Like everyone, I’ve been touched by countless mentors through the years – I wouldn’t be where I am without them. They’re the folks who inspired me to learn and grow while challenging me to think differently about myself, my work, and my perspective on the world. That they did so with such attention to the details and yet so little selflessness is what makes them inspirational to me. And that they gave me such latitude and freedom to explore how to make sense of their guidance in ways that made worked for me is what makes them heroes (to me, anyhow).
you’d be surprised by how few can confidently wield their own language as a tool
Many of my best mentors have been teachers. Richard Clark at Blissfield High School in the crannies of southeastern Michigan essentially taught me how to read and write like an adult (though I was — and still am — influenced quite a bit by Stephen King and all those damn Chris Claremont comic books I read as a kid). Stephen Jukuri at Michigan Technological University taught me how to construct literary nonfiction and use rhetoric to tell a story or to make a point. Learning to read and write critically are two of the most important skills that just about everyone needs… but you’d be surprised by how few can confidently wield their own language as a tool.
Or maybe you wouldn’t. This is the Internet, after all.
I’d have a hard time doing just about anything in public without my background in improv
Anne Wysocki taught me everything from using Photoshop (v2.5.1!) for digital photography to the core components of graphic design (with PageMaker, made at that time by a tiny Seattle company named Aldus… until Adobe acquired them). Sue Stephens taught me a unique approach to improvisation, comedy, and working as part of a team — those are core skills that I still use every single day. I’d have a hard time doing just about anything in public without my background in improv due to my nature as a shy introvert.
I was so challenged by it that I nearly flunked out of Peace Corps
After college, it took a whole team of incredible native Burkinabe to teach me French when I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa. One of the biggest professional shocks of my life was how hard it was for me to learn French. After all, I had a degree in technical communication and was a Tolkien geek. Language wasn’t supposed to be that hard! I was so challenged by it that I nearly flunked out of Peace Corps. In which case, this story would have a very different ending.
But I made it through training and onto my village after three hard months of learning French, living with a host family, and being sick most of the time. One of the village nurses, Moussa Nikiema, and I struck up a relationship and he ended up teaching me quite a bit about Mòoré (the dominant language of central Burkina Faso where my village was located), near-desert farming, and even his faith in Islam. But what he really taught me about was conducting a public health program as an outsider in the world’s most political setting: a small village.
They taught me about separating content presentation from its structure and its behavior
Later on, as a web developer, it was the A List Apart crew who helped me break my habit of building web sites with tables and spacer GIFs. Jeffrey Zeldman, Eric Meyer, Dan Cederholm, Joe Clark (Gods, I loved his nerdy rants on accessibility), Doug Bowman, and Dave Shea (who also taught me that you can roast your own coffee at home using a hot-air popcorn popper) were people whom I had to read every single day. They taught me about separating content presentation from its structure and its behavior — truly a revelation during those early days of the Web.
it was like meeting my childhood heroes
But it was Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld (via their iconic “Polar Bear” book) who ultimately made me want to move from building web sites into information architecture. I doubt there’s any other book that’s had as big an impact on me. I read it sometime around 2001-2002 and have been in love with information ever since. I got to meet them both in during the 2011 IA Summit and it was like meeting my childhood heroes.
To think that I’d never bothered to measure the results of my work prior to working with Megan is, well, embarrassing
As a nonprofit web marketer, one of my mentors was Megan Stanley at The Nature Conservancy. She was instrumental in helping me move from coding/building content to conducting outreach and measuring results. To think that I’d never bothered to measure the results of my work prior to working with Megan is, well, embarrassing. She helped me become familiar with WebTrends (and, later, Google Analytics) to pull our data, then to analyze and manipulate it using Excel, and then create visuals in PowerPoint to report out to our colleagues.
It just never occurred to me before that measuring and reporting were important.
I’d never used those systems or tools before. It just never occurred to me before that measuring and reporting were important. After all, the point was to build the content using Web Standards, not to see if the content was actually visited or used. Wouldn’t time spent on those things take away from, you know, building more stuff?
As you can tell, I can be incredibly dull and hard-headed at times. Megan helped break me out of that (well, at least a little bit) by showing me how much there was that I didn’t know. It’s because of her that it’s much easier for me to ask for help and to be transparent about what I don’t know and what I get wrong.
I have far too many mentors to list as an SEO
About SEO… I know you’ve been waiting for this part. But the truth is that I have far too many mentors to list as an SEO. I’m hoping that most of you know who you are at this point. But I do want to highlight someone at REI who made a big difference in my career: Samantha Starmer.
SEO could be performed at an enterprise level hand-in-hand with information architecture
Samantha hired me at REI and was my first of many managers at the co-op. She had this crazy/brilliant idea that SEO could be performed at an enterprise level hand-in-hand with information architecture. Which is to say that the structure and usability of content is inseparable from its findability and ability to convert a visitor.
in 2008 it was a pretty big deal for an SEO to be managed by an IA
This may sound like old hat to enlightened people in these clear days of 2013, but in 2008 it was a pretty big deal for an SEO to be managed by an IA and sit across from a taxonomist, down a cube from a data architect, and just a row over from an on-site search manager. Instead of being next to, say, paid search managers, affiliate marketers, designers, writers, and so on.
Remember what Egon says about “crossing the streams” in Ghostbusters? Well, that’s where Samantha lives: at vertex of those streams.
I’ll be graduating this spring – the end of a long journey
Samantha and her team gave me the background knowledge, perspective, approach, and gumption that I needed to attack enterprise e-commerce SEO on a large, dynamic web site. And beyond that, she finally got me to go into graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in information management, something I’d been thinking about for the better part of a decade. And I’ll be graduating this spring – the end of a long journey. But I wouldn’t have taken those first steps without Samantha’s inspiration.
storytelling is essential to business communications, building passion, and getting things done
I also wouldn’t have as much opportunity to give back to the community. Samantha does a lot of public speaking (she was recently highlighted on the Slideshare Blog for her work as a speaker) and encouraged me to create decks and make presentations outside of work. Like all good IAs, Samantha recognized that storytelling is essential to business communications, building passion, and getting things done. My SEO talks started out at small venues (mostly local meetups) before Vanessa Fox picked me up to speak on her SMX Advanced panel on demystifying attribution in 2010.
Even when I was no longer on Samantha’s team, she had me speak about SEO to her graduate school class on information architecture. And just one year later, I took that same class as a student myself (and the always-effervescent Marianne Sweeney from Portent spoke to us about SEO).
Well, this turned out to be quite a bit longer than I expected. Way leads on to way, like Frost said. And in writing this, I found that stories about each mentor dove-tailed with each other to create a bigger picture about the nature of mentors.
They don’t just transfer skills and technology. Hell, you can get those from any commoner with a computer and a cup of crappy coffee. Instead, they share their vision, energy, and time, which takes the sort of transparency and authenticity that most people lack. Which means that, in essence, they share themselves.
Another thing: over the past decade, my greatest mentors have almost always been women. That’s not wholly unusual – and it becomes less and less unusual every day in tech industry, thank the Gods – but it’s still significant and meaningful to me.
I’m so grateful that the women who were ambitious and talented enough to rise to high levels in online organizations still created time to give back to their community. That they did so amid antagonism and no small amount strife in many places goes beyond simple generosity into the field of altruism. I’ll never be able to give back so much as they have, but I’ll try nonetheless.
The SEOmoz Beginner’s Guide to SEO is so good that you’ll spend hours awake at night wondering how it could possibly be free.
But what I think that new (and veteran!) SEOs should read immediately afterward is Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld. I hope that it blows your mind and changes your world even half as much as it did mine.