I.T. Veterans lend a helping hand

One day, Paul Cernick was tinkering with an old router at home to practice for the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification exam. When he got stuck on a configuration setting, help was just a phone call away.

Just as he has done many times before, Cernick turned to his mentor, Kip Peterson. “He knew how to change the configuration,” said Cernick, a Cisco instructor with Global Knowledge Network in Chicago. “This guy truly does know everything.”

Peterson, a senior technical trainer and mentoring advocate at Global Knowledge Network, unofficially took Cernick under his wing when the two met at a training program a little more than a year ago. The arrangement became formal when Peterson helped develop the Mentoring Advocates program at Global Knowledge Network, whereby the newest instructors such as Cernick are paired with senior technical mentors.

“We’re responsible for the career development and professional growth of the people we mentor,” Peterson said.

Whereas managers are responsible for helping their employees do their jobs correctly, mentors offer a different sort of coaching and guidance. Mentors help their charges prepare for the next series of professional steps and share their technical expertise and knowledge of office politics. Sometimes mentors even provide nurturing, much like a parent.

“You have to have somebody show you the ropes, or you’re going to waste a lot of time making mistakes,” said Lurita Doan, president and CEO of network integrator New Technology Management in Winchester, Va. Doan credits several of her mentors with helping shape her business philosophy: Workers who are well-trained and have somebody to rely on for technical and professional growth will be better, more loyal employees.

Dennis Jaeger, director of telecommunications and networking for Integris, a network design and management firm in Minneapolis, shares Doan’s commitment to mentoring. Among his chief responsibilities are being a role model, career counselor and technical adviser, he said.

Jaeger is always looking for ways to help his network engineers move into managerial positions, and he makes suggestions for resolving workplace conflicts rather than becoming directly involved.

Helping professionals learn, rather than just climb the corporate ladder, is Roger Dev’s goal as a mentor. Dev, principal and chief technology officer for Opticom, a network management software developer in Andover, Mass., said mentors are a good source of practical knowledge.

Dev didn’t need much technical guidance throughout his career, but he sought people who could coach him in management, political situations or marketing. “Gradually, I came to understand the thought processes these people used that made them successful in those roles,” he said.

Based on his experience mentoring more than 40 people over the years, Dev said one of the toughest challenges can be clarifying whose needs are paramount. “As a mentor, you’re obliged to help someone achieve what he or she wants, regardless of what it does to you,” he said.

Women in Technology International has one of the largest formal mentoring programs in the IT industry. “We’re trying to ingrain into our culture that each person needs to reach back down in the company, pick a few people and help,” said Karan Eriksson, CEO of the professional association.

Finding a mentor takes time, said Global Knowledge Network’s Cernick, who advises looking for someone who is comfortable not knowing everything and isn’t scared that you’re going to take a job.

“Kip is the kind of guy who has a stack of routers in his office,” Cernick said fondly of his mentor, friend, golf partner and surrogate father. “If you ask him a question and he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll build a network to figure it out.”

For his part, Peterson enjoys being a mentor. “I don’t do it to get a crystal clock,” he said. “I feel personally involved in the success of all the people who go through my program. It makes me feel good.”