My Mentorship Story

In 2012 I moved to San Francisco to become a software engineer. I spent the first three years at Google and joined Uber in 2015. As I reflect on my brief career in the valley, I realize that I’ve grown the most in this challenging yet incredible year of 2017, and one of the key factors has been mentorship.

Although mentorship is a widely discussed topic, the focus is often on lessons learned and rarely about the process of finding mentorship and making the most of it. Until recently, I barely understood what a mentor does, how to get one, and how to effectively “use” them. But within the past few months, not only have I gained invaluable mentors, I have started mentoring others myself. These experiences are some of the greatest gifts in life, and I’d love to share my story.

Figure out what you want

There is a saying that goes “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Before seeking out a mentor, finding out what you actually want is a crucial but often missed step. It is easier to find a mentor if you know your goals.

Being somewhat of a skeptic, I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. If you desire to do something, it seems silly to wait for the turn of a new year. Nonetheless, my friend Diana shared an article called 8,760 hours with me. It is essentially a planning framework where you visualize your ideal self, and use the 8760 hours in a year to get closer to that vision.

Inspired by this idea, I carved out significant time to think, reflect, and imagine. I pondered on what I want to do and who I want to become. Those questions were daunting, and I realized that it is absolutely unrealistic to plan for a lifetime. However, I do know that career is important to me. My long-term career aspiration is to become a well respected technologist. Based off that, I can make short-term plans (around 1 to 2 years) that will propel me in the right direction.

Here are the concrete steps I took to make a two year plan.

First, I asked myself: two years from now, what do I see myself doing? Note, this is very different from “in the next two years, what things do I want to do?”. The former is a state of being, something hopefully inspirational. The latter is simply a checklist. Personally, I see myself leading a team of engineers, building products that bring joy to millions or even billions of people.

Next, I identified the gaps for me to get there. For example, in order to lead and inspire, I want to improve my communication skills, especially around storytelling, injecting meaning into our work. Another example is technical depth. I want to gain more war-time experiences with scaling backend systems.

Finally, for each area of focus, I wrote down a short list of action items. This is a few concrete and realistic things for me to accomplish and cross off.

There are countless resources about goal setting online. Create a detailed yet flexible plan is time consuming, but well worth the investment in my opinion. Once you know your north star, getting there becomes easier.

Find the right mentor

My younger self dreaded networking. Well, My older self does too. I never actively “networked” or sought out mentors. It just seemed too transactional, and I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with “taking.”

Earlier this year, my manager at that time actually found a mentor for me. He was and still is a great leader who listened to my aspirations and matched me with someone he thought would be a good fit. Thank you Sulman!

After having a great experience with my first mentor, I decided to ask another senior colleague for guidance. She was someone I already knew and had a great chemistry with. I took her to lunch and asked if she would have time to meet more regularly, and she said, yes!

My point is that mentor relationships can happen in numerous ways, some planned, others more serendipitous. Use your network (your colleagues, your manager, or your friends). Be genuine. Tell them about your dreams (don’t be shy), and see if they know someone who could help.

For this stage of my career, my ideal mentor is someone who is only a few years ahead in the industry, has qualities I admire, and has life experiences that inspire me. I found them more relatable than someone who is decades ahead, and the experiences they draw from are relatively fresh. The best thing about working at Uber is really the people. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by such awesome people who kick-ass at what they do (and also have tons of fun along the way).

Maximize your time with your mentor(s)

Now with a rough blueprint of the next couple years and a mentor, the hard part is over.

Or is it?

For me, I wish I learned how to effectively have one-on-one’s much, much earlier. I walked into countless meetings underprepared. Some got awkward pretty fast.

Preparation is essential to having productive one-on-one’s. This is especially true for mentorship sessions. Mentors are busy. It is an incredibly generous act for them to invest in you. Make it count.

In between meetings with my mentors, which would vary from two to four weeks, I’ve kept a journal of career-related “shower-thoughts”. My topics cover a variety of technical and nontechnical topics: distributed systems, production outage triage, time management, the art of giving feedback, the art of processing indecipherable feedback, etc. Right before the meeting, I would quickly organize my notes, and find the focal points of discussion.

During our typical one-on-one session, we would go through questions I may have, or I would focus on a particular experience in depth. During some sessions, we would do a thought exercise, and in others, I would ask for an architecture review on my design. I would always have an agenda unless we simply meant to catch up. It is my responsibility to prepare the content. The more intentional my questions were, the better my mentors were able to help me.

Own your career

While a mentor is a great asset and can accelerate your career growth, having one is not absolutely necessary.

Ultimately you own your career.

In the past year, I chatted with multiple junior engineers and noticed one common thread: they all expressed their dependence on others (colleagues, managers, or mentors) to succeed. While I agree that a good manager makes a big difference, and having a great mentorship puts the cherry on top. However, you are the one who decide what you want to learn, what you want to do, and how you will achieve those great things.

The mindset shift from “I-can-only-succeed-if-the-stars-are-aligned-this-way” to “I-want-to-do-this-and-I-will-figure-out-how” empowered me. This “I am in control” state of mind helped me tremendously during uncertain times, especially in 2017, at Uber. After gaining this clarity, I feel happier, more zen, less affected by external factors, and more focused to tackle bigger challenges.

My colleague Dan wrote this great article, Ten Principles for Growth as an Engineer. It has many sections revolving owning your professional and personal growth. Give it a read and I truly hope it resonates with you.

Any mentorship is bonded by time. But the mindset of “I own my career (and life)” is powerful and permanent.

Ending thoughts

A successful mentorship takes a ton of upfront homework to define your wants, a bit of bravery to ask for help, and a proactive one-on-one framework to make it effective. It is not easy, and it might take a while to cultivate. However, anyone can do it.

Finally, when you do find a phenomenal mentor and start learning amazing things, don’t forget to pay it forward. Help others. You’d be surprised at how much you have to offer.