Your personal board of directors
My career has benefited a lot from mentorship. I’ve benefited a lot from mentorship. Mentorship often seems mysterious. What is a mentor and how can you get an elusive mentor? How can you mentor someone?
Here’s my experience so that you can see how it could work for you.
So, the title is about your personal board of directors, which on first glance isn’t about mentorship. But it’s how I personally experience mentorship.
My personal board of directors, career-wise, are people that I know that I can reach out to and get an honest opinion on various things, including:
- Advice on career progression, they are happy to share how they got to their positions and answer very detailed follow-up questions for my personal scenario
- Specific perspectives on growth, such as people on the “speaker circuit” and/or tech blog writers
- Second opinion on a job offer, including benefits and comparables
- How the tech stack or organizational design works in their company, or any previous company they’ve worked at before, or companies they happen to know about
- General chit-chat - travel tips, personal life, investing and financial planning
- Sharing their personal knowledge on compensation and salary, sometimes exact figures of their own
- Knowledge on who is hiring (the grapevine)
- The job market / economy
- Resume review
Note, not all of the people that I consider part of my personal board of directors cover all bullet points, and it is simply not an expectation. For example, some people don’t chat about public speaking, but I can get an honest opinion on the job market and resume review. Some will bounce ideas with me about career progression, but don’t chit-chat. The amount of bullet points they cover has no effect on how I consider them to be a board member.
I’m grateful for every single person that does any point, and together, they cover a lot of bases that it’s unreasonable to expect a singular mentor to do.
It’s just unreasonable to expect a single mentor to provide all aspects of mentorship support for your career.
To use an analogy, it’s like you’re trying to get PC parts to build your dream gaming computer: you need (shortened list for simplification), your CPU, graphics card, memory, storage, tower, etc. Maybe you get the CPU from the Newegg website, some RAM sticks from your local computer store, and GPU from Best Buy because they’re having a sale. You don’t need to get every single thing from Newegg, or every single thing from your local computer store; they might not carry everything you want, or can be out of stock.
Get support for your career in a comprehensive manner, instead of relying on a single source! This also prevents people from burning out.
This sounds like having a few mentors, instead of just one. Yes, that’s correct. I consider many of the people on my personal board to be “mentors”, but some of them might be categorized as a peer; that doesn’t mean I don’t receive mentorship from peers on topics where they have much more experience than I do. I wanted to make the distinction because we often talk about “how to find a mentor”, not “how to find several mentors”.
Googling how to find mentors, plural, shows how to find a mentor, singular.
Some bullet points sound like they are friends, such as the chit-chat point. I consider many people on my personal board of directors my friends as well!
Do they know you call them a personal board of directors? I don’t really use this term when referring to people in conversation, but to make it more clear for the purpose of this article.
It sounds similar to networking. Yes, it’s how I met a lot of these people, but I’d say I talk to (most) people on the “board” very consistently; generally once a month, be it over text (most common), call, or in person meeting. That doesn’t have to be a criteria for you though, every few months is enough. One or two folks I consider to be on the “board”, I actually mostly talk to them when either them or I have a big career decision.
What’s the distribution of folks on your (Susan’s) personal board of directors?
It’s a wide range: there are multiple industries (at least 5), and with a mix of peers (15% ish) and people I consider more senior to me professionally (85% ish).
The gender mix is about 15% female and 85% male, it just so happens. Note that this doesn’t directly map those individuals to the “peers” vs “more senior” distribution, it’s a coincidence. There are also people I don’t know personally but consider mentors from afar: Tanya Reilly, Charity Majors, Will Larson, Gergely Orosz
They are based across Canada and the US.
How did you meet the people on your (Susan’s) board and why are they willing to share so much information with you?
The thing is, I never met any single one of these people with the plan that they’d be on my “personal board of directors”. It’s not something I really mentally seek out. I met a lot of these folks while they were also relatively earlier in their career, which made them seem more approachable (?) not that they aren’t approachable now, but I might have been more intimidated, haha. For example someone I met as a staff+ IC might be a director or VP currently. We’ve all grown together in our careers for at least 3+ years. The reason they are willing to share so much is trust and consistency, which takes time and commitment from both parties; no shortcut around this.
My advice is that, if you have peers that you often chat about your career with, you can consider them part of your board too. They’re clearly helping you and investing their time into your success, which is what a mentor would do, too. You might have more than you think!
As a mentee, what can I offer to mentors or “board members”?
I think there’s a lot that I bring to the table - mentors that are more senior professionally enjoy asking about the game development company that I’ve built, sharing our tech blog processes (shoutout Eugene Yan as someone I consider a mentor and board member!), or public speaking opportunities. Even if some of them are prolific speakers, we might share interesting conferences with each other.
So, it could be stuff that we have in common (e.g. writing), or other things that I’ve done, that they might not be interested in doing themselves but are curious about. When they themselves are job seeking, they might ask me to help bounce ideas on their career narrative or their pitch, which I gladly help with.
Something in common with all my mentors is that they never give the impression of condescendingly knowing better than me (I 100% think they know more in many aspects). They all inspire me with how humble they are, and enjoy listening and learning as much as I enjoy listening and learning from them!
I understand that there are some unique things I can bring to the table due to my experiences, but I can also share what early-career folks I mentor bring to the table.
I enjoy hearing about their perspective on the job market, and what things aren’t that intuitive. Being in the industry for a while, it’s really easy to forget the frustration that folks feel during early career job seeking. It’s even more important to me now that I’m writing a book on Machine Learning Interviews, to be published with O’Reilly - gaining that real perspective on what the job market’s like now helps me write better guides and content in the book. Folks can sign up for the accompanying O’Reilly course here.
I also enjoy seeing if there are trends in early career job titles, such as how confusing the “data scientist” title has gotten – it can be anything, and differs with every company.
For mentees that are from a different background then me, for example software engineering, I enjoy hearing their perspectives and help them bridge the gap between their knowledge and stats/ML. I could go on, but the point is, if you’re seeking a mentor or someone that will organically become someone that you can turn to for advice, you do have a unique perspective that can be something new in your mentor’s life.
Thanks for reading, and I hope it was helpful! Maybe you already have some people in your network and circle that do these things for you and with you. Maybe someone already considers you a member of their personal board too, whether they use that phrase or not! As always, feel free to share with someone you think would find this useful.