Developing a Culture of Mentorship with Code Review

  Juni 04, 2013

Donald Trump does it on “The Apprentice.” Senior citizens do it when they volunteer to teach young children to read. University alumni guiding recent graduates do it. Mentorship relationships are all around us. And for good reason.

According to this article in Forbes, Sun Microsystems compared the career progress of 1,000 employees over a five-year period. And what did their findings tell them? “Both mentors and mentees were approximately 20% more likely to get a raise than people who did not participate in the mentoring program.” They also found that employees who were mentored were promoted five times more often than those that were not.

While mentors in all professions are important, I'd like to focus on mentor relationships for developers. Business mentors typically meet to get general advice about career advancement, to discuss new ideas for a business venture or for help navigating office politics. Mentoring in software development is inherently different. It's about sharing your expertise, knowledge, and experience with younger developers so they can become better programmers.

There are two basic flavors of mentoring for software developers: formal and natural.

Formal mentoring happens when either a company requires senior developers to meet with junior developers for coaching on a regular basis, or when two people sit down and agree to create a mentoring relationship for a set period of time.

Natural mentoring happens as part of your daily workflow. For example, a senior developer could decide to look out for a younger developer on the team by teaching them as part of their regular interactions. Or, what happens more frequently, is that mentoring naturally develops along with every developer’s workflow in the code review process.

Natural mentoring during the code review process has a lot of benefits, including:

Frequency & Consistency:

People adopt lessons faster when they are applied every day. Because code reviews are done on a regular and ongoing basis, as part of your job, you don’t need to worry about setting aside special times for mentoring and skill development.

Everyone Benefits:

Junior developers have a fresh perspective. Sometimes they can point out an obvious answer that more senior developers might have overlooked. By using code review as part of your mentorship culture, everyone gets to learn, not just the junior developers.

Tracking Built In:

Since the best code review systems allow tracking of changes and comments, junior developers can refer back to previous mistakes or pull up a reviewer’s comment for further research or discussion.

Sets the Priority:

If you don’t make the mentorship a priority, a junior developer will sense that it’s not important. By baking it into the code review there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that it is an essential part of the team’s culture.

Knowledge Transfer:

Code reviews create a way for senior developers to exchange information and transfer knowledge easily, and without interrupting their regular work processes.

Ready to get started? Here are some tips and best practices for conducting code reviews for mentoring:

  1. Review often. If you have a host of changes to do, it’s better to break it up into a series of small reviews, rather than cramming everything into one giant review. This helps people stay focused and interested. It’s also easier for authors to learn from smaller reviews rather than be overwhelmed with all of the bugs found in a larger review.
  2. Be Constructive. Make sure that you are making comments about the code and not the author of the code. You want to create a culture where people want to work together and are comfortable making comments. Few of us take feedback well, so be nice about it and give accolades when corrections are made.
  3. Write “correct” code examples. If you end up writing some code as a teaching example, be sure to write clear, well-constructed, high-quality code. There are a ton of ways to learn code writing circulating around the web, and you may run into some bad habits picked up by junior developers. Help them understand the best practices by writing clear examples.
  4. Be accessible. If possible, make yourself available in person or over the phone. Using a code review tool greatly helps with mentoring junior developers by tracking and saving comments and bugs. It also allows any in-person time you might find to be more than just your typical ballgame talk. If you are developing mentoring relationships by doing code review, it will naturally extend into other conversations around the office.

If you already do code review with senior or junior developers, we’d love to hear your mentoring stories and tips. Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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