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Context: I am a fairly new intern, with an assigned mentor who is expected to be my first line of help when/if I need it. Our most frequent communication is via an internal IM system, which is nice because we can quickly message each other and send code snippets/links back and forth.

My one issue, however, is that sometimes I send a question and get no response, or we are having what seems to be a lively chat and then he disappears. Of course, I understand that perhaps someone has walked into his office/he is distracted by other work, but if I go more than an hour or so without response I am antsy because I may need this answer to move forward in my tasks (I don't want to be the do-nothing employee on their phone all day).

What are some good ways to follow up an unanswered IM that will not be construed as nagging/impatient/escalating? I tagged this software dev as it might help give context for the culture: I've debating just messaging him "still need this" or even "bump", but am not sure if it would seem disrespectful. Stopping by his office in person occasionally works, but is sometimes met with "sorry, I'm fixing a prod issue, I'll get to you later" (which I find embarrassing). I think email would be entirely overkill for what usually amounts to a small issue. Advice?

  • Good question. I feel the same way when I’m waiting for a response from someone. – Rich Apr 10 at 23:36
  • Is this software related, @Zanna ? One issue is: software is hugely self-directed. There are a hundred questions on this site from new users, saying, "As a new programmer, I get no guidance from the seniors/ management/ mentors and I have to work out everything myself." Unfortunately, this is just the nature of software. Perhaps this relates to your issue. – Fattie Apr 11 at 11:47
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It sounds like you've done well so far - you have a good working relationship with your mentor and you've talked to him in person about this.

There are 2 sides to the fix:

  1. Understand that as a new intern, keeping you busy is not a high priority. If your mentor has more important work to do than talk to you, that's just life and in no way reflects poorly on you.
  2. Ask your mentor for some additional side tasks so if you're blocked on the main task you can switch to something else while you wait.
  • Thanks for your answer! While I have been working on both of these suggestions (I could use some more side tasks, as I already completed a few), I asked this question more to get insight on what (if anything) to do about the communication aspect. Do you think that I should stick to (1) and not call further attention to myself, trusting I will eventually get the help? – Zanna Apr 10 at 18:34
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    Ask your mentor for his preference as to when/how often to contact him. Accept that it may not be as often or prompt as you'd like. – Dan Pichelman Apr 10 at 18:36
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Don't rely just on your mentor. Check in with other team members to see if they have answers. You don't describe what kind of blockers you're facing, but try to work out solutions on your own. Try to keep busy with subtasks (like writing code documentation or tests, since you mention software development) while you wait for answers.

Other than that, don't be too afraid to pop in your mentor's office at lunch to try to get in touch or try to arrange a daily quick status meeting. Understand that, yes, as an intern, you aren't as high a priority as their regular work.

  • Thanks. I hesitate to message the other team members because, well, the mentor did volunteer as mentor and perhaps the others are less eager to "babysit" :) I also don't want to seem so impatient that I'm going over his head/behind his back. Opinions on that? – Zanna Apr 10 at 18:38
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    Well, if you're constantly going to other people for help every hour, you have a different issue, but you're supposed to be a team so the occasional question isn't going to bother most people. I can't see how asking other folks for help will upset a mentor, unless he's supposed to be the gatekeeper for something. – pboss3010 Apr 10 at 19:08
  • @Zanna to repeat my comment under your question. You mention these are "small issues". Start with stackoverflow and google search! Unfortunately, as a programmer you just have to solve small issues yourself. – Fattie Apr 11 at 11:49
  • @Fatty while I appreciate your advice, I'm really pretty okay with the actual software development part of the job! My "small issues" are more like "What are the names of the staging servers" or "Where do we store builds for project X" – Zanna Apr 11 at 12:21
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As a past intern I think I can give some advice based on personal experience- for my very first internship I had no clue what I was doing and sometimes would not get replies on IM's and didn't know what to do. Here are some suggestions:

  • Talk to others on your team. While I mainly talked to one person from my team when I was an intern- I regret not utilizing all my resources. When you work on a team- everyone tends to help everyone else. I'm a full-time engineer now and when we get interns I'm always willing to help if I have the time- even though I'm not the official mentor
  • Utilize any company resources. If your company uses slack or microsoft teams or any other software that has groups dedicated to specific topics- they might have a group dedicated to the language you are working on and would be able to help. This is mostly a thing at bigger companies
  • Try to fix it yourself. I know what you're thinking- if you could solve it yourself you wouldn't be asking anyone. But often times I find the solution myself while trying to explain the problem to someone else or while waiting for a response (you may have heard of the term rubber duck debugging which is related to this). Spend some time on stackoverflow if its a programming issue or otherwise do research on the topic online.

People get busy throughout the workday so don't take it personally when you don't get a response. You shouldn't be relying solely on your mentor for help and the worst thing to do is to sit there doing nothing until you get a response. Be proactive and try to solve the issue without your mentor. If you are absolutely stuck- you can consider picking up an extra task in the meantime to take your mind off the thing you're stuck on.

But I can almost guarantee you someone else on your team would be willing to help if your mentor is busy.

  • Thank you so much for offering your perspective – Zanna Apr 10 at 22:29

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