Advice, Community, Mentors

How to find a mentor by not asking for one

I’m here to talk about building mentor relationships. I wish I could write a listicle or “how to” document. The truth is that building mentor relationships is complicated. There is nothing more personal or nuanced. I’m going to try to put into words how we over at Switchboard built our mentor relationships, and maybe parts will ring true to you.

1. The mentor arrives
The mentor doesn’t announce herself. She doesn’t arrive on horseback and blow a bugle to signal her arrival as The Mentor. The best way to describe the feeling of knowing the mentor has arrived is to recognize the feeling of wanting to be led by the person before you.

As David Foster Wallace said… “[A] real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

When that person arrives, I feel a stirring in my heart and a desire to download that person’s brain. I follow my intuition, seize the opportunity, and figure out a way to do that that is fun for the both of us.

2. Call the mentor into service
There are a few things that I’ve learned about asking for a mentor’s help. We never ask them to be our mentor. This sounds counterintuitive. Sheryl Sandberg writes about this in a chapter in Lean In called “Don’t Ask Anyone to be Your Mentor.” And I think she has a point. Corbett Barr says something similar over at Fizzle. ” In the real world, mentors are usually organic relationships without specific titles, goals or responsibilities.”

We at Switchboard often ask people to help us solve problems during a defined period of time. Sometimes that means informal drinks every month. Sometimes that means having a jam session where we brainstorm a new feature or streamlined a process with a “think tank” of mentors (pictured above with Tom, James, and Jessica). There are many benefits to this approach: a core team is formed, we don’t have to play “telephone” in translating one person’s opinion to another, and there’s an energy of excitement and shared purpose.

We ask for unorthodox favors. For example, I once posted on PDX Startups Switchboard in which I asked if any local founders would be willing to invite me to their all hands staff meetings. Our team had just expanded. I didn’t know how to structure or lead a meeting. As you’ll see from the post, Cloudability’s Mat and Little Bird’s Marshall generously hosted me and I constantly refer to what I learned there.

If we find a mentor who is an exceptionally busy person (like Matt the founder of Metafilter, pictured), we’ll ask them to come in to PIE and give a talk so others in the office can benefit and we can hear the questions that other companies have. We also have many mentors who are younger than us (like Kaori). This is often overlooked. As Bill Nye put it, “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t.”

3. Listen to the mentor
It may seem obvious, but I’m constantly working on how to listen better to my mentors. I’ll vision how I want the time to go before we meet. I say things to myself like,  “I will ask questions that start with ‘how did you…” and ‘what did you…'” “I will listen more than I talk.” “These are the points they made last time I’d like to follow up on.” Larry King put it,  “I’ve never learned anything while I was talking.” Listening, truly listening without looking for the opportunity to respond, is a difficult art.

4. Thank the mentor
This cannot be overstated. Thank. The. Mentor. We do our best to follow up. Whether we work with someone over months or just one afternoon, we make sure to follow up with the outcome of our time together. This is in the form of a quick email. “Just wanted to let you know that the feature we talked about is live!” This makes mentors feel like their time is well spent and there was a tangible outcome to our work together. We send thank you notes and describe how they helped us and why we value their contribution. I once ambushed Guy Kawasaki at a conference and, for that hour, he was an invaluable mentor who gave us input that significantly changed the direction of our product (his thank you card and keyboard stickers pictured). I’ve found that no act of mentorship is too small to be acknowledged.

The full circle of our time as mentees is that we are now called on to mentor in return. And the best way those relationships begin is not with, “Will you be my mentor” but rather “Hi. Let’s hang out.”

 

Mara Zepeda is the cofounder and CEO of Switchboard as well as a mentor at PIE. Find her on Twiter @marazepeda and visit Portland Startups Switchboard to see how they’re helping the Portland startup community.
Community

What’s it take to intern for a PIE startup?

A few of the PIE startups have spent the past month working with this year’s fresh batch of Epicodus interns. Since they’re wrapping up their internship this week, I got them together to find out what their experience has been like.

What’s crazy is that less than 6 months ago, this group had their hands in completely different fields than what they’re in now. From the group is a high school teacher, another who worked in air traffic control, and others who did admin work and business development. They’re a diverse group that’s pretty proud of how far they’ve come with understanding and executing code.

To start, I spoke with Christian Danielson who’s working on refactoring the front end code base for Outdoor Project and the duo Catherine Chen and Justin Spears working with Read the Docs. “I initially began working on tackling some bugs,” Catherine said. The pair is also writing a bookmarking feature for Read the Docs users to further organize their documentation.

I also had a chance to chat with interns Jennifer McCarthy and Tanner Stewart who are working with PIE alum Switchboard. “They’ve got us building an app that they can use internally for meeting communication, but they also have us working in Switchboard code—building out some smaller features for actual users.” Tanner’s been working on some of their membership premium products.

So what’s it really like to intern for a PIE startup? In a fast paced startup environment, I figured that trying to keep up with it all would be a challenge.

