How an industry-university pathfinder program provides mentorship benefits to both students and practitioners.
By Chris Dawson
Technical communication (TC) is not one of the flashy careers that many people think of while they are selecting a career. When I discuss my Technical communication role with friends and family, it almost always requires an explanation of what it is. How do people learn about TC and decide whether it is a profession that they would be interested in?
Narrowing the focus of that broad, industry-wide concern, you might wonder how you and your company can help champion TC as a career option. One way that IBM and Red Hat are trying to promote the profession is through the IBM-NCSU Pathfinder Mentoring Program. The program was started 19 years ago by IBM employees Linda J. Brown and Chris Pepper with about 20 students and mentors. They wanted to provide an opportunity for students to supplement their academic knowledge with practical knowledge from people in the field.
So far, an all time high of over 280 students completed applications to participate in the program for the 2023-2024 school year. All students who apply to the program who major in Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Graphics/Industrial Design, Technical communication, or MBA students with any of these backgrounds are accepted. The inclusion of TC among such a broad swath of majors underscores one of the tenets of the program, that nobody works or learns in isolation, but rather as a team. As such, the program has two major approaches to helping the students learn more about the professional world: one-on-one mentoring and supporting events.
For the mentoring side, the program pairs students at North Carolina State University with professionals in fields that interest the students. There have been some mentoring relationships that have either two students or two mentors, which can also be effective with the students also learning from each other. The student and mentor work together for the school year to discover the interests of the student and better prepare the student for what is involved with a career in that field. In some cases, students like technology and writing, but are interested in learning more about what they want to do within technical writing. Given the many different areas of technical writing such as medical, technology, pharmaceutical, grant, and science, as well as the various focus areas such as writing, editing, project management, user experience, and architecture, this gap in knowledge is understandable.
“This has been an amazing experience. As a non-computer science student, I was hesitant to participate in the mentorship, but my mentor has had a profound effect on my professional development. He has helped me make connections outside of NC State and has helped me land multiple interviews. I know without his assistance I would have never had these opportunities. He has also given me great insight into the corporate world and the different types of companies I could possibly work for, as well as insight into other events where I can network.”
Students say that this opportunity to focus on their individual needs is extremely helpful to identify a more focused career path. Some students have entered the program believing that they want to go down a certain path, and leave the program with a completely different path. At a more granular level, a student can target improving specific skills or deliverables during the year. One student might want to focus on his or her resume, while another student might need some practice with interviewing skills.
Students who sign up for the program not only get to work with their mentors, they also get to attend events that provide additional learning opportunities. This is the supporting events focus. For this piece, a core team of about 17 volunteer members organizes group events for the students in the program. Examples of the group events include:
- Technical speakers – Subject matter experts provide information about technical topics, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, and data security in a multicloud environment.
- Early career panel discussion – A panel of recently hired employees (1-5 years) share their experiences and advice for the students from an early career perspective.
- Executive panel discussion – A panel of management and technical executives share their experiences and advice with the students from an executive perspective.
- Mock interviews – The student participates in a practice interview with feedback from both the interviewer and an observer.
- Resume writing tips – A resume expert provides tips on writing an impactful resume.
- Design Thinking workshop – Students learn about the Design Thinking process and participate in an activity that follows the steps of the process.
- Developing your elevator pitch – Students learn what an elevator pitch is and how to create an effective pitch.
While a large majority of the students in the program are in engineering-related fields, the program supports students in TC with mentors in the industry from IBM and Red Hat. Over the years, IBM and Red Hat have been able to recruit some top Technical communication professionals from the Master’s of Science in Technical communication program at North Carolina State University.
For example, two long-time IBM mentors in the program, Frances Overby and Carolyn Carpenter, host an annual “Day in the Life of a technical writer at IBM” event. At this event, Frances and Carolyn invite people who were involved with technical writing at IBM or Red Hat at some point in their careers. Some of the mentors have moved to roles in different companies, which provides some different experiences and shows some possible paths for technical communicators. After a brief overview about what technical writers do at IBM, the students ask the participants their questions about the job.
“The IBM-NC State mentoring program was one of the most interesting opportunities I have had the chance to pursue. I was lucky enough to be assigned a dedicated mentor. I went to the IBM RTP campus and engaged with multiple departments of IBM during a large event. Later, my mentor gave me the chance to meet with several IBM executives, with whom I had discussions and could receive insightful advice.”
