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Nellie Knew

Having come neither to praise nor to bury Caesar, I'll stay out of the ever-popular deconstruction of Microsoft and instead turn to a closer look at what mentoring is and is not. First, it is not new. Despite its neologistic cloak as part of the total quality and process improvement movement, mentoring is old stuff. Mentoring is the master-apprentice model without the sting of indentured servitude. It is a dressed up version of what old-timers knew as the “Sit-by-Nellie” approach to software engineering. Ed Yourdon and I even wrote about this humble technique in the first edition of Structured Design (Yourdon and Constantine 1974). The new programmer is told, “Sit by Nellie. She knows how to program.” It was, as we explained then, a symptom of a problem. Since no one knew exactly what Nellie did that made her so good, and even Nellie herself could not exactly put it into words, the best way to learn was to sit beside her and watch her code.

Apprenticeship is a better training model for the craft of programming than for the discipline of software engineering. A discipline requires that there be people who can do it, that there be people who know what it is that those who can are doing when they do it, and people who know how to teach others how to do just what it is that those who can do it are doing when they do it well. Mentoring is what you do when you either do not understand what you do or cannot cast it in a form that can be readily and reliably taught.


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