Mentoring great people: on being an atlatl



An atlatl, or spear-thrower, is the earliest known force amplifier, preceeding the bow and sling. An atlatl adds strength and support, but not control. Being a successful mentor means embodying the same spirit: helping your people manifest their own goals with their own abilities.


Why mentor?

Say you’ve found someone you think would be great for your team, but you wonder about his lack of experience. Or you’re leading a project, and are given a summer intern. Perhaps you want to help the people on your team improve, but aren’t sure exactly how to do so.

In each case you can choose to take the path of mentorship, of selfless assistance, and we can learn much from this simple and ancient tool.

What does an ancient spear thrower teach us?

The atlatl is deceptively simple and tremendously powerful. Examining it, we have the opportunity to learn that:

  • A mentor is a tool, and the person using the tool is the most important element.
  • A good tool amplifies the user’s capabilities without stifling her natural strengths.
  • The best tools take time to master.
  • The best tools can change the user, making them not just better with the tool but better people.
  • The essence of mentorship, which is selfless assistance.

We will talk generally and concretely about mentorship on software projects.

  • What is mentorship, and are you ready to do it?
  • When and who should you mentor?
  • What are reasonable goals?
  • How do you stay engaged without micromanaging?

Speaking experience


  • Me and river

    Randall Hansen



    I have been creating human-computer interfaces since 1986 (for my Dad, on a Tandy 1000, in BASIC), and professionally since 1995. I am Director of User Experience at AboutUs here in Portland, where I try to create web interfaces that are worth your time. Previously I was UX Director at OpenSourcery.

    I’m the one with the beard.