Mentor Spotlight: Qifan Xi and His Early Learnings

Lessons learned in his first years as a software dev and the value of mentorship

March 3, 2021

Entering the tech workforce for the first time as a software developer comes with both excitement and unease. You’ve done the prep work--picked up the code, learned about the industry, talked with experts in the field to get a good grasp of what software development is all about. But working in teams and understanding architecture setups in a company...the workplace isn’t as straightforward as you might find!

Well today, a veteran from the software industry is here to give a reminder that there is no one absolute way to do things, no one defined path to succeed. It’s a big reason why he’s decided to join Co.Lab as a discipline mentor in the Winter 2021 cohort. 

Qifan actually went down a more traditional route into the software industry. After graduating from the University of Waterloo with a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, he landed his first job at Amazon as a software engineer and later at the steaming service platform, Twitch. With a longstanding interest in gaming, he switched over to Vreal, a start-up that offers a broadcasting platform for VR entertainment. His latest endeavour is at Riot Games as an engineering manager, where he and his team shipped the popular game, Valorant, in 2020.

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A Rocky Start to a Lifelong Advice

It hadn’t been all smooth rides and roses for him. Despite being academically prepped, there was still an adjustment period when Qifan first entered the workplace. Having done so well in university, he struggled internally on why it seemed like he wasn’t doing so hot in the field.

Going from school, where everything is given to you at a structured interval, to the workplace where most of the time, you’re expected to pick up new things by yourself, was a big change. I had a lot of self-doubt because I thought that I couldn’t learn things, or I wasn’t working very well, or I couldn’t keep up with my peers who were learning more quickly.

Though he quickly realized that it wasn’t an incapability to learn, merely an inability to learn in that particular way. This awareness led him to an advice he always liked to give to junior developers:

The beginning [of your career] can be very hard and while resources online for things in tech are readily available, you have to remember that people have different ways of learning. If you don’t find success with something you were recommended to do or learn, don’t take that as a sign that you’re not fit for the industry. This is a pretty hard thing to learn and if you don’t have success early on, consider that you might have a different learning method. So try to find another way to understand the same material.

It loops us back to the idea that there is no one absolute way of doing things, whether you’re learning something new, just starting out on a job, or even breaking into a different industry like the tech space.

One of the best engineers I’ve worked with at Twitch doesn’t have a college degree. He’s entirely self-taught and entered a bunch of hacking competitions. He learned that he was very good at picking things up, learning from other people, and doing all these things without a traditional education. Meanwhile, I’m very bad at that!

So how did Qifan change his technique of learning in the workplace? Through mentorship. It greatly helped guide him through the company’s ins-and-outs and also provided that structure he was familiar with.

We have a plan. I work through this plan. They hold me accountable and I know when to expect the next lesson. So even in the workplace, you have to look for the type of learning that works for you.

A Step into Mentorship

It was then when Qifan picked up the fact that mentoring was a way of learning, a way of acquiring new information. Mentorship was prevalent in Twitch’s company culture and he’s since recognized the value it brings especially to junior developers.

No surprise when he later volunteered to be an industry mentor at Ada Developers Academy, a non-profit tuition-free coding school for women gender-diverse individuals, and found a positive experience.

Watching someone succeed is a huge source of pride and joy. I can make a huge difference in this person’s life by being an industry-mentor and all it took from my part is a couple hours every week meeting with this person. You watch them grow, you watch them succeed, and you know that a small part of that success is from something you did.

I come from a very privileged background. My dad has a background in tech, we had a computer and Internet, I had all of these advantages and exposure early on. Then there are many people who want to get into the industry that didn’t or don’t have these advantages, so why not do anything you can to level the playing field? It seems like the natural thing to do.

Ada Developers Academy

Having been in the tech space for a while and now leading a team of software developers, Qifan offers another piece of advice for those just starting off:

Ask for help! I felt there’s a lot of pressure against asking someone for help, especially on basic subjects. That sentiment of ‘this person is asking too many questions’ is way way way down on the list. The part where you’re supposed to be learning is way more important to the success in your career than the part where you’re just doing, as a junior engineer. Your team is going to appreciate the fact that you are making the effort to learn and they will be happy to teach you because they felt the exact same thing when they were in your shoes.

We’re in the knowledge-based industry, I don’t expect anyone to hit the ground running because of how diverse the sets of techniques or information you need to succeed at your job is.

Qifan with his mentee from Ada Academy

Co.Lab So Far

It’s been one week since the developers and designers joined the Winter 2021 season. Qifan just met up with his five mentees and almost immediately, he saw the unique value that the Co.Lab experience can bring.

There’s going to be a lot of situations where you’ll need to handle differences of opinions. And there’s going to be conflict, hopefully healthy conflicts. But this is the stuff that is very difficult to teach in an academic environment and it’s very important in an industry setting. For example, if you don’t think that you can do something or if you think the project is too ambitious, you can actually speak to your team and do further discovery together.

This is something that I really appreciate about Co.Lab. The more traditional forms of learning like code-academies are about: ‘this is a thing you don’t know and by the end of a couple weeks, this is a thing you’re going to learn and we’re going to teach it to you’.

But with Co.Lab, it’s more like: ‘this is a thing that you don’t know and we’re not going to teach it to you; instead you’re going to have to take the tools that we provided you and try to use them in the ways that you know or will learn how to use to get the result that you want. And in doing that, you’ll learn a thing we wanted to teach you and will stick to you. I think that’s a very unique approach.

Qifan hit the sweet spot with Co.Lab’s goal of providing that hands-on experience! It’s not only about shipping a product—it’s about learning the process of going through discovery with the entire team, realizing what is feasible and how to scope, and how to communicate with your product manager and designer to deliver a product that you’re all going to be proud of.

Hustle and Confidence

Like last time with Ava, we presented a list of words that best describe what Co.Lab is all about and asked Qifan which ones he resonated most with:

I like ‘hustle’. Watching the process so far in Co.Lab and getting the presentations from Helen and Sefunmi about how the entire cohort works reminds me a lot of my experience with hackathons. They are time-limited projects that you need to complete, that begins with a pitch and ends with a demo. The thing you really get out of a hackathon and also from Co.Lab is that you have to do what it takes in order to deliver on the pitch. It helps demonstrate one of the most important parts of working in the industry.

And also ‘confidence’. My job during the next few weeks is making sure that the mentees do not lose confidence in themselves and that they’re going to be proud of what they deliver. By the end of this program, I want to hear that the mentees feel more confident about their own skills and more grounded of what they deliver and what they’re capable of delivering if given the time to learn.

Well said Qifan – and we’re definitely going to check back with you near the end if that goal is achieved! It’s always inspiring to see someone with such a rich history in the tech industry wanting to give back and pass on their learnings. We’re confident that your mentees are in good hands.

Interested in becoming a mentor for Co.Lab’s Spring 2021 cohort? Check out our page—applications are open now!

That being said, there are four more weeks left to go until all 21 teams present their product on Demo Day. Head over and sign up to watch what these brilliant individuals have in mind on March 27th.

The countdown begins!


And stay tuned for more as we chat with our members and get to know their story. Don’t forget to connect with us on Linkedin, Twitter or Instagram.

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