Someone to lean on

One of your first items of business in a new job should be to seek out a mentor to help you understand the company, its mission and your role in it.

By Leslie Goff / Dennis Holinka's mentor in his first job taught him invaluable tricks of software engineering that "are unheard of in college."

As part of a yearlong, postgraduate internship as a Web applications developer at AIG Claim Services in New York, Holinka was working on the global insurance company's Intellirisk application. The Web-based program lets AIG's corporate customers notify the company that they will be filing a claim and incorporates many of the same components as other AIG applications.

His mentor saved Holinka considerable time and enabled him to construct a more flexible application by clueing him into the concept of using design patterns, which solve a range of common software problems.

"It's very technical, and something I really appreciated learning," says Holinka, 27, who graduated from New York's Baruch College in December 1998.

Mentors can be great technology teachers. More important, they can help guide interns and recent graduates through the culture shock of corporate life - something that can't be conveyed in the halls of the ivory tower.

"College didn't teach a course on organizational culture, on how to survive and how to absorb the culture," says Holinka, who parlayed his internship into a programmer/analyst position at AIG. "By watching a successful mentor, you adopt their behavior and their skill sets. You learn by seeing what works and what doesn't."

The style and structure of mentoring programs vary widely. AIG's program, for example, involves weekly status meetings and day-to-day, on-the-job contact between the mentor and the intern. The mentor acts as both direct supervisor and guidance counselor.

"It was very clear that the mentor was responsible for the project, and we didn't have to be afraid of failure," Holinka explains. "Whenever he thought things might be problematic, he jumped in."

At Pillsbury in Minneapolis, the mentoring relationship is much more casual. Summer interns are assigned a mentor in a different department, someone with whom the intern has no direct reporting relationship. "The benefit of that is that you get a new perspective on another part of the company," says Leo Timmons, senior manager of e-business application development. "Plus, you have a safety valve - someone who can give you direction who isn't connected to your direct supervisor."

Aric Aune, now an electronic-business consultant at Pillsbury, interned at the company in the summer of 1998. He says he used his mentor as a sounding board to confirm his observations about Pillsbury's work environment before he started, with most of their contact taking place over lunch or via e-mail.

Goff is a freelance writer in New York.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon