I think Google is on to something with their new helpouts.  The idea is simple – use the Internet to connect with people who know more than you about something.  It’s something I’m sure plenty of people have thought of, but only now has video chat quality improved enough to make the idea feasible.

Helpouts (or something similar) may address a problem that comes up in engineering all the time –you don’t even know the right questions to ask when you’re doing a new thing. It’s clear that someone has done it before, but nobody around you has invented this particular wheel.

Answers are straightforward (not easy) if you know the right questions to ask, but knowing what questions to ask comes with experience. This is where a ‘mentor’ comes in; someone who has been in your place on the learning curve, has experience, and knows the useful questions.

If it works the way I think it should (I haven’t tried it yet) Google helpouts should allow us to use the connective power of the internet to have digital ‘mentors’ for small tasks. We’ll see.