“The challenges aren’t in actual code building,” Jennifer chimed in. “But this is the first time I’ve actually contributed to something that wasn’t built by me. I’m working with a new dev team that’s never existed in my career before. So I’d say the challenges are just getting used to that environment and figuring out where I fit in them.” The rest of the group seemed to echo her, almost chorusing around the theme PERSISTENCE. Every single one of them admitted to facing challenges, but they’d either ask questions until they resolved the issue, or they’d “google it” until they found the answer they were looking for.

According to Eric, cofounder of Read the Docs, it was an amazing experience for them too. “Not only have [the interns] been great people to work with, but it’s also been great helping people get into the field,” he said. “Being at PIE is neat because they get to see part of the startup process. They helped give feedback on our pitches and were good at finding issues only new people can find.”

So the next time you’re facing a challenge and trying to figure out how to kick ass, remember the Epicodus interns at PIE and perseverance. Catherine said it best: “there’s always going to be challenge, but this internship experience has shown me that each challenge can be tackled individually, and by taking that approach you find that you’re able to move forward every day—this is exciting.”

Interested to learn more about Epicodus? Visit their website to learn more.
Looking for a job or internship in Portland? Have you checked here? Portland Startups Switchboard.

Catherine and Justin with Read the Docs

Catherine and Justin // Read the Docs

Jennifer and Tanner with Switchboard

Tanner and Jennifer // Switchboard

Christian with Outdoor Project

Christian // Outdoor Project

Community

The Importance of Community

It’s football season again, and while we don’t know who will win it all, we do know one thing: successful teams take time to pause, reflect and review game film—every single week. There are poor plays that must never be repeated and there are great plays that should definitely be emphasized. So we’re going to do just that. No, we’re not going to review PIE film (there are no hidden cameras at PIE), but we are going to take the occasional opportunity to reflect. There’s a lot we can learn.

Patrick Finnegan, the 18-yr-old co-founder and CEO of WorldState, will kick things off for us. He’s been with us for a month and will be here until Demo Day, so keep an eye out for his posts where he’ll shed some insight into his experiences. Here are his recent thoughts:

Although the Coconut PIE class (Class of 2013) graduated last year and many have moved on from the daily routine of PIE, they are still very much a part of the class. PIE truly is a close knit family. It stems from the authentic feel and the type of people Kirsten and Rick strive to bring into the program.

Just last week, I was in a jam not having a bike to get me around and without any transfer of fee’s or many asks, Michelle Rowley of Code Scouts leant me her bike. This is just one small example of the trust we have in each other here—it’s something so many corporations try and do by hiring six figure salary culture officers and conducting multiple team building exercises. Here, it’s organic. Whether it is help with branding, an intro to someone, or keeping you accountable, the alumni and mentors go above and beyond to help people.

There is one other person I want to highlight in my post this week—someone I aspire to be  both because of her authentic self as well as her strong passion and leadership skills that make her one of the best CEO’s out there today.

Her name is Mara, cofounder and CEO of Switchboard. At first glance, you may feel intimidated to reach out to her, but the minute you ask for help, her advice is incredibly helpful and comes from a genuine place. Why does she do it one might ask? Alex, CTO of Teak, said she is known for creating community. She is not even in Derby Pie (Class of 2014), yet she still takes time to invite me to dinner and dive into intellectual conversations while also running a startup that is going to be on the cover of Time. She doesn’t push you away and say she is too busy even when she literally has no time. Instead, she embraces you just like any other caring mentor would. She sincerely cares, and her honesty has been a tremendous help.

So as I reflect on this past week, I have two thoughts: community is important. It is no doubt this community that is at the core of PIE and maybe even at the core of the Portland tech scene. People like Michelle have shown me tremendous support that I think is vital for the success of any startup. And my final reflection is the importance of honesty. Sugarcoating, although great in the short term, in the end leads to falsehoods. Thanks to the honest outlook and advice I’ve received from Mara, I will be prepared to deal with tough investors, and plain old “NO’s”.

Advice, Alumni, Community

Interns; if I had any right now, I’d make them write this for me

If you’re considering taking on interns, you should seriously take a moment to consider the pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Coffee delivery service *
  • Work no one wants to do gets done
  • They have no bad habits yet, so you can teach them yours
  • You are directly responsible for teaching someone

Cons:

  • You are directly responsible for teaching someone
  • They require more direction & attention than you probably expect
  • Things get done slowly

So you’ve weighed your options and want to bring on some interns. Good luck. Here are a few things we learned from having interns at Switchboard that you should do (or avoid).

Let them get their feet wet on day one

Find a project they can work on that doesn’t require a lot of your time. We had our interns build out an internal dashboard. This was a great opportunity to see just how much they really knew and how they worked. It also allowed them to start working without the overhead of diving into our code.

Review your code with them

Since you’re molding these duckling minds, you should review your work with them. This provides a perfect opportunity for you to teach them all of your bad habits.

Check in regularly

Something I was not great at was checking in regularly. It is easy to forget where they’re at in their abilities, so check in regularly to make sure they aren’t bored or in over their heads.

Interact with your interns outside the office

You should feed them, especially if they’re unpaid interns.

Be nice to your interns

This should go without saying. I just wanted to include this gif.

Include your interns in your company culture

You may be hiring one of these ducklings down the road, so now is the perfect time to make sure they fit with your team.

* I never once made my interns get my coffee. Go ahead and ask them. That said, you totally could.