A recent Forbes post by Venkat Rao touches on the “10x” effect in software. The 10x effect is the hotly debated idea that a fantastic developer can accomplish 10x more than an average one. Though I do believe that a good developer is several orders of magnitude better than an average one (especially since I’ve worked with both), I’m not sure that the 10x effect is accurate. My experience is more like 5-6x, which is still a substantial difference. The validity of this effect in software is the subject of other debates. I want to talk about an area where I have definitely seen this effect: mentorship.
Mentors are a touchy subject. Anyone who is somewhat involved in startups wants to give back and help out in some way, even if they aren’t particularly qualified. Regardless of how qualified someone may be, it’s amazing how so many people are willing to help and expect nothing in return. That type of generosity is hard to turn down sometimes. Most of the time, people like these give basic advice and are extremely enthusiastic about the idea. Conversations about how great the idea is are nice to have occasionally, but too often are not a good way to spend time. Advice from people who haven’t done it before, unless they are very successful in another arena, often isn’t very actionable or helpful.
Receiving advice from someone who has been successful is a completely different ballgame. In one of the best meetings I’ve ever had, the guy talking to us was challenging every. Single. Word we said. He pointed out flaws that many others had completely missed, and in one meeting helped us move forward faster than 10 others mentors had in much longer time periods. The best mentors are the one’s that make you think, and wonder if you’re completely wrong. I had lunch with one guy like this around Christmas. During lunch, he challenged me on almost every point of a plan I had mentally pieced together. After he poked holes in much of my thinking, we came up with an awesome new strategy that is now setting the direction for the next 2 years with something I’m working on.
Like seemingly everything, people who have experience in an industry end up doing well. If I were to go back two years, I would do my best to only take advice from people I liked and respected as people, or those who had been very successful in a similar field. The in-between doesn’t help much.