Previous posts on the mentoring project:
- Mentoring a project: the idea
- Mentoring a project: the right project
- Mentoring a project: finding the right people
- Mentoring a project: the project
- Mentoring a project: contract and kicking off
It’s been four months since we started the mentoring project and now it’s drawing to a close.
It’s been very different from what I expected, I didn’t realise I’d learn so much just through explaining to Sibylle, Yago and Phil what I do and why I do it. They really wanted to get to the bottom of the ideal processes when creating sites and working with clients and it made me want to do the same.
There were three problem areas, all of which could have been overcome with more planning and attention on my part. However I think all of these tricky areas are very much reflective of the problems we come across in everyday project management. Maybe I just need to up my project management skills!
Working in a team with strangers
I thought that splitting the project tasks across multiple people would lighten the load, but in reality it also required strangers who had never worked together to get to know each other, the best times to work together, and how to collaborate effectively. That’s a huge first step in the project.
As happens with many client projects, each time they had a face-to-face interaction, or a voice chat, productivity increased. In a remote working environment it can be hard to value the importance of hearing another person’s voice when trying to communicate effectively; seeing facial expressions to understand intent and less formal chatter to just get to know each other better.
Sharing roles and responsibilities
I divided the three main tasks for the website project into branding/visual design, front end development, and back end development/WordPress. Despite emphasising that I expected the workload to be spread, with each mentee working as a hybrid, the whole new-to-working-together thing had made this difficult. These roles are not as clear-cut or as simple as they may appear. This led to an unfair, unbalanced workload that was tricky to correct.
In order to be a successful freelancer, I strongly believe a designer/developer must be a hybrid with a range of skills and a wide knowledge that they not only need to call on for different projects, but can also use to better inform their work with others.
Unfortunately, in giving each mentee a clear non-hybrid role, I was actively discouraging this with the division of roles. I could ask them to “collaborate” until I was blue in the face, but I hadn’t made it easy to do so.
Time is what we inevitably struggle with on all projects. This was no different. It’s hard to estimate how long a web project will take, and when nobody in the project is working full-time, it makes it even harder.
I also wish I had more time and given more attention to the project. I started out with the best of intentions, I waited until I had some time to dedicate to mentoring. But, as ever, my client work expanded to fill all available space, making it harder to keep a closer eye on process and progress.
I made sure I read every email and Basecamp message; checking in when I thought it necessary and answering every question as quickly as possible. But I could have done a lot better. I could have pre-empted more issues before they arose and given tighter guidelines on working process to make the ride smoother for the mentees.
The Gislingham village website
I genuinely believe that the resulting website, gislingham.com, that Sibylle, Yago and Phil have worked on is a triumph. Its branding, design, structure and underlying code is more than fit for professional web design and development. In fact, in many areas I think it’s exemplary.
The type of project
Thanks to our fantastic client, Mallen Baker, the village community website was a great fit for a mentoring project. Even though the quality of the resulting site was incredibly important, the idea of a not-for-profit community site feels less high-pressure compared to a money-making corporate site.
It had challenges in the best way to display the unique content it already contained, and was going to contain in the future. It also had emphasis on ease of use for less tech-savvy users. This meant continually checking and ensuring ease of use for all potential users.
Even though I split, and may have unevenly weighted, the roles within the project, the whole team had a good idea of what was required, assisted each other in key decisions and could take over from each other when required to do so. This was a testament to the varied skills of the mentees and their flexibility, as well as being a successful element of my hybrid ideology.
There were times where enviable teamwork took place. Smooth communication, smart analysis and decision-making, and effective collaboration. This made me particularly proud (though it was nothing to do with me!) As someone who often works in teams, but rarely as closely, the fact the team managed to establish these close bonds in such a short time was impressive.
Guidelines for better mentoring
It was my first go at mentoring a web project and I knew it was unlikely to be perfect. I was unprepared for how much it would challenge me, my working processes, and my abilities (or lack thereof) as a leader. I wasn’t great, and I really appreciate the risk Sibylle, Yago and Phil took in joining me on this project.
These are guidelines to help me do better next time, I hope they might be helpful to anyone else looking to mentor other people who are new to the industry or client work:
Guidelines for a better business
There were a couple of things I learnt from the project (and the mentees) that I think could improve my business in the long term. Both of these involve an evolution of my current contract:
- Don’t just stop at copyright: specify the exact licenses (Creative Commons, MIT, GNU etc) and whether these are retained by you or the client. I already do the latter but have previously failed to research the former. Doing this should result in a clearer contract with more detailed and universally-understood terms without having to add much more text.
- If you have a contract with a payment schedule of 50% up front and 50% on launch, specify exactly what will prompt the final invoice. I haven’t had this structure in my contracts for a while but when I did my contract was vague at best, leaving me to bill when I felt it was the “right time.” This can lead to confusion and uncertainty on both sides.
One-to-one mentoring probably works better
While a team, and the equal division of labour sounds like it might make for a smooth project, there are many issues brought about by many people learning to work together for the first time. If anything, I’d now recommend using an apprenticeship model. Make yourself, the mentor, the other team member, so you can lead by example. Allow the mentee to take responsibility by doing, but also let them learn by seeing more closely how it’s done by a professional.
Face-to-face is probably better
It really is too easy to forget the value of face-to-face interaction when working with other people remotely. I believe that for a truly useful mentoring experience on both sides, frequent face-to-face, or at least voice-to-voice meetings are invaluable.
Ensure the roles are clear from the beginning
It shouldn’t be as easy as assigning “you can do the visual design” to a mentee, sitting back and expecting them to know the rest. The whole point of the project is to provide guidance and so you should be pro-active in suggesting the responsibilities and tasks associated with that role.
Set out standards for client communication
Again, you cannot expect the mentees to know the best way to communicate with clients when they are there to learn from you. Tell them what you’ve found to be most effective and set guidelines and milestones for the project.
Allow more time than you think is necessary, and multiply that by 3
You’re used to working fulltime on projects and your estimates for project duration will probably be based on your experience of similar projects. Remember that your mentee is learning on the job, so multiply by two again.
I’ve been so lucky to work with such passionate and hard-working people. I can’t recommend mentoring enough to others more experienced in client work. Much like people say of teaching or speaking, it really does compound the knowledge you already have, and makes you realise more about yourself than you’d think possible.