Mentors Series #1: Richard Earls

I have a lot to say about mentors.  I would not be where I am today without them.  I didn’t even realize they were mentors until after the fact.  I remember being in my late teens and early 20’s and people would mention finding a mentor.  I never looked for one, I thought the whole concept was strange.  Like, what’s the difference in a teacher and a mentor?

But at the ripe age of 33 I know the difference.  A mentor is a lot like a teacher but they take it a big step further, a really big step.  They take an interest in seeing you better yourself.  Not a light “I want to see you do good” interest, but a deep caring in you getting something out of what you are after.

Teacher’s also teach people who really don’t care about the subject.  To get a mentor you have to be passionate about the subject matter.  So I’m starting this series with Richard.  I’m going to leave last names and identifying details out of the articles unless I’m given explicit permission to use their full names.

Getting Into Web Development

When I was 21 I got married and moved to Germany with my military wife.  She worked a lot and worked really hard.  Her income was guaranteed and I needed to provide as well.  I’d made money building websites and I wanted to try and do it full time but this meant finding clients.

Before I moved over seas I was living in Asheville, NC and had listed myself on a couple freelancer websites.  I showed up in searches for Asheville web developers.  I got an email from Richard Earls shortly after I got to Germany.

Richard was contracting for a large organization that provides services for travel agents (I think that’s what they did at least).  He wanted a Macromedia Flash application that was pretty neat on paper.  It was kind of like a forum but the UI looked like a computer Desktop and all the forms were represented by icons that could be moved around and sorted.  If you double click on one it works like a folder and opens a window with sub forums and so on.

Also, there was an entire custom CMS that managed all the forums and users.  It was wildly complex and I was a terrible coder.

When you double clicked a forum there were topics and you could create, comment, reply and more.  I had never built anything even CLOSE to this complex but I told Richard on our first phone call, “Yea, I can totally do that.”  The cold sweat set in but I charged at the project and built it.  Kind of.

First Project

I believe we said $6,000 for the project.  I got $3k down and the other was to be paid on delivery.  I built the system but as the project moved along the scope started changing.  I didn’t know what scope was back then so I just went with it.  I built something really freaking cool but my code was spaghetti.  Anything Richard found wrong I’d patch with more spaghetti and when things didn’t work I blamed it on anything other than my own skills.

Richard and I had a very intense phone call one night.  I remember it pretty clearly: Where I was standing, what was going on in my head, the fear of saying “no” and “pay me.”  In the end I got paid, I don’t think the project ever went live anywhere though.  I figured that was going to be the end of my relationship with Richard but I was way wrong.

Growing A Relationship

Richard gave me more work.  I’m not sure why but if I were to take a guess it would be communication.  My father was a preacher and public speaker and I definitely got some of that from him.  I take pride in my communication skills and I find that getting clients is a lot easier when you can have a good conversation.

I flew back to the states two times for my last two college semesters.  When I got to Asheville the first time Richard and I got together in person at his condo.  He sketched out on paper his concept for a website.  He called it TravelResearchOnline.com (TRO).  We spent some time going over it, throwing out ideas and how to turn it into a business.

I dove in on the project and Richard paid me by the hour (I charged $17/hr).  One day we launched TRO.  It was damn exciting for me and Richard hit the floor running getting traffic and sponsors.  Richard still runs that website today, over a decade later as one of his main sources of revenue.

I messed up often.  I wrote hacky code but I always managed to make things work.  Bugs happened, things broke and Richard always gave me a kind nudge to get shit working again.  He was firm often but never angry like our first project when things hit the fan.

A Mentor

What made Richard a mentor? Richard looked out for me.  He paid me often, if I needed advance payment for future work he didn’t bat an eye.  He pushed me to do more and be better.  He constantly checked on me personally and even shared things happening in his personal life.

He was a friend.

And he still is.  I posted on Facebook recently about needing some advice on some personal stuff and he hit me up right away in chat and told me to call him.  I grew a lot all while working for Richard almost daily.

I’m estimating years here but I’d some from around the age of 21 to 27 I worked for Richard constantly.  We built a ton of cool projects.

I remember in 2009 when I was in grad school at Syracuse and we were building this flash based digital travel expo.  It was a really awesome concept we brought to life.  But I was sitting in Media Law class and got a text from Richard in all caps.  Something along the lines of “TRO TRAVEL EXPO IS DOWN!” and this was a couple hours after we launched.  It was getting crazy amounts of traffic and I knew nothing about coding for performance or server setups yet I was setting up $225/month dedicated servers for him at SoftLayer.

Even after that Richard never stopped giving me work or being a friend.  And that’s Richard Earls: Travel junkie, Thinker, Business Man, Friend and Mentor.

I got a job as the Webmaster for Sarasota Memorial Hospital when I finished grad school in the Summer of 2009.  I still freelanced for Richard for a couple years but slowly I trickled away from any freelance.  And around 2010/11 I wrote my last lines of code for him.  I can look back on that period of my life and see clearly how it was a big part of molding who I am today.

Thanks Richard 🙂

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