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I am the only remote member of my 12-person team, and am also one of the most senior. We would all benefit if I could help to mentor some of the more-junior team members, but am not sure how to best structure that given our geographic distribution.

When I've mentored people in the past it's been pretty causal, and being able to just walk up and talk with the other person -- look over a shoulder to help solve a problem, stand at a whiteboard to sketch out a design, overhear something and stop by to chat, etc -- has been a big part of it. We also had regular meetings, which obviously works remotely too, but I'd like to find a way to provide the more day-to-day mentoring too, as needed. Mentoring focuses on the technical skills that are part of the job, but I believe that helping people with "soft skills" is also an important part of mentoring. (Sometimes the problem isn't really the bug but the way you're trying to get help from another team, for example.)

We have the following tools available:

  • IM (easy and widely-used)
  • screen-sharing
  • phone calls/video calls, but the people at both ends have to move to conference rooms because nobody has private offices
  • email (of course) and wiki
  • source-control logs
  • in-person visits a couple times a year

What techniques can I use to be an effective mentor for remote team members? We are all in the same time zone.

I'm aware of this question, but that one is more about peer relations in general while I'm asking about ways to provide guidance from afar.

  • It looks like you have all the tools already – Kilisi Feb 19 '16 at 6:56
  • @Kilisi having the tools is necessary but not sufficient; I hope answers will suggest effective ways to use those tools to achieve my goal. (A particular constraint is the inability to have immediate verbal conversation because of the work environment at both ends.) – Monica Cellio Feb 19 '16 at 14:07
  • from my experience both as a remote worker and boss, I actually resented as a worker getting tied up in verbal conversations and kept them as short and pertinent as possible. I much preferred IM or email. Some people prefer to talk, and my main software has it's own secure audio/video/text chat system so even though both ends are in busy offices in several different countries they just put on headphones and talk away to their hearts content. It's a live system and questions need to be answered pretty much immediately, Before that we used skype. Good quality headphones did the trick. – Kilisi Feb 19 '16 at 20:47
  • For us it's needful that the people don't leave their desk to talk, so a conference room is out of the question. They need to be in front of their computers. – Kilisi Feb 19 '16 at 20:48
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What techniques can I use to be an effective mentor for remote team members?

One of the best ways of mentoring is to build it into people's day-to-day activities. Thinking of software development, code reviews or peer programming are great opportunities for mentoring. A senior developer can give constructive feedback to a junior developer and for a junior developer to see how a senior developer approaches (and sometimes vice versa). You can share the screen then talk over IM or video conferencing. If you want to get more structured, you can use code review tools like JetBrain's UpSource.

Consider collaborative document creation. All developers should be documenting their work for operations, QA or other developers. A Wiki like Atlassian Confluence can have multiple authors as well as reviews and comments. Google Docs and Office 365 allow collaborative editing and reviewing, too.

Many teams have regular presentations where people present something work related, such as a new library or programming language. This is a great opportunity for people to do some public speaking and presenting, even if it is over screen sharing and a conference call/IM. This can be an opportunity to mentor others on soft skills and communications.

A shared Slack or IM channel can be great. People can ask questions there and anyone can answer. You can separate it into different channels for support, development, testing or whatever you desire. This is a great place to start a discussion which you then take to a screen sharing session.

However, one of the best benefits of a slack channel is to encourage banter. Encouraging some off-topic use of IM or similar can help people build some camaraderie. This encourages people to ask for help by creating a zone of safety - that scary senior developer is now the person that you told that funny joke to or went to that great concert on the weekend.

Lead by example. As a senior developer, put yourself in a position where you can be criticized (constructively) by others. If people see you listening to others, they will be much more inclined to do the same. Encourage people to ask for help and reward those that help others, too. Without it, all the technology in the world is for naught.

Being the only remote member of a team is really hard. You may need to recruit allies to help, such as your team lead or manager, to encourage people to reach out to you.

  • +1 for banter. I hadn't thought of that, but I see SE chatrooms work the same way sometimes, so having some sort of persistent channel that people hang out in and talk sporadically in sounds like a great idea! – Monica Cellio Feb 22 '16 at 16:14

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