Mentoring is hard and other key learnings from #AcornHack

Last weekend, I spent two days at the Oracle offices in London as a mentor at a hackathon run by Acorn Aspirations. AcornHack is particularly special because it’s aimed at young people, between the ages of 12 and 18 year olds with an interest in tech for social good. And it’s not just about writing code for the sake of it. The aim is for everyone to leave understanding that code can solve real world problems and to be inspired to find their inner entrepreneur.

The role of the mentor is to support the hack groups, which are purposefully organised so that everyone is working with people they won’t have met before, as they identify a problem in their community and solve it through technology. Over two days, they go about validating their idea with market research, sketching out a user experience journey based on their findings, developing a prototype and business plan which they pitch to a panel of judges at the end.

Volunteering as a mentor was a hugely valuable experience for me. Not only did I grow as a mentor, but I also left with a better understanding of how to be a mentee. Here are 7 key learnings that I’ve been able to distill from my involvement over the weekend.

  • You're never too young to be an entrepreneur. The proof was really in the pudding as I met young people who were already getting stuck in to starting their own businesses.
  • Mentoring is hard. I was asked a lot of questions and I felt there was a lot of expectation on me to know the answers or what the next step was. At times, I was just as clueless as those I was supposed to be mentoring, but this helped me understand some of the challenges my own mentors face. I know I've asked them questions which they don't necessarily have the answers to and been guilty of expecting them to.
  • Team dynamic is always a WIP. Everyone in the group had only just met, let alone worked with each other before. I would be lying if I said it wasn't a struggle at first, but by the end of it, they really pulled it together and started working as a team.
  • Female founders do exist! A series of impressive women spoke to participants over the weekend. Muki Kulhan from Muki International, Bernadine Bröcker Wieder from Vastari, Roberta Lucca from Bossa Studios - all inspirational!
  • Let the mentees do the talking. This might seem obvious, but there were several times over the weekend when I was asked what the team were working on, and rather than talking for them, I asked them to do the explaining. The more they talked about their ideas, the more confident they became.
  • Hackathons are not all about coding. If you think they are or that they should be, then you're missing out on a whole world of learning and understanding.
  • A good night's sleep and a sprinkling of optimism and creativity can do wonders. We left on the Saturday having made very little progress. Other teams had allocated tasks to do overnight and by the time we came back on the Sunday morning, it felt like we were way behind. Somehow can help you can achieve amazing things in a short space of time, even if you start the day feeling way behind.

A lot of what I took away from the weekend was less tangible, but nevertheless equally as valuable. I would absolutely do it again and I’ll be encouraging my friends to volunteer with me. Even if you’re relatively junior in your career, mentoring helps you to explore a whole new skillset which you otherwise won’t experience until you’re a tech lead or manager.