What I learned being a mentor at a coding meetup

Earlier this month, I signed up to be a mentor at Learn Teach Code L.A.’s mentorship night at Codesmith in Los Angeles. It was a great experience, and I will definitely do it again.

However, when you see the words ‘coding’ and ‘mentorship’ while probably looking up what Codesmith is about), first-timers to this site might think I’m some superstar developer who has worked for startups.

I’m far from it. I signed up to be a mentor, with my subject being Microsoft Excel.

After being worried my skills wouldn’t even compare with the other mentors who have done it, I left empowered knowing I could do it.

In this post, I want to share why I did it, what I had prepared, and how it went.

Convincing myself to be a mentor

Last November, when I returned to Southern California, I was looking for people to meet, new friends, freelance gigs, everything. I went on Meetup and signed up for several groups, one being Learn Teach Code L.A.

Since being a member of the group, I’ve learned so much about coding and how I could apply what I’ve learned to the projects I’m working on.

Over time, I’ve also learned that my focus shouldn’t be on javascript, java or any other language. My expertise is Excel. When you think coding, Excel isn’t the first language that comes to mind, but it is a language, as I’ve come to learn over the past year studying it!

Since putting my time squarely on Excel, I’ve reminded myself not to try to convince people that it is a language because that seems futile. Rather, when people ask about it, explain how they can use it to their advantage.

As I’ve continued to learn, a small goal was to give back in some form. Being a mentor, I believed, was going to be one of those ways to give back. But I had to be completely ready and accepted, I thought.

In attending mentorship nights earlier in the summer, it hit me that there is no way I should even be a mentor, let alone be in the same room with some of these people. These other mentors were front-end developers, back-end developers, masters of multiple languages, game producers who have done legendary games, product managers at unicorns, etc.

I’m just an Excel guy.

There was a longtime member of the group (I believe he’s a back-end developer) who wondered why I wasn’t a mentor, and I mentioned to him I’m just an Excel guy, that there was no way I should be standing with people who know other programming languages and have done amazing work. But he encouraged me to go for it and share what I knew.

A month later, at another mentorship night, a lady who was going through a 100-day coding challenge suggested I should be a mentor after I showed her my Capcom Pro Tour stats database. I got cold feet and let her know there was no way anyone would want to know more about Excel.

But I decided to at least inquire about it. After talking to Liz, the founder of the meetup group, about what it would take to be a mentor at one of the mentorship nights, I told myself that I would mayyyyyyyybe go for it. Still cold feet. It was the fear of getting laughed at for being an Excel person when people want to know about learning how to create the next Battlegrounds or Facebook.

Looking back, I don’t know why I was waiting for ‘the perfect time.’ And I listen to a lot of entrepreneurial podcasts where they stress going for it because there is no such thing as ‘the perfect time.’ But here I was, waiting for that perfect moment.

I knew being scared was stupid. If I wanted to grow as a person, then it was time to get out of the mindset, go for it, and share what I knew.

Preparation

At the time I signed up to be a mentor, which was a couple of weeks ahead, I searched for games that could be made on Excel as well as Google Spreadsheets.

Now, I didn’t have a goal of showing people how to make a game in Excel. If anything, I was just going to show my Capcom Pro Tour database and how I use it to follow the people who are competing. I could talk for hours about the depth of the database and what I’ve learned from the stats that are in there.

There were two games that kept coming up, an RPG someone built that is quite robust, and Battleship.

OK, I’ve played Battleship as a kid, maybe I could learn how to do it.

I downloaded one version and messed around with it. There was one glaring problem with the game — it was literally impossible to play without seeing the opponent’s ships. That made me believe there could be a better way to build the game.

It took one hour to build my own version of Battleship from scratch, complete with a scoreboard and move tally. (You can download it here)

I didn’t even look at the code in the downloaded version. All I saw was how the game played and thought it could be done differently. After writing out an outline on my whiteboard, the code came easily (Biggest thing I learned early being a part of this meetup group: if you can draw or outline what you want to create without writing code, it’s easier to know what code to use in what situation).

The difference between the game I downloaded vs. my version was the ability to hide the players’ plots once the ships were placed on the board. All of this was done in Excel, which made me believe that I could be a mentor.

After building that game, I thought about something I could create from scratch. An idea of a mouse trap game came to mind, but I thought it would require macros and visual basic application. Since I have a chromebook as a laptop, I can’t bring Excel with me to share it.

The initial idea was to have the mouse stay in one spot, and then I would have to guess where it was on a 100-grid board. The idea evolved into at least one mouse roaming the board, and you could catch it on a turn, or it could land on a trap that was already set.

It took two days to build the game. Now I had three things to present to people, if there was anyone even going to be interested in learning more about Excel.

Mentorship night

There was still the impostor syndrome that night before the event. But the more I played both games and worked on the database, the more I believed I would be OK.

And yes, there were jitters when people were introducing themselves as developers and longtime coders. Here I was, just an Excel guy.

The moment the group broke up into mini sessions, I started chatting with another mentor who was doing a bootcamp in Venice near the Google offices. That conversation didn’t last long for a couple of reasons, one being that a few people started walking my way asking whether I was the Excel guy. WTF people really were interested?

After being startled for a moment that people were interested, I started talking about my Excel skills and answered as many questions as I could.

The questions were a wide variety. Some were VBA and macro based, which was a downer because I couldn’t show it on Google Spreadsheets. Some were about data. Others were about basic management (“I want this cell to do a task if something happens in another cell”).

The more I answered questions, the more I felt at ease. I know I can talk for hours about the power of Excel, what it’s done for me and how it can work for others. To actually do it was really cool. I wish there was more time to converse.

A key to having the conversations was being more about the subject. There was some political talk (*cringe*) but also some baseball talk and a discussion on how stats can be used to better our lives. I even talked about recent books I’ve read, which has been quite a lot.

Being a mentor exceeded all expectations. The internal fear went away, and I believe that one of my longterm goals of being an Excel instructor will happen. The mentorship night gave me confidence to go for it.

Takeaways

I plan to be a mentor for a future mentorship night if there is one. It was a lot of fun.

Takeaways from doing it (personal notes to myself, but if you’re interested, I would definitely join the meetup group and sign up when it’s time)

1. Get everything in one place. All of my content was all over the place on my computer/browser, and while it wasn’t too much of a problem, it was a hiccup early on that could have easily been prevented.

2. Get a laptop that has Excel. If you’re taking this tip personally, then get a laptop that can present whatever language that is your expertise.

Yeah, there’s Google Spreadsheets on a Chromebook, but there’s so much more I could have shown if I had a laptop that had Excel.

3. Build one more game completely from scratch on Excel. I think I have an idea of what I want to do, and this one will definitely use macros and VBA.

4. Get feedback on what people would want to learn in an Excel bootcamp. I believe I know what’s important given my current job and projects, but there are probably things people want to learn that aren’t as important but popular.

I encourage everyone who has a special skill to be a mentor. It doesn’t have to be just coding at a coding meetup. If you have a skill, share it with people. You’d be surprised to know there are others who are likely to be interested.