Laura Kalbag

Mentoring a project: finding the right people

We’ve got a project! I’ll elaborate on the details of the project in a future post, but the importance of having a project was that it’s allowed me to choose the designers/developers who could get something out of being mentees. I didn’t want to do this before securing the right project as I needed to know what I was looking for in a mentee.

Finding the right mentee for the job

This has been one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. After my idea gained significant (kind) exposure, I’ve also felt the pressure to make sure I get it right. What’s made it even harder is that every designer/developer that sent me an email about the project was sweet, enthusiastic and incredibly willing. I had thirty-two candidates and no idea how best to continue.


Early on


I cut down into short list whilst I was looking into the original project idea. I knew that it wouldn’t be a high-paying project; I wanted the majority of the value to be in the learning experience, and I made that clear in my first email to everyone who had contacted me. This meant a couple of candidates who were already serious freelancers, looking for a well-paid project, withdrew themselves. It’s always good to talk money up front! A few people didn’t reply at all, and that was fine.

First stage

Team work

Next, I needed to work out the best way to eventually reduce my list of now thirteen to just a few. I was wary that nobody could take on a low-paying project, dedicate a huge amount of time to it and deliver great results; I asked which candidates were willing to work in small teams. As I knew all the candidates already had other work or studies, I thought it unrealistic to expect one person to do all the work. It would also require a hybrid designer-developer who was capable in front-end and back-end development. Now these people are rare in the industry, and would be almost impossible to find in anyone just starting out.

This made my short list even shorter. There were a few people who would prefer to work solo and so this project wouldn’t be the right match for them.


At this first stage I also asked whether the candidates preferred to work in design, front-end development, back-end development, or a combination of two or three skill areas. I was concerned I might end up with a surplus of one skill area, but actually it was a fairly even spread of all three, with most expressing interest in at least two areas. Hoorah for hybrids!

Enthusiasm vs talent

One thing I was keen to emphasise at this point was interest in skill areas, not experience and not ability. If I’m asking to mentor people who are starting out in the industry, I can’t possibly expect them to have a wealth of experience in all the relevant areas. And those areas that they do have experience in may not be those they enjoy. Likewise, I can’t expect anyone to be fully proficient in their skill of choice. I can always advise them the best place to learn relevant new knowledge. All I need is for them to know the basics and really want to learn.

Favourite work

This is a fairly typical interview-style question. You could ask someone what their “best” piece of work was, and you may get their favourite piece of work, but you’re equally likely to get their most technically-proficient piece of work, or that which they think is most impressive, even if they hated the project and don’t like the result.

So I asked for the candidate’s favourite project and why it was their favourite. I think this got me more of an insight into what they really cared about, and what holds the most value for them in a project.

Too early for this information

Whilst it was good to know I had an even coverage of skill areas at this stage, and what their favourite project was, it was too soon to use this information. Without knowing the project we were going to work on, how was I to judge how well the project would suit them?

Second stage

Once I knew what the project was going to be, there was more purpose in my questions. I sent another email to the remaining eight candidates. At this point I became sure that I was looking for three mentees to work as a team. I thought that this wouldn’t be too many people to make communication difficult, but enough to cope with the project in a way that would give them time to enjoy what they were doing.

Still interested?

I asked again if they were still interested. I wanted to make sure nobody felt like they’d committed to the project just through expressing their interest over a week ago.

WordPress experience

Our project brief states that the website needs to be based on WordPress. Without going too much into the project or client (yet!) I knew that this was an appropriate solution for the project, so I really needed to find at least one candidate with some WordPress experience to lead that part of the development. Everybody showed willingness to learn even if they didn’t have any experience (love them).

Blogging the process

After realising that a lot of people were talking about the project on Twitter, and I’d promised to blog about it, I realised that I’d have to make sure that any mentees were happy with me doing this, and trusted me to do the right thing. So, lastly I asked if they were happy with me writing about them. I emphasised that this wasn’t really about me picking the right match, I was just wondering how much to blog and how much to mention them. Obviously I would never post anything that just pointed out flaws in somebody’s work, but if we learn from our mistakes through constructive criticism, I think that’s a positive experience that we can collectively share and use to help other people learn.

Everybody was happy with me blogging; I was starting to worry as their supportiveness was making it harder to choose!

Third stage

At this point I was desperately trying to work out the best ways to narrow down the list. I decided that it would be most sensible to ask what everybody’s weekly availability was, and which timezones/locations they were based in. I was fully expecting remote working, but it was important that the mentees were able to work together in a team and communicate easily. This helped me find three people whose availability suited each other, and whose skills complemented each other.

The final decision

Something I didn’t anticipate was deciding that a couple of candidates were over-qualified for working in these teams. Looking at their experience, I was concerned that if they worked in a team, they would end up picking up too much of the slack because they had a significantly broader knowledge in web design and development.

The dream team

I’ve got my team down to the following three:

Another benefit to team work would be that roles needn’t be fixed,  I expect the team to work together as closely as possible. Still, I thought I’d recommend that each mentee has their area to lead so they know how valuable they are to the project’s success.


This week we will have our first client meeting and get started on the project. I’ll have another update then.


  1. Laura,

    thanks for this write-up –; nice to read about how you made your decision, bet it wasn’t an easy task :) Curious to follow this project now and see how it will work out—good luck to you all :)

    PS: from my perspective as their tutor, I am so very happy that your final selection included Yago and Sibylle ~ they’re both lovely as well as talented and will contribute some great work ;)

  2. I think this is a really wonderful thing that you are doing, Laura. In order to make the future of the Web better, we need to start with the people. One of my goals for this year is to find a mentor as well. I realize that I have many areas that I need to improve, but I also believe I have a lot to offer to the right team somewhere.

    I look forward to seeing how your mentees progress over the coming weeks and months. Keep making the web a better place. :)

  3. Laura,

    This is such an inspiring thing to do, made me consider how I might go about mentoring more people and helping them build skills. Looking forward to seeing this work and how we can all help usher in new designers and developers onto the web.

  4. I was disappointed not to be picked for this, but I’d like to wish you the best of luck for the project!

    Can’t wait to see how it turns out, it’s such a nice thing to do for folks.