Sun Engineering Enrichment and Development (SEED) Program (Case Study 1)

Mentoring Technical Women at Work

The Sun Engineering Enrichment and Development (SEED) program pairs promising new hires and established employees with executives and senior Engineering staff volunteer mentors. The goal of the program is to make both the protégé and mentor more valuable to Sun and more satisfied with their careers.

The program lasts one year for recent hires and six months for established staff. During that time, protégés regularly meet one-on-one with their mentors, attend monthly group meetings for all SEED participants, and take part in other SEED events, activities, and informational meetings. Many mentor-protégé pairs are geographically distant so they communicate mostly by phone and email. Participants maintain their current job while participating in the program; it is not a rotation program. During the mentoring period, participants focus on technical mentoring or specific engineering skills. Protégés typically learn about “soft skills”, ranging from how to improve teamwork skills to navigating the complex maze of office politics.

SEED’s participants must all be in Engineering and be regular Sun Microsystems employees. Applicants with superior annual performance ratings are preferred, and manager support is required for participation in SEED. In addition to these four general selection criteria, the SEED program requires that mentor applicants hold a senior position and have been with Sun for more than two years. Protégé applicants are accepted based on their potential value to Sun, taking into account both technical excellence and leadership ability.

In the last five years, 385 protégés and more than 230 mentors participated. Women and non-US staff take advantage of the SEED program at a consistently higher rate than their representation in Sun Engineering overall. About 25% of all SEED participants are women. This percentage far exceeds the percentage of new hire or existing women engineers.

SEED’s effectiveness has been measured through program satisfaction ratings and by comparing participants with non-participants. Although participants are pre-selected for likely success at Sun, annual reviews of participants’ cumulative progress since 2001 showed the following patterns of career achievement among participants:

  • About four times the number of SEED participants than the company average were promoted. This trend continues even in the year after participation.

  • Participants earn about double the number of Sun’s highest performance rating (Superior) compared with the company average.

  • All participants and their managers provide a quarterly summary of their participation, level of satisfaction, suggestions, and professional development activities. SEED’s reported satisfaction levels consistently run about 90%.




  1. The SEED process works best where junior and senior staff can interact in an “open door” environment.

  2. Appreciate that the benefit and effectiveness of a mentoring system grows over time. This program will not work well in an environment where only quick results have value.

  3. SEED depends on a partnership between Engineering and Human Resources. The program would not function if this communication and trust were missing.

  4. Use evaluation results to evlive, expand, and change the program.

  5. Secure strong executive sponsorship for the program.

  6. Document rules and processes; participant selection must be fair and be seen to be fair. Set forth the scope and expectations clearly and then meet them.

  7. If the program wants to have very senior or executive mentors, it has to be designed and run with a focus on their convenience and learning. They need to trust the program or they will not participate.

  8. Have a quick “no fault divorce” option if the mentor and protégé pair is not getting along.

  9. Invlive the protégés manager in the process and program.

  10. Publicly honor and applaud both the protégés and mentors. They are sharing their time, experience, and wisdom and deserve both respect and thanks.


  • This case study describes a research-inspired practice that may need further evaluation. Try it, and let us know your results.

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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon