  • A central website used by the SEED program staff to efficiently track the status of applicants and their materials.
  • At the end of the term application period, key applicant data is verified against Sun’s Human Resources records.
  • Used by SEED’s executive selection committee to review each applicant thoroughly.
  • Tool goals
    – Present useful summary data in a small amount of space.
    – Accurately reflect the status and materials received for each applicant.
    – Allow a complete review of each applicant’s submitted materials.
    – Make information easy to find to answer questions from applicants, participants, managers, and mentors quickly and accurately.
    – Print in a useable format.

Mentor Request Management

  • Upon acceptance to the program, all participants are required to submit a 10-name “Mentor Wish List” of mentors they would like to work with.
  • At the close of the mentor request period and receipt of all wish lists, the SEED program staff begins the mentor match process. For each participant, the goal is to match them with the highest priority eligible mentor from their Mentor Wish List.
  • A decision is made in each case where more than one Participant requests the same potential mentor. In SEED’s current terms, 80 mentees prepared 10-name lists, which resulted in 387 unique mentor requests. There were 10 potential mentors with multiple 1st Priority requests and 39 mentors who were requested by 5 or more mentees. This is a common problem: as many as twenty-two(!) potential mentees in one term have requested the same mentor. The primary basis for this decision is the priority order on the Mentor Wish List provided by the Participant. The Participant’s seniority (number of years at Sun) may be used as a tiebreaker, with the more senior Participant getting preference.
  • Tool Requirements
    – For each mentor requested, both name and SunID are required to be entered due to variations in name entry and frequent errors in entering SunIDs.
    – A name auto-suggest widget has been very useful in creating cleaner submissions.
    – The Mentor Request form includes a validation step in order to check for known conflicts in the SEED Potential Mentors list.

SEED Program Database

  • The SEED program database drives the long-term management of the program.
  • It allows us to track past applicants, participants, and mentors, as well as manage our list of 450+ Potential Mentors: mentors who have volunteered to work with program participants.
  • These records allow for regular metrics analysis of the program, currently done annually. Automated metrics tracking is a goal that is in progress.
  • Challenges
    – Maintaining the data so it is meaningful over time. For example, divisional organizational changes (reorg) make it difficult to summarize the number of participants we have had from each organization over the life of the program.
    – Keeping the mentor records up-to-date: removing broken links, updating titles in a timely way.
    – We need to maintain records of all program mentors, participants, and applicants, even after they have left Sun.

Conclusions

  • The systems and tools that support SEED have evolved with the program over time. They are not a single unified system, but being modular are easy to modify or extend when changes are required.
  • Using the technologies that are available and used by others allows you to be more efficient: learning from their work, and sharing components when possible.

Series

This is part of a continuing series on mentoring programs. Information is to answer frequently asked questions, based on my experience since 2001 managing Sun’s SEED Engineering-wide world-wide mentoring program. Other entries in this series were integrated into “Sun Mentoring: 1996-2009” the Sun Labs 2009 Technical Report.

25 October 2013 – links and text updated

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