Joan Freed used to have one definition of impact: shipping code.
The more software she wrote, and the more technical problems she solved, the greater her contribution to her team was.
But then Joan, who is currently the Director of Engineering at Aurora Solar, was asked to go from a developer role to a management role.
“Like most engineering leaders, I was thrust into it. It was, ‘Hey, you’re a good engineer; now we want you to lead this team of people you’ve been working with,’” she says of the transition.
And in excelling in that leadership role, and others to follow, Joan realized that she’d found a way to make even more impact: through mentoring others.
“I could actually have a greater impact and gain the same amount of enjoyment from building a team that is building great software, as I could from building great software myself,” she says.
We sat down with Joan to hear more about the transition, including how mentorship smoothed her path into leadership, and about how she pays it forward by being a good mentor to others.
Pushing Buttons, With Others
Joan’s path into computer science was set as soon as she got her hands on an early PC. “What drew me to engineering was a love of pushing buttons,” she says, referencing calculators and adding machines. Once she first started developing games in her spare time for a Commodore 64, she knew she’d found her career path.
She entered the field by way of tech support, but it was an early mentor who helped her learn how to build great software. She’s still in touch with that mentor to this day.
As she solidified her development expertise, Joan expanded her pool of mentors by looking at her peers. “If we had enough of a similarity in the way that we perceived things or viewed software development, it sort of clicked—we became friends, then expanded our knowledge together,” she explains.
It was that group of peer-mentors that Joan leaned on when she made her first move into engineering leadership.
“I got great enjoyment out of helping people find their path. I was doing some of the things that folks before me had done, in terms of helping people navigate technical issues or challenges or growing new leaders,” she says.
Finding a Culture of Growth
When Joan was ready to move onto a new challenge, she knew she cared most about finding a company whose culture aligned with her values. Her main focus in her previous role was creating a positive, collaborative engineering culture, and she wanted to build on that.
“We’d really fostered an environment where people enjoyed coming to work every day because they worked with good people they actually wanted to spend time with,” she says.
In her first interview with the team at energy startup Aurora Solar, Joan immediately recognized a similar environment.
“I could see the commitment to the values—empowering customers and looking for outcomes over egos—in the way people talk and act,” she says. “There’s the assumption of positive intent, it’s very respectful. It’s really the culture at Aurora that drew me in and has kept me engaged and motivated.”
And now, as Director of Engineering there, Joan is tasked with supporting that culture and creating opportunities for her teams to experience career paths like her own.
To do that, Joan is applying everything she’s learned as a mentor and a mentee. She’s developed her own approach to what successful mentorship looks like: an even blend of comfort and empowerment.
“It’s having someone in your corner that you can talk to, where they have enough context to know you and to know the type of work or challenges you’re facing, but they also have that ability to not be in the weeds with you,” she says. “They can provide some level of objectivity to help you tease out the biases you may have or to ask probing questions you didn't think to ask yourself.”
Good mentorship, not unlike good management, says Joan, is “a way of expanding your own thinking.”
3 Tips for Finding a Great Mentor
Whether early career or not, Joan encourages everyone to build their stable of mentors. “A lot of career opportunities, it’s not always what you know, but who you know,” she says. “Make sure you have a good network of people because you never know when your paths may cross again.”
To do that, Joan suggests:
- Think of friends and peers as mentors. You don’t have to go up into the C-suite to find someone who can provide support and advice. “Start looking at people around you, what they’re doing and how they’re interacting,” she says.
- Be aspirational. “Identify someone you’re aspiring to be like, and reach out,” says Joan. “It can be hard to make that initial contact, but it’s very worthwhile.” She’s still in touch with a mentee who reached out blindly, for instance.
- Embrace communities. From LinkedIn groups to MeetUp events to ERGs, Joan suggests expanding your network via built-in gatherings of people like you.
3 Tips for Being a Great Mentor
Over the years, Joan has been a mentor to dozens of developers and aspiring leaders, and plans on continuing the tradition. When she finds herself in that role, she channels the following pieces of advice:
- Remember that you’re helping people find the path that’s best for them. “If that’s a path at Aurora, which I hope it is, then that’s great. But I’ve helped coach people out of my organization if it wasn’t a fit for them. They were struggling, they weren't happy, and I helped them find some other opportunity where they could shine,” explains Joan.
- Listen actively. “Make sure that you understand what it is they're saying and that you're engaged in that conversation with them,” says Joan.
- Be a positive force. “Be their cheerleader when things are going well, or when they’ve done something that put them outside their comfort zone,” says Joan. “Even if they’ve failed at something, help them understand what they can learn from that failure and how they can bounce back from it.”