Uncomfortable Mentorship is Vital to Success


Grooming the next generation of tech talent requires honest mentoring, according to government tech leaders.

Mentorship is crucial to success so pay it forward, a panel of government tech leaders said Thursday.

“Mentoring is not a buzzword. It’s a very real thing. We all need help along the way to bring our best selves out,” Commerce Department Deputy Chief Information Officer Terryne Murphy said as part of a panel at the Association of Federal Information Resources Management’s “Trailblazing Women of Government IT” event in Washington.

Murphy reflected on the coaching that she’s received and the significant impacts that her own mentors have made in contributing to her success—and sometimes that means uncomfortable moments for both the mentor and the mentee.

“It should be a little scary, not overwhelmingly so, but it should be personally challenging—that’s what you should be looking for,” Murphy said, adding that friends are the ones who are meant to make people feel good.

“But your mentor is there to bring your best out of you and that’s supposed to be uncomfortable a little bit. It’s really supposed to be,” Murphy said.

The panel also agreed that it is critical for people to diversify their mentorship.

“I’ve had people ask me, as a woman, if it would it be more beneficial to have a woman as a mentor versus a man,” said Melinda Rogers, deputy chief information officer at the Justice Department. “Well I’ve had mentors and mentored people from both genders and I think it really comes down to the person and the chemistry.”

Pamela McCauley, who serves as program director in the Computer Information Science and Engineering Directorate at the National Science Foundation, also said that it’s imperative for people to learn from others who look different from them.

“I think this is really important, because a lot of times as women, we feel like we need a woman mentor and if you’re black, you need a black mentor,” McCauley said. “But you can have one mentor that can help you understand one area and another who can help you understand something else.”

The panel unanimously agreed that, because of how formative mentorship has been for their own careers, they feel compelled to pay it forward.

“I absolutely have to do it,” Murphy said. “I have to do it because it’s been so helpful to me.”

“Like Terryn, I have been the beneficiary of tremendous mentors, and I still stay in touch with them,” Rogers said. “So to the point of should you pay it forward, you absolutely should. You’re obligated to pay it forward.”

And for those who don’t feel that they have the time or energy to invest in people who ask them for mentorship, due to managing many competing priorities, she recommended connecting perspective mentees to others in their network who may have more to give.

“I take this extremely seriously because I would not be here without my mentors,” McCauley said. The other women on the panel nodded in unison.

NASA’s Chief Information Officer Renee Wynn said a key to her success was seeking out strong models and obtaining a supportive community. She added a “heartfelt ditto” to all that her fellow panelists said about mentorship.

After the panel, Murphy told Nextgov that she hopes that the discussion “helps everyone just go back and think about the choices that they’ve made and the ones that are before them.” She said mentoring is important because it helps people to not only inform others’ perspectives but also see something that they personally may have missed themselves.

“Just this interaction could significantly impact the trajectory of someone’s career,” she said. “So if we did anything to help perpetuate a positive trajectory today, that’s awesome.”