Grateful for Mentors

As a young and eager computer science major, I joined a software startup that was growing and finding success. I immediately headed off as the development arm of a two-man team to prototype a new product. We worked hard and made great progress. It was a lot of fun—exactly what I thought I wanted. When the project wrapped and I integrated with the rest of the development team, my learning curve immediately got steeper. My pace slowed but I learned a lot and fast. Still wet behind the ears, I looked to find my place in the team. I jostled to fit in and to contribute value. As I took on my next major project, I wanted to make sure I did a great job so I spent a lot of time asking questions and double-checking the desired functionality. Maybe too much time. I worried that my lack of development progress would be noticed and critiqued. But I also knew that there were holes in the feature requirements. Indeed, It wasn’t long before the head of product pulled me aside to talk to me. Ryan Sanders had an easy-going personality and was quick to laugh, but he wanted a change. He told me that my development skills weren’t up to par with the others and that the senior members of the team had some concerns about my code quality and speed. I was devastated! But then he told me something that has changed the rest of my career: he asked me to focus on documenting how the features should work and less on making it work. That day I crossed the fence from development to product. Ryan coached me to understand the business cases for each feature and pushed me to provide complete workups that covered every aspect of the functionality. It was hard to transition to a new discipline but I found I had an aptitude that made me a quick study. Somehow Ryan had seen that in me.

While I’ve made efforts to stay technical and find opportunities to write code occasionally, I have Ryan to thank for guiding me into a career that has been immensely satisfying and productive. He invested in me as a person and was open to making a role change that was probably expensive to train and backfill. He didn’t have to do that for me, but he did. And I’m grateful.

A couple of years later the founder exited and the company was acquired by another company based out of LA. We met our new executive leadership team and struggled to get past the cultural, technology, and process changes that ensue when you marry two software companies. Adam Berger was the CEO and he led what he called “product camp”, and it was absolutely brutal. I have never—to this day—been as angry, discouraged, or fiercely determined at work as I was during those weeks. Adam pushed us, ripped up our work, and critiqued us in a way that cut to my bones. I wanted to quit. But I didn’t because I wanted to win. I wanted to show him that I could do more than what he was asking. At the time I didn’t understand how much coaching and training was actually going on. I just thought he was a demanding jerk!. Today, I count him as one of the most valuable mentors in my life because he helped me break out of my doughy self. I don’t know if he’d consider himself a mentor to me, but I have thanked him (too many years after) because I value those tough experiences together as extremely formative to my career.

I was very fortunate to have two individuals invest in me early on in my career. Oddly at the same company, they both helped me—albeit in very different ways—to set a trajectory that has given me some great opportunities over the years. I wanted to share these stories to illustrate how mentorship can look and the kind of impact it can have on people. I wanted to write this because I think more people should look closely at those around them to find opportunities to foster growth. I want to inspire confidence for people to reach out for help from more experienced coworkers and senior management. I want to remind myself to reach out to help someone find a better path, personal improvement, or a better sense of belonging and purpose.

Honestly, I also wanted to revisit my own memories out of a sense of gratitude. Thanks, guys.

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