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Ritendra Datta – Meet the Mentor

Ritendra is a Senior Director of Engineering and Head of Applied AI at Databricks, having previously worked at Facebook, Google, and the legendary research labs IBM TJ Watson and Xerox PARC. In addition, he works on film and theater, writing scripts, directing, camerawork, lights, sound, and music. He also enjoys writing on work-related topics on social media.
Ritendra Datta

Senior Director of Engineering, Databricks

Why did you decide to become a mentor?

As I started writing on social media about work-related topics, I started getting a flood of messages from folks looking for help on specific work challenges, sometimes seeking ongoing mentoring as well. There's a very high variance in issues workers are facing, and the only way to really help out is to spend 1:1 time with them. Many are suffering silently, with not many around them to listen to them and understand them. Generic advice often don't help. Having mentored many at my companies, I felt I could lend my ears to some of the people externally as well. Because I am fortunate enough not to need the money right now, I decided I would contribute the earnings to film and theater artists that are struggling to find work and funding for their projects. That creates an additional incentive for me.

How did you get your career start?

I started with a PhD in applied machine learning and statistical modeling straight out of college, going deep in an area. My first win was to recognize this as a high potential area, well before AI and ML became hot.  My PhD advisors, who had graduated from Stanford not too long back, were a big influence in my initial career thinking. Their narration of the hustle, the competition, and the progressive thinking in Silicon Valley imparted in me a certain way of thinking that I'll always be grateful for. It made me hustle to learn new things, spend the summers in the lab productively, grab whatever opportunities came my way (attending conference in far-off countries, giving talks, teaching classes), and find impactful internships. That's how my career jump-started. After that, there was no looking back.

What do mentees usually come to you for?

Empathy, advise, ideas, explanations, assertions - these are some of the expectations. I am extremely flexible with my approach to mentoring. Mentees come in with their unique stories and widely varying levels of preparedness, and I am totally cool with that; I am there to diffuse stress, not to create more stress by introducing rules and processes. Some come with very organized notes capturing their key quesytions, and we go over them. Some simply come with their authentic self (anguish and emotion), first and foremost looking for empathy and support. Though, most fall somewhere in between, where they have some structure, and the rest is open-ended. And over the course of a session, we collaboratively flesh out the details and figure things out.

What's been your favourite mentorship success story so far?

It's still early for me, but a common success pattern I've seen already is a mentee that starts out sad and frustrated, and at some point during our conversation starts to smile and glow with the realization that their sadness and frustration was perhaps misguided. They were thinking it all wrong and blaming themselves for a bad situation, only to realize that they were doing the right things all along. They simply needed someone to intently hear and understand them and validate their thoughts and actions, with only minor course corrections.

What are you getting out of being a mentor?

What people don't often talk about as a benefit to mentors is how much they can also learn from talking through so many different situations and circumstances. In just a week, I've talked to almost 30 mentees from 4 continents and many different companies, cultures, and backgrounds. It's most certainly expanded my field of view on key life considerations. And of course, there's the joy of noticing someone feeling better driven by the words I just spoke. Those moments are the most valuable outcomes for me as a mentor, and likely won't get old. Finally, the little bit of money I am making will be used to fund promising local film and theater efforts.

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