Mentors get lesson in learning

Twenty-seven year old Hagan Carlile had seen some success: he co-founded a multimedia software company and worked on its first product. But as a young entrepreneur, he knew he needed advice.

Carlile found what he was looking for in Toronto-based Young Navigators, a not-for-profit program designed to encourage young Canadians aged from five to 29 to explore careers in information technology.

The co-founder of a software firm called Softlight, Carlile is one of seven winners of the 1999 Young Navigators’ Entrepreneurship Program, which awards the recipients $10,000 each and one year of mentoring from an established senior IT executive.

“The reason we went for it was because the mentor program existed there and I don’t think there is any kind of monetary figure you could attach to this type of program,” Carlile explained.

Carlile has already felt the advantages of having Lyle Bunn, an independent consultant, act has his mentor. Not only does Bunn help him avoid the pitfalls and unforeseen elements of being a start-up company, he offers support and advice through weekly phone calls or meetings and puts the young entrepreneur in contact with established IT companies that can help increase his product’s time to market.

Scout, Carlile’s software application package, uses virtual reality photography to showcase film locations across Ontario for film companies around the world. With Bunn’s help, Carlile has restructured his business plan and redesigned the product. “We had initially designed the product to be delivered through CD-ROM, but through [Bunn’s] initiatives and through his contacts made in the industry, we’ve now turned it into a virtual environment on the Internet.”

According to Andy Shaw, president of CIPS Ottawa and a mentor himself, “when we were entering the industry 20 years ago it would have been wonderful to have a mentor at that time.”

CIPS Ottawa also offers a mentor program that matches members with young applicants. It is aimed at post-secondary students. CIPS wants to help “integrate them into the industry,” Shaw said, and “to give them some wisdom from some of the people that have experienced the industry for a number of years.”

This type of mentor relationship is particularly important in the high-tech sector, Shaw explained. “Despite the pervasiveness of IT, I think it is still a cliquish type of industry…it has got its own vocabulary, it has got its own associations, its own movers and shakers and players and it is a bit of a closed society in terms of the experts in it,” he noted.

“You really don’t get a sense of what it is like to work in the industry when you’re in school and that is what a mentor can provide,” Shaw explained.

What the mentor gives, however, is equally matched by what is received, Bunn and Shaw agree.

“It is a way of giving something back, but the truth is being a mentor has positioned me to better use my network of people and refresh that body of knowledge that I’ve been able to develop over my 23 years in the industry,” Bunn said.

“The greatest surprise or joy has been seeing firsthand how those new players in our technology industry are drawing upon their tools and bringing an enormous amount of energy to something they passionately believe in. The entrepreneurial zeal in itself is very inspiring,” Bunn said.

“They’re so enthusiastic and refreshing…it’s a rejuvenation for myself,” Shaw said.

The entrepreneurial spirit also contains a lesson for large corporations needing to tap into their own enthusiasm, Bunn said. And it highlights the importance of avoiding complacency in your business, watching start-up firms, and considering them serious competitors.

Bunn said each of the Young Navigators winners “has found a place in the market and discerned how they are going to make money serving a need in the marketplace. It’s as if they’ve fit in between the cracks and slightly ahead of everything else that’s available in order to invent that new product.”

What is really important, however, is that young IT professionals be encouraged to succeed in the industry.

“Technology is an invented industry…an invention that doesn’t go to market is like a tree falling in the forest. The thing that drives professionals in the technology industry is seeing the possible become real and this is fundamentally what mentoring all about.”