PL Perspectives

Perspectives on computing and technology from and for those with an interest in programming languages.

Have you ever had a mentor who helped you get where you are? I’ve had many, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without them. But I also know that it takes some combination of resources and luck to find good mentors right now, and I don’t think it ought to. So for the past six months, I’ve been working to create a new mentoring program — now an official SIGPLAN committee. This post describes the program and the journey that led me to create it.

The Value of Mentorship

The mentors in my life didn’t always call themselves mentors, but they made a huge difference for me nonetheless. Here’s one example: After college, I worked as a software engineer at Amazon in Seattle for three years. I decided during that time to apply to graduate school. The only problem was that I had absolutely no idea how to even do that.

So I emailed my undergraduate compilers professor, Jeff Foster. And he told me to crash PLDI 2013. Weird suggestion, I figured, since probably someone would yell at me for crashing whatever this PLDI thing was. But I trusted Jeff, so I crashed PLDI 2013. And there, he introduced me to Dan Grossman, who is now my PhD advisor. Jeff also helped me through the graduate school application process.

I’m grateful for Jeff. But I also know that not everyone has a Jeff. There are software engineers with no way into the programming languages community at all. There are undergraduates at institutions with no programming languages faculty. And even for me, there were times in graduate school when I really, desperately needed another Jeff in another context — an external, long-term mentor with a particular perspective on a barrier I was facing — and I didn’t have one.

Enter SIGPLAN-M

So when I had a chance to design a mentorship program at ICFP this past August, I thought hard about what was missing. And after more emails and spreadsheets than I would have ever liked to see in my life, I piloted an international long-term mentorship program with 173 mentees and 95 mentors from over 30 countries. With the help of many wonderful people, this program has since grown into the SIGPLAN Long-Term Mentoring Committee, which we call SIGPLAN-M.

SIGPLAN-M matches mentors with mentees from different institutions for mentoring relationships that last at least a year. As of today, there are about 250 mentees and 150 mentors participating. Any aspiring or current programming languages researcher — student, postdoc, faculty, or industrial researcher — can sign up as a mentor, mentee, or both. I do both, and it is very rewarding. You can sign up on the website, too! And you can follow us on Twitter for the latest news, like our plans for POPL 2021.

SIGPLAN-M Mentor Spotlight: Jubi Taneja

Of course, none of this would be possible without wonderful mentors. And serving as a mentor can help not just the mentee, but also the mentor.

So I want to talk about one of those mentors. Her name is Jubi Taneja.

Jubi Taneja is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah. She will graduate and go on to work full time with the Machine Learning Compiler group at Microsoft Research starting in the summer of 2021. Her research broadly focuses on compiler optimizations, correctness, and static analysis, with the goal of helping compiler developers use formal methods. She received the Best Paper Award and Best Student Presentation Award at CGO 2020. Before Utah, she was an undergraduate research fellow at IIT Bombay, and she earned her B.E. with a Gold Medal from Punjabi University.

Jubi mentors five mentees through SIGPLAN-M. But she tells me she had not really considered serving as a short-term mentor at previous SIGPLAN events. All of the mentors at PLDI, for example, seemed to be more senior than she was. “At ICFP, the whole equation changed,” she says. “I [found out] that PhD students could also become mentors.”

Mentors Without Borders

Jubi deliberately creates a nonjudgmental environment for her mentees. She likes to ask her mentees open-ended questions — her favorite is “are you happy?” — and let them guide the discussion from then on. This helps her mentees open up, which in turn helps her form authentic connections with her mentees. “If you want to make a connection,” Jubi says, “ask them if they’re happy.”

Jubi had previously mentored high school and college students in India, and she had found great joy in that. But she was worried that she would not be able to connect with mentees from outside of India. And her five mentees through SIGPLAN-M spanned three countries — none of them India. But through her interactions with her mentees, Jubi has come to feel that, in some sense, “all of us are the same.” She finds it reassuring that everyone everywhere has problems — similar problems, even. Across culture barriers, across borders, across gender lines. And that has brought her joy, even in spite of her initial concerns.

“Being a mentor just made me relieved about all of the stresses that I have,” she says. By listening to what other people are going through, she says, “it made me feel that I can relate to them. That I have been through this.” Sometimes, she can help by explaining how she overcame the barriers she faced. And sometimes, she is still facing those same barriers — but she feels relieved to know she is not facing them alone.

Jubi notes that during her PhD, she felt a lot of pressure to “keep on a happy face” all the time, and was afraid of opening up. But with the perspective she has now, she would have spoken about her experiences more openly. “If I had known this earlier, probably my individual PhD journey would have been much much better.”

“My mentees sometimes ask me my personal stories as well, and I love to share everything open-heartedly with them, because 10 years ago and during my PhD, I needed to hear the real stories,” Jubi says. “The moment someone relates to you, to your story, they start believing in you and in themselves.”

Learning from Mentees

Jubi credits her mentees for giving her a new perspective on what mentoring can be. Before serving as a mentor, she used to view mentorship more narrowly, focused on standard career questions. But “being a mentor made me understand that there are so many other things that people are looking for.” Like juggling personal relationships and graduate school, or deciding whether it is the right time to pursue a PhD — and help processing the feelings around those things, like guilt for choosing one path over the other.

From that, Jubi says, she has learned so much about what kinds of questions she can ask her own mentors. “So I would give that credit to the mentees who asked those questions so willingly.”

Happiness of Two Worlds

Jubi’s favorite thing about mentoring is helping students — something she has always been passionate about. She had feared that she would miss out on this if she ended up in industry rather than academia.

But as a mentor, Jubi has realized that regardless of her career path, her ability to help students like this “is one thing that cannot be taken away from me. It gives me that same joy,” she says. “It gives me the happiness of two different worlds now.”

And Jubi really has helped her mentees, and during an extremely difficult year at that. “Having someone to talk to about my future has been one of the few good highlights of 2020,” says one of her mentees. “It has made me feel like there might be good things in the future, not just bad ones.”

Human Touch

“The most important lesson that I’ve learned is that people need that human touch,” Jubi says. Especially this year. “People need mentors who can encourage them. People need mentors who can understand them. Who can talk to them so that they don’t feel isolated in their whole journey.”

Jubi plans to be there for her mentees whether or not they choose to stay in programming languages research. To her, mentoring is not just about helping them technically or with their careers — it is about building and maintaining a relationship.

Some of this falls on the mentees. To mentees, Jubi says, “trust your mentor, and tell them your real problems.” And don’t feel like you must only ask technical questions.

But Jubi says that much of that responsibility should fall on the mentor. “You need to put in that extra effort and empathize with [your mentees] more. Because they really need you, you know? That’s why they’ve entered into this mentorship program.”

That’s a lot of work. Is it worth it? For Jubi, the answer is an unequivocal yes: “[SIGPLAN-M is] not only helping mentees, [but] also helping mentors become better human beings.”


A personal note: I would like to thank the countless people who have given me the opportunity to make SIGPLAN-M a reality, including the committee, all of the mentors and mentees, SIGPLAN, Alexandra Silva, Roopsha Samanta, Nate Foster, Lindsey Kuper, Stephanie Weirich, and everyone who attended ShutdownPL. I would also like to thank the UW PLSE group, whose ideas helped shape the program. And finally, I would like to thank John Wickerson for the awesome logo.

Bio: Talia Ringer is in the final year of earning her PhD from the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. She is a member of the PLSE lab, and her research specializes in proof engineering; she is a contributor to the Coq interactive theorem prover. She is passionate about and active in advising, mentorship, service, and outreach.

Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the SIGPLAN blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGPLAN or its parent organization, ACM.