Mentoring in Engineering and Computer Science

Work to balance the diversity of Participants in terms of demographics, professional area, and geographic location.

The context of the Engineering community is key here. It bounds the SEED program and defines its organizational character. Compare this to the Mentoring@Sun program, started in 1992 as a general Sun-wide mentoring program. The SEED program was developed by Sun in 2001 to address Engineering organization needs that were not met by Mentoring@Sun. That is, SEED is an internal mentoring and leadership growth program designed to meet the needs of a key professional area, running in parallel with a more general internal program.

  • Both SEED and Mentoring@Sun are very effective at making connections between organizational silos, what Helen calls cross-pollinating.
    For more on this, read my blog entry Internal or External Mentoring Program? (30 June 2009).Scope:
    SEED mentors can be from any part of Sun so long as they are at principal-level or above in seniority. SEED mentees, however, must all be working in Engineering, which is defined as:

    “Hardware and software engineering positions where the primary job purpose is to perform engineering research, design, and development activities resulting in innovative Sun products for external customers. Also included are staff positions providing strategic support to engineering research, design, and development activities.”

    Again, the Engineering professional context provides specific program boundaries: only these positions are included, others are not. (This would sound like inappropriate exclusivity if Engineering did not make up about half of Sun’s employees.)

    Training Focus:
    Each mentoring program should provide training that helps the pairs feel comfortable from the start and work well together for the entire term. Training is particularly important in special cases, such as when mentor and mentee work in different professional areas (Microelectronics and Finance, for example), have a wide gap in their relative experience or seniority (such as a Senior Director mentoring a recent college hire Member of the Technical Staff), are working at a distance (for over half of SEED mentoring pairs, the mentor and mentee work in different cities, states, or countries), or come from very different cultures.SEED offers two hours of individual training by phone for each mentoring pair. Using a standard set of materials (Helen and I update these annually), pair training is tailored to their strengths and challenge areas. The geek personality is common enough that our mentoring training materials have a special section for Engineering. Engineers are professional problem solvers who are usually very smart analytical logical thinkers. Sometimes it can be a stretch for them to see the other person’s point of view. Many of them do not suffer fools. Mentoring training for extreme geeks may focus on teaching how to disagree agreeably (using tactful phrases) and learning when problem solving may not be what is needed or wanted by their mentoring partner.

    Management Style:
    Managing an Engineering mentoring program requires communicating well and maintaining trust with Engineers. SEED is a prestigious leadership grooming program, so the decision of which applicants get accepted can be controversial. The selection system must be fair and seen to be fair. Selection criteria for SEED are based on the values of the Engineering community (such as: demonstrated technical excellence, creativity, leadership, holding patents, publishing papers, earning an excellent letter of recommendation by an executive, etc.) Many of SEED’s selection criteria are also reflected in job promotion criteria for Engineering staff. Sun Engineering has an egalitarian open door culture which values data-driven decisions and a transparent management style. While respecting confidentiality, SEED routinely makes a great deal of program information available to Sun Engineering. SEED program participants regularly contribute suggestions on how to improve the program and its web tools.

    What is the Geek Personality?

    A brief digression into the personal and social context of Engineers since this has such a strong influence on mentoring in Engineering…

    While Sun Engineering staff include a very broad range of personality types, there are some unusual concentrations. SEED mentoring training includes a section on Myers-Briggs style personality types. This provides a good context and vocabulary for mentoring pairs to discuss differences and commonalities and promote mutual understanding. (We skip this section of training for staff who think the use of personality types is Psychology black magic.) Sun used to offer personality assessments as part of its regular career coaching benefit. In 2002, I used a survey to collect information from 143 Sun Engineering staff about their formally assessed personality type. While not a statistically valid sample, it is nonetheless interesting:

  • 59% of the Sun Engineering staff reported that they had been assessed as I
    (introvert)About 50% of the US population are I (introvert)
  • 66% of the Sun Engineering staff reported that they were NT (intuitive thinkers)About 10% of the US population are NT (intuitive thinkers)

(Yes, this does mean that Engineers are abnormal, statistically at least).

