The Importance of Personal Advisory Boards and Great Sponsors
Today we have the distinct pleasure of interviewing Merline Saintil, who has had a distinguished career as a technology and operations leader. Merline was kind enough to share some of her thoughts on leadership, finding and utilizing professional mentors, and tips for people looking to launch their own careers in technology. Merline’s interview is loaded with good tips and insights for those of you thinking about careers in technology, regardless of function.
Name: Merline Saintil
Grew up in: Florida
Role: Head of Global Engineering Operations, Mobile & Emerging Products, Yahoo
How did you get into the world of technology?
I grew up in Florida and after graduation, had the good sense to move across the country to Silicon Valley. I am fortunate to have started my career in a place that has been experiencing an entrepreneurial explosion for the past 50 years and the place I’ve called home over a decade.
As a young girl, my first love was math. In high school, I was interested in the science and math fields as well as my typical high school curricula. I can’t recall anyone pushing me to seek out the “nerdy” classes. I have always enjoyed learning new things and being challenged. It certainly helped that I was good at it. After graduating Valedictorian of my class, I majored in math in college. It wasn’t until an accidental encounter with a technical recruiter for a summer internship in Minnesota that I was exposed to the computer field as a freshman. After that first 7-month internship and first winter ever in Minnesota, I was hooked on computer science. When I reflect on this chance encounter, I wondered if there’s more we can do to encourage or even expose more young girls like me to try computer science earlier in life. I left like I missed an opportunity to have nurtured this field earlier in life, but I am so happy I stumbled upon it anyway.
No matter how brilliant the idea is, one also needs to understand the entire ecosystem including content creation & distribution and monetization models.
Who has been your most important professional mentor and why?
I am fortunate to have had Troy Saxton Getty, Jr as a mentor during my tenure at PayPal. He’s been a 5-time turnaround CEO before his company was acquired by PayPal. Although he started as a peer to me in the technology organization, he become much more by becoming a sponsor. When I was interested in attaining additional skills towards my career objective to become a COO, he made meaningful introductions and opened doors for me. For example, it was with his sponsorship that I was able to join a leading and influential peer-to-peer group of CEOs and executives at Vistage International in San Francisco. Due to the scope of my responsibilities at PayPal, I was able to quickly become an effective member in this highly accomplished peer-to-peer membership organization.
What has been the most meaningful professional experience you’ve had and why?
As the phase-1 lead of a multi-year $1B effort to modularize a company’s codebase, I led complex and high stakes work streams involving several thousand technologists worldwide along with our chief architect. I effectively managed centralized resourcing for a significant operating budget to achieve growth targets and organizational objectives. The freedom to partner with a visionary leader and achieve our objectives is what scaling an organization with flawless execution is truly about.
What is the most difficult professional or personal challenge you’ve had to overcome?
One of the early setbacks in my professional career was when a version 1.0 product that I helped lead was shut down. I was part of the management team which developed a desktop media player and management application that provides high quality video playback of streamed, downloaded, or locally stored Internet TV shows and video podcasts. For me, the lesson learned is that no matter how brilliant the idea is, one also needs to understand the entire ecosystem including content creation & distribution and monetization models.
A strong personal advisory board and the resulting strong social network can greatly increase your chances of upward mobility in the workplace.
What advice do you have for young people of color who are looking to get into technology?
My advice is to build a strong personal advisory board while building your career early on. I started my career in computer science and traditionally many of us don’t naturally form strong social networks. And that is especially true for female engineers who make a smaller percentage of students and may have a harder time fitting in. As I reflect on my journey, what I know now is that a strong personal advisory board and the resulting strong social network can greatly increase your chances of upward mobility in the workplace. So, I now make a concerted effort to build awareness by spending time speaking on panels and doing interactive workshops for young women on how to build an advisory board and thereby build a strong social network. Once I discovered this key strategy, it has personally changed the trajectory of my career. In the end, it is about creating meaningful, authentic and mutually beneficial connections.
What advice do you have for people who aspire to manage technical teams?
The best advice for managing technical teams is to not be afraid to surround yourself with people who are smarter and more experienced than you. The best way to scale an organization is to hire the best and brightest talent and get out of their way.
What has your philosophy been on how you want to manage your own career?
I have alway managed my career by making sure that I am doing something I am both excellent and passionate about. The intersection of those two things has led me to become an operations executive. So to me, effectively managing my career involves staying relevant by seeing where technology is trending and learning those new skills. I’ve made major pivots in my career by being intentional in how to stay relevant and clearly understanding the intersection of what I am good at and what I enjoy doing.
What are the keys to being successful in larger organizations?
I’ve had the pleasure in working in both large and small organizations. The key for me in larger organization is to quickly see how you can make an impact. It is so much easier to make an impact in a smaller organization because you can fix a lot of things very quickly. So, the challenge will always be how quickly can you effectively move the needle in a much bigger organization where there tends to be existing processes and bureaucracy.