How finding the right mentor, at the right moment can flip your entire career on its head.
It's 2014. Daft Punk have just released "Get Lucky", and I was about to land my first real job.
A childhood friend came to visit one day.
He looked at me and said—"David, the startup I'm working for is looking for a PM".
"I've no idea what a PM does."—I responded.
Then he went on blabbing about some stuff I didn't understand, and once he was done, I said—"Ok! I'm in!"
Next thing I know, I'm "in charge" of this thing called "Salesforce CRM"... working at a minimum wage.
First day at work—"pizza Thursday"! And on Fridays? We play Counter Strike after hours. So that's why everyone's into startups!
First task—"read this doc explaining what a PM does."
The doc doesn't help, but I read it word for word—I'm keeping this job!
Few weeks fly by, and I can already distinguish problems from solutions, write spec, manage the backlog and QA the shit out of new features. Everyone's giving me high-fives whenever we release a new button automating parts of their workflow.
I'm a natural!
On Week #6—There's an announcement. Our Salesforce plan will eat up 85% of our modest budget. The decision has been made—We are building our own CRM!
David is in charge.
I have two weeks to make a "plan" and present it to the CEO, while the rest of the team is focusing on... well something else.
Where's that doc they gave me on my first day? Does it say anything about CRM's? No… okay. Let's look up some CRMs on Dribbble. Wow! Flat design, round buttons, gradients.
Our thing is going to be so much better than that ugly Salesforce!
Download Balsamiq. SKIP THE TUTORIAL – I got this!
I spend the week making rectangles as I'm slowly starting to realize I'm in over my head. Seems like Dribbble won't really tell me how to do this.
But this is my task! I have to show it to the CEO that I can do it on my own!
I keep making wireframes, frantically, before I finally realize the source of my troubles. It's Balsamiq! Of course! It's limiting my vision. I need better design tools!
I spend the next day learning Sketch.
I can't sleep. I'm a fucking fraud! I'm locking myself up in the meeting room for entire days, not talking to anyone. Showing my dog-tired face only to get another energy drink. Shit... this is really bad. I can't even tell what I was supposed to do in the first place.
The presentation is only a day away and my "plan" boils down to "This is how a ticket list would look like". I can feel this job slipping out of my hands.
God I loved those Pizza Thursdays.
I'm sitting, slumped in my chair, feeling like I'm on a death row. My presentation starts in 15. I skip my meal for a final cigarette... and it's showtime.
This is the first time I'm alone in the room with this guy. He's young, just a bit older than I am and this is already his 3rd startup. Previous two got sold for... well let's just say they call him the "Berlin wunderkind".
He seems genuinely interested to hear my plan. Too bad I don't have one.
"Sooo... there's this ticket list... where new tickets come in."—I open my presentation.
"We should be showing more information there."
His eyebrows pull up as he mumbles an assuring "mhmmhmm".
"See—the ticket can even flip if you hover over it! Pretty cool huh?"
A deadpan look on his face.
"Also! You should be able to chat with other sales managers… right?!"
His stern look pierces through me. I can hear another "mhm", but this one sounds more like—Man, what the fuck are you talking about?
Like a deer in the headlight I am waiting to get hit by a truck. This crazy look he's giving me right now... it can't be good. What is he thinking? I'd give anything to find out.
"But I have many more ideas!"—I desperately add, knowing I'm about to get fired any second now.
He picks up a marker and goes over to the whiteboard—"Tell me about all the things you had in your mind."—he says.
What? He can't be serious. We both know that there's zero value in "the things I have in my mind". He's just setting me up to show me how dumb I am and fire me. Why prolong the suffering? Sadist.
"David, this is an insane challange. But you've been out in the field—you've seen what our team does firsthand. So tell me, what did you see? Let's start from there. Nobody expects you to do this on your own."
He goes on to spend the entire day with me at that office—discussing the needs of our team, stakeholder expectations, process and how to move forward... and I'm slowly starting to understand what my job is actually about.
In the following months he reserved time for me each day—constantly nudging me in the right direction—unlocking parts of the product management world I had no clue about.
I was no longer locking myself in the room, but jumping to understand and solve shit together with my team. And after we released our CRM, I was in "charge" of it for years to come. My CEO gave me the chance to hire a great team and accomplish things I didn't even know I was capable of. I became so passionate about my work that I could hardly remember my humble beginnings.
I finally understood why everyone was so into startups.
I'll never forget that meeting. The crazy look in his eyes, and what this guy ended up doing for me. But what actually went down in his head that day? I was left to figure out on my own.
Years later, now working for a different company, I'm in a meeting with a new team member.
Without me realizing, she had found herself in the same situation I was in. A big, ill-defined task hanging over her head. No clear expectations, no experience. She has no idea what she's doing.
I'm listening to her presentation, and low and behold—I can feel my eyebrows lifting. I hear myself mumbling the assuring "mhmhmm". In my head, I'm desperately trying to figure out how to make this conversation into something productive without completely neglecting her work. How to help her instead of shuttering her confidence.
And then it hits me! I am making the same "crazy" eyes I was looking into, years before.
I excuse myself, and I run out of the meeting room to call my old mentor.
"I KNOW WHAT THE EYES MEAN!!!"
"What!? David? What are you talking about"
"The LOOK you gave me in that meeting room. I understand now!"
Of course, he didn't remember. After all, it was me looking at him, but when that call ended, I went back to my young colleague, picked up a whiteboard marker, and asked her—"Tell me about all the things you had in your mind."