Mentorship key to induct fresh IT hires

Training programs for new graduates must include mentoring to bridge gap between classroom and corporate tech world, according to IBM executives.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Mentorship was what "tremendously" helped a fresh university graduate ease his transition from tertiary student to trained staff member at IT giant IBM Singapore. His mentor points out that such a practice should be widely adopted by tech firms to prep new hires in their transition to the working world.

In an interview, Lau Wei Chong told ZDNet Asia that he "enjoyed the whole process" of mentorship since joining the tech giant in January 2010 as an information management consultant under IBM software lab services division.

The 28-year-old's day-to-day responsibilities involve client consulting and education, where he customizes Big Blue's software offerings based on the customer's requirements and expectations and assists in the implementation of the products.

Lau completed his tertiary education under a National Infocomm Scholarship offered by Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), and in mid-2009 graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor (Hons) in computing, majoring in e-commerce. Following that, he interned for six months at the IBM Center for Advanced Studies (CAS) in Hawthorne, New York, before starting his first full-time job at IBM Singapore.

As a new recruit, he underwent instructor-led technical and product training programs, either in a classroom setting or via an e-learning portal. Lau said his educational qualifications gave him a "balanced foundation of technical and business [knowledge] needed for my job role", without which it would be "challenging" to settle into the job.

Mentorship a necessity
Yet, while his educational background and formal training programs at the workplace provided the necessary skills to help him "move forward", Lau emphasized it was the company's mentorship program which helped him "tremendously".


L-R: Yak Yew Cheng, Lau Wei Chong

He said: "When one enters the working world for the first time, it is another learning journey altogether [to acquire] 'soft' skills--things one would not be able to learn from school or overnight.

"This is the time when the mentor comes in to advise and guide me along. IBM is a very big organization, so for a fresh graduate like myself, it's a daunting task to actually navigate [in] or get the right people when I need help."

Lau's supervisor and mentor, Yak Yew Cheng, was equally vocal about the importance of mentorship for new hires "from day one".

The information manager at IBM software lab services told ZDNet Asia in a separate interview that mentorship is an "official and critical part of the learning program" in the company. While all employees can take up training classes and mentorship, IBM has a specific framework of training classes, online courses and mentorship catered for fresh graduates to make the transition phase to work life as smooth as possible. Mentoring can last for any stretch of time, depending on the mentor and mentee.

According to Yak, mentorship programs should be adopted more widely among firms. Some organizations, he noted, only provide technical training, and new staff may seek their own mentors on an informal basis. "Then whoever you match up with is your luck, and if you happen to go with the disengaged people, then you're in trouble", he pointed out.

The mentor-mentee relationship, he added, is a "tricky thing" and that rapport and trust must be built between the two. "We're not saying we're more senior than you and then try to [drill] whatever we've gone through before and dump it on the mentees.

"You need that sense of trust to believe you are actually learning," he explained.

Yak also pointed out that mentorship is "interactive and a two-way street" where the mentor guides the mentee to reach his potential faster. The main role of a mentor is to guide the mentee along the way, he noted.

"It's like teaching them how to fish, rather than fish for them, otherwise they will not carry [the skills] with them for the rest of their career," said Yak.

Focusing new recruits' energy
The IBM mentor also observed that one typical trait common among fresh graduates at their first job is they "tend to be full of energy".

"New recruits can get a bit distracted and try to make use of whatever they can to decorate the job. They have idealism, they'll ask 'what can I do' or say 'I can learn this, I can learn that, I can do so many things'," Yak noted, emphasizing this is "not a weakness".

Given that fresh recruits are moving from generalization at school to the company workplace where there is more specialization; a mentor must guide them to "focus" that energy into something that will result in a greater outcome and which they can use efficiently for themselves, he said.

This will also allow new graduates to contribute to the company as fast as possible, he added, using the analogy of sharpening "a steel pole into a needle".

One hurdle an organization faces is the time in which a new hire becomes productive, so "we're trying to reduce that period down to a time where he doesn't sit around for a year", Yak said. "Gone are the days when we used to have a full year of formal training."

Prep before going on-the-job
While client meetings are now more manageable after a year, Lau noted that he was "nervous in the beginning" and "over-prepared" himself for his first engagement, when "actually it was just a simple meeting".

From a perspective of a fresh grad, the initial few months of training were "crucial" before moving to on-the-job training which is more "hands-on", he added.

"Rather than jumping straightaway into a project, having initial training helps you understand what customer expectations are and also equip you with enough know-how [beforehand]," explained Lau. "You may have the technical background, but you still need certain domain knowledge in customer-facing situations."

Yak concurred, saying that training and mentorship helps bridge the gap between the context and knowledge a fresh graduate brings to the table and what is expected of him as an employee.

The transition for the recruit needs to be properly managed, to avoid "running into problems further downstream", he cautioned. Adopting an on-the-job approach is "fine", but it's a "sink or swim thing, a bit risky and probably unfair to the [new] person", said Yak.

"Training programs…and mentorship are there to provide him the necessary framework in which he can then perform within a relatively short period of time. If you call that throwing him in, then yes, but we don't throw him in without the tools," he explained.

Yak noted that crafting a proper program for new employees is very important because to retain employees, "you should make them feel involved, otherwise once you throw them in, they say, 'Okay, next time I jump out'."

Lau described his journey from fresh recruit to corporate worker as one of "slowly moving from the pond to the ocean".

"Everyone would love to be in their comfort zone, but time to time, we need to get out of this comfort zone in order to progress," he added. "When you move out of your comfort zone, that is a challenge, and slowly once you're used to it, that becomes your new comfort zone."

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