The ocean metaphors are strong at cloud infrastructure company DigitalOcean (DO). Their all-company retreat is called Shark Week. Linux-based virtual machines that developers use are Droplets. And their annual employee engagement survey is called The Tide.
A couple of years ago, that survey, which is designed to understand the employee experience in order to identify ways to improve it, revealed a gap: employees, particularly in the tech organization, were looking for more development opportunities, especially around mentorship.
Many of DO's employees worked remotely, even before the pandemic. As Nicole Jablon, the Organizational Development Program Manager at DigitalOcean, explained, "Teams tended to be siloed in the way they work together, and with us being remote, it was hard to make those connections."
To address that need, DO's People team partnered with Senior Technical Leadership to pilot a mentorship program. Under the guidance of Danielle Traynor, Sr. People Business Partner for DO's CTO division (the tech side of the organization), a mentorship committee was formed to get the program off the ground.
Now with two mentorship cycles under its belt; a growth rate of 275%, from 12 mentor-mentee pairs in its first year to 45 in 2020; 88% of mentees agreeing that the program has given them greater confidence in achieving their goals; and 96% of mentors volunteering to serve as mentors again, it's proven to be a success. "Having a formal program facilitates collaboration and makes networking a little bit easier," explained Nicole, who is working to make the program a permanent part of the DO employee experience.
We sat down with Nicole to learn more about how DO's mentorship program works and where her team is looking to bring it next.
How the program works
For now, DO's mentorship program has focused on the tech side of the organization, where most of its engineers and technologists sit. Nicole is currently planning with the rest of the Organizational Development Team what an organization-wide mentorship program could look like in 2021.
To run the program, the CTO Mentorship committee asked would-be mentors and mentees to fill out applications explaining their interests and personal goals in detail. For example, Peace Obasi, a Team Lead in DO's Customer Support and Success department, says that she applied because she wanted guidance navigating her next career move with DigitalOcean. "I have always been interested in management but had no idea where to start," she explained.
From there, Nicole and Danielle worked in partnership with the CTO Mentorship committee to match individual mentors and mentees. "We wanted to make sure that the pairs were as effective as possible," she said. "We looked at the goals of the mentors and the mentees, as well as what the mentors felt like they could offer from either their skills, their experience, or their strengths."
Next, they facilitated a training session for mentors to ensure they were set up for success and had all the tools and resources they needed to be effective mentors. They also conducted a group training for both mentors and mentees that focused on the goals of the program—professional and personal development—and some of the options for coaching and relationship-building. "We tried to keep it relatively flexible because we knew each pair was going to work a little bit differently depending on each mentor and mentee's needs, desires, and goals for the program," she said.
From there, mentees and mentors were free to kick off their relationships, but knew they always had additional support if needed from Nicole, Danielle, and the CTO mentorship committee. The committee implemented several checkpoints throughout the program to course-correct where needed. An early survey revealed that mentors and mentees wanted more structure in the conversations they were having, so Nicole worked with the committee to provide additional resources and templates Additionally, mentors also expressed interest in connecting with other mentors to share ideas and best practices. Nicole created an opportunity for this need by creating a forum and facilitating a conversation among the mentors.
The program was structured to run for six months. If people dropped out or left the company along the way, Nicole worked to find them a new match. Otherwise, everyone made it to the end and the majority of participants—70% of mentors and 68% of mentees—believe an informal partnership will continue after the program formally ends.
Who the program works for
Nicole recognizes that the appeal of a mentorship program is about going deep on some of the bigger questions that a focus on everyday responsibilities can obscure. "It's not just at DigitalOcean—many people just don't have the time to self-reflect or they don't necessarily know the best way to do that," she said. "It's important, and we've seen that our mentors can really ask the mentees the right questions to understand what they want out of their careers."
That's what Archana Kamath, a Senior Manager in Engineering at DO, was hoping to do as a mentor. "I have had several excellent mentors throughout my career who have helped me navigate both my professional and personal growth. Mentors are especially helpful when you are at certain crossroads in your career and [are] looking [for] advice and experiences which can help guide you. I wanted to pay that forward," explained Archana.
Here are some other highlights Nicole and the committee received from the feedback program participants submitted.
For mentors, the program has been a great way to:
- "Build relationships with people at DO that they may not otherwise connect with"
- "Give back and also to interact with newer perspectives from people at different stages of their careers"
- "Break down barriers to information internally and promote more healthy working relationships between orgs within the company"
- "Help someone achieve their goals"
- "Understand and help mentees define their growth goals, then work together to find an actual plan or strategy to get them moving in the direction they want to grow in"
For mentees, DO's mentorship program has allowed them to:
- "Not only speak, but work alongside someone who is experienced in the areas I wanted to develop; it greatly improved the way that I approach problems and I am grateful for it"
- "Bounce ideas around that were challenging in my day to day role in technical support, and take a larger picture on things to deliver on a more robust learning program when I transitioned to learning and development"
- "Realize what I wanted to do with my career and do a self-reflection on whether that would be the right fit for me"
"We are so excited that from our pilot of just 12 pairs, we were able to expand the program to 45 pairs," said Nicole, who hopes to see an even bigger mentor/mentee class in 2021. "I think that's just really telling of our culture that people know they want this development, they want mentorship opportunities. They want to learn and they want to grow."