The journey to becoming a developer has many paths. The most traditional is through attending a university and obtaining a computer science degree. However, many in the industry arrive via a different route.
In particular, those who come from traditionally underrepresented groups often find themselves entering this space later in life and with vastly different experiences than those from university.
But it can be tricky to enter the profession from an unconventional route because so many learning and training opportunities are restricted to university students. So where does this leave those who found their way into tech outside of the traditional path?
Introducing The Collab Lab
Luckily there are organizations like The Collab Lab that are trying to help fill in this gap. The Collab Lab exists to help early-career developers, especially ones from underrepresented groups, learn the skills used every day on development teams. These include pair programming, code reviews, writing great PR descriptions, merging, and demoing work.
As a developer who took an unconventional path, I was so excited to get involved with The Collab Lab and begin paying forward all the support and help I received along my journey.
My first official experience with the organization was through the Career Lab, which gives participants the opportunity to spend two weeks learning how to improve their LinkedIn profiles, tips on how to present their experience (i.e. tell their story), as well as the option to participate in mock interviews. The latter has two parts – a “job fit” interview and a technical interview which includes a small take-home task.
I volunteered to host the job fit interviews and was assigned to a couple of participants. I scheduled an hour for each of them and spent the first half in ‘interview’ mode before spending the second half providing feedback and answering questions. It was truly a lot of fun, and given that it’s so rare to get feedback in a real-world interview, the participants really appreciated the opportunity to practice in such a safe and low-pressure environment.
Mentoring the summer cohort
My next experience was as a mentor for the summer cohort. I was assigned to a group along with two other mentors, one of which was the lead mentor who had volunteered with The Collab Lab before. Having three mentors for a team of four participants was helpful, as it offered different perspectives and spread out the responsibilities so that the time commitment from each mentor was reasonable.
The time commitment for a mentor is roughly five hours per week, but I found that most weeks didn’t require that full amount. The largest blocks of committed time were the 1-hour weekly sync calls, which occur on either Saturday or Sunday, and office hours which rotate through the mentors so they only occur once every three weeks.
While the group works on their project, the mentors keep an eye on the Slack channel and GitHub repo for discussions and questions that the participants might need some help with. We also provide a code review towards the end of the week. The participants pair-program with each other and peer review the other team’s work, so the mentor-led reviews are more about verifying that the acceptance criteria were met and offering suggestions on ways to make their code more readable or efficient.
The participants walk away from the experience with a taste of what it’s like to work on a development team.
During the final two weeks, the participants decide what they want the app to look and feel like and then work on implementing those design choices. This gives them the ability to apply the collaborative skills they’ve been working on for the last six weeks and to self-organize this block of work. At the final weekly sync, they do one last demo of the finished application and celebrate having successfully shipped it.
The participants walk away from the experience with a taste of what it’s like to work on a development team. This gives them the knowledge to have informed conversations during job interviews, as well as the tools needed to hit the ground running when given that first opportunity.
An invaluable experience
Throughout both of my experiences with The Collab Lab, I’ve been impressed by the level of information that’s provided to the volunteer mentors. The organization truly tries to value your time and provides the schedule, structure, and resources needed whenever they can so that all you have to do is show up and provide your knowledge and experience. They’re very open to suggestions for improvement and are always iterating to try and make the process even smoother.
The bottom line: it’s been as great an experience as I hoped it would be. The commitment is low enough to not interfere with other responsibilities and the return value of watching the participants grow in their collaborative skills and confidence is high. I was given a similar experience early in my career, so I can attest to how helpful it is to have the process demystified.
I highly encourage other developers to become a mentor at The Collab Lab, as sharing your knowledge, experiences, and insight is so helpful to those just getting started.