Benefits of the Program
The Pathfinder Program offers many benefits to all of its participants. Through the mentoring and events, students can better imagine what life might be like as a technical writer in general by the insight they gain into these specific companies. As such, they are likely to pursue roles in TC with greater confidence. It also gives the mentors at the company a chance to learn what new-to-TC folks are interested in, what they are learning, and what they want out of potential careers and employers.
Although the program is not a job-placing one, it does naturally lead to a stronger talent pipeline through informal means of connecting employers with potential hires. For example, a participant in the program last year joined our writing team for an internship during the summer. Even if students do not apply to work at the company, they might get introductions or referrals from their mentors that eventually lead to a role. The mentors might be able to improve their internal hiring processes with better job descriptions and interview questions that are based on their interaction with students, as well as their interactions with other mentors in different departments within the company.By continuously discussing with students what the job means and why it matters, mentors can reflect on effective strategies to attract top talent to join their team as technical writers.
Participating in the program also benefits the mentors. Mentoring skills are no longer expected only from executives. Professionals at all levels are being asked to mentor others to develop the team and share knowledge and skills. Mentors can also benefit from a reverse-mentoring effect in which they learn from the students who share the wide variety of trends they learn about in their programs.
Ideas for Replicating a Similar Program
Now that you have an idea of what a Pathfinder Program can look like, how might you go about starting one? Especially if your company is a small business, it might seem like a pipedream. However, just as finding out about TC does not seem to come naturally at first, you can make a Pathfinder Program become a reality easier than you might think. You can also get valuable feedback to iterate the program as you go.
“Although I did not fully reach the goals I had set at the beginning of the year for this mentorship relationship, the experience I got was one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. My mentor did an exceptional job providing me with exposure to the industry that I hope to enter one day by providing a job shadowing experience since the beginning of the program. I wish there were more emphasis on the goals set at the beginning of the program’s duration, but overall I am pretty satisfied with my experience. I thank you all for the beautiful experience that you facilitated to both myself and all others that participated!”
- Reach out to people involved in a similar program. It takes a certain passion to start a program like this, and most would be happy to share their experiences.
- Find out if your company already has a mentoring program in place. If not, are there a couple of people who might be interested in starting one?
- Find universities in the local area to make face-to-face mentoring easier. If you don’t have a university nearby, check out some online programs. For example, East Carolina University and Texas Tech University both offer fully online TC programs. Such institutions might already have some sort of industry partnership program, or be interested in developing one.
- Connect with the local STC chapter. They might already have mentorship programs in place, or be better situated to connect several small TC teams to help form an effective mentoring program. This can also help with contacts in other roles of technical communication.
- Find another person or two who are also interested in starting the program to provide ideas and help with behind-the-scenes planning.
- Start small with a few well-planned, well-publicized events. For example, if you can’t get long-term commitment to offer one-on-one mentoring yet, hosting a “Day in the Life” panel might be more feasible. This is where your school contacts can really help you spread the word to find students.
- Start a social media account to drive some interest in the program. Make sure that you or your team can keep it active.
- Keep records of participants, take pictures, get testimonies, and share successes.
If you are interested, consider starting a program like this at your workplace. The benefit to the students, as well as to the mentors, is well worth the time and effort. The IBM Pathfinder Mentoring Program was recognized with the IBM Chairman’s Volunteer Excellence Award, which is given to programs that are beneficial to IBM and the communities that they serve.
“The experience gives students the chance to see things from new perspectives, get an inside look at life working for IBM/RedHat, and meet experienced people to connect with that they would never have the chance to connect with naturally. It’s a wonderful opportunity at no cost to the student—I’d recommend anyone to participate, regardless of their interest in working for IBM.”
“IBM-NCSU Pathfinder Mentoring Program.” Facebook. Accessed November 9, 2023. https://www.facebook.com/IBMNCSUPathfinder/.
“IBM-NCSU Pathfinder Mentoring Program.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 9, 2023. https://www.linkedin.com/groups/7057876/.
“IBM Pathfinder Mentoring Program.” IBM MediaCenter. Accessed November 9, 2023. https://mediacenter.ibm.com/channel/channelid/156911071. This site has recorded videos of some past Pathfinder events that the article describes.
Chris Dawson manages an amazing group of technical writers at Red Hat since moving over from IBM as a technical writer about three years ago. He has over 25 years of IT-based technical writing experience in writing, project management, instructional design, and management. He was one of the initial mentors in the Pathfinder Mentoring Program when it started in 2004, and remains a mentor and core team member today because of the benefits that he sees from the program, both for the students and the mentors. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.