Introverts have been defined as “people who find other people tiring” (see “Caring for Your Introvert” by Jonathan Rauch, The Atlantic, March 2003). A t-shirt popular with Engineers says “You read my t-shirt. That’s enough social interaction for one day.” (see Think Geek T-shirt). SEED works hard to make its communications comfortable for an introverted group. For example, we lay out the expected interactions and always allow the participants to engage at their own comfort level. One analysis of downside to being an introvert is that:

      “In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. ‘People person’ is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like ‘guarded,’ ‘loner,’ ‘reserved,’ ‘taciturn,’ ‘self-contained, private’ – narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality. Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more


    likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.”(Ibid, 2003 article by Jonathan Rauch)

For more on Social Context, Gender, and Mentoring, see my blog entry Picking Your Mentor, Picking Your Mentee.

Finding Mentors for Engineering

Since 2001, I have matched almost 1,200 mentoring pairs; 70% of the mentors were executives (Directors, Vice Presidents, Principal Engineers, Fellows, etc.). SEED gets an average of 90% participant satisfaction rating on its quarterly reports, year after year. What do these executive mentors look for in mentees? Why do so many find SEED to be such a satisfying program? Most of the questions mentors ask when I contact them about working with a potential mentee are structural: availability, time commitment required to participate, potential areas of difficulty (like being in the same management chain or speaking different primary languages), and physical or time zone proximity are common questions. Along with those are asked more substantive questions about intellectual common ground, interests, and personal compatibility. Somewhere in this mix, almost all potential mentors ask something like “Why me? What does this person want to know that I am uniquely able to teach?” (For more on mentor questions and preferences, read my 6 July 2009 blog entry Picking Your Mentor, Picking Your Mentee).

Notice that relatively few questions are about the topic or professional area to be discussed. SEED Mentors have served from all areas of Engineering worldwide, plus Operations, Sales, Service, Legal, Information Technology, Finance, Human Resources, and Marketing. Most of the non-Engineering staff were recruited as SEED mentors at the specific request of a mentee who asked to learn from them. I originally recruited the General Counsel as a mentor because a Software Engineer wanted to learn more from the lawyer’s success as a business leader. (He enjoyed the experience and has served as a mentor five times since.) I recruited a Finance Vice President because a Systems Program Manager wanted a mentor who really understood financial planning, revenue and cost management. Sun Microsystems is an Engineering-driven company, so most non-Engineering staff are eager to help (as well as extend their own connections in Engineering).

I have observed that the more experienced or senior a mentor is, the more willing they are to discuss a very broad range of topics. It is usually the more junior mentors who question their breadth of ability or the value of their experience outside of their immediate area of professional expertise. The mentors who seem to get the most out of their SEED experience are the executives. One Software Vice President told me that his hour with his mentee was his vacation, the only time all week when he knew the answers. A different Software Vice President told Helen that he always looked forward to meeting with his mentee: it was his only non-confrontational meeting. This positive experience is reflected in SEED’s metrics for repeat mentor participation:

  • 48% of the total 460+ potential mentors on SEED’s current list have been mentors more than once. This includes principal-level senior staff
    plus executives.(This does not count their service in Mentoring@Sun or other Sun mentoring programs.)
  • 65% of those repeat mentors are executives.
  • 54% of all of the executives who have ever been SEED mentors have mentored more than once.45 executives have have served as a SEED mentor five or more times.4 Sun executives have mentored ten or more times with SEED.

A Marketing Vice President wrote in evaluation of his sixth SEED mentoring experience:

“This continues to be a great program and I get a lot out of it — possibly more than the mentees.”


Information is from my experience since 2001 managing Sun’s SEED Engineering-wide world-wide mentoring program, and from the Mentoring@Sun general mentoring program, and the mentoring program for new Sun Vice Presidents managed by Helen Gracon since 1996. Helen Gracon also provides training for SEED. This is part of a continuing series on mentoring programs. Other entries in this series:

For more about SEED, see the program home page at

By Katy Dickinson
Director, Business Process Architecture
Chief Technologist’s Office & Sun Labs, Sun Microsystems

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