Career Spotlight: Kirk Fernandes, Founder at Merit
Building a mentorship platform and democratizing professional networks.
Every month, I feature a top performer on a ‘Career Spotlight’ and interview them about their journey, mindset, and habits.
Previously, I chatted with Matei Psatta, Co-Founder of Blindspot and the person behind the #1 most upvoted Reddit post of all time.
This month, I’m speaking with Kirk Fernandes, Founder of Merit, and previously a Product Lead at Microsoft and Hightower.
Kirk is building a mentorship platform with the mission of “democratizing professional networks”. And if you know me, I’m always fascinated by platforms and tools that bring people together and enable deeper connections.
Read Kirk’s story below:
Can you walk us through your career journey?
I grew up in Canada in a suburb called Mississauga, outside of Toronto. I was always into math and art. I originally thought I wanted to be an architect, but talking to an architect (my mom’s friend) quickly convinced me to not be one. I didn’t want to spend so many years of schooling to be an architect and liked the idea of learning a skill and quickly applying it to the real world.
I remember Googling “What jobs are growing” when picking my university major and seeing programming. I then Googled “What do you study to be a programmer” and learned about computer science. So then I Googled “What is the best school in Canada for computer science,” and it was University of Waterloo. That’s how I ended up studying there.
I was an okay student: I enjoyed programming, but I enjoyed our co-op program more. You alternate between four-month work and school terms. Basically, the University of Waterloo takes a four-year undergrad degree and adds two years of work experience, and you graduate in five years.
To me, it’s the best example of an apprenticeship model for engineering and mathematics. You combine both academic and industry experience.
After Waterloo, I was a Product Manager at Microsoft, where I learned about office re-orgs and shipping products at a large incumbent company. Not long after, I was yearning for a smaller startup and a bigger city, so I moved to NYC to be one of the first PMs for a startup called Hightower (which later merged with VTS). This is where I learned about B2B SaaS and product management at a Series B venture.
Shortly after, the 100-person startup merged with its competitor and turned into a 250-person company overnight. Here I learned about the complexities of a merger, as well as managing larger teams–including managing people you didn’t directly hire.
I ended up taking a year between my last job and starting Merit. I did freelance work, taught courses, sold stuff on Craigslist. I tried making a calendar for working families, software for workers to get work visas, and a tool to identify bias in performance reviews.
Finally, I met Randy in late 2018, and in February 2019, Merit Technology Co. was incorporated.
Why did you start Merit, and why are you so passionate about it?
Merit is tech mentorship for the under-networked. We focus on women, people of color, immigrants, folks breaking into tech, and those in the first year of their industry. We connect them with senior leaders to accelerate your craft and career.
I've worked in both big tech and early stage startups and have been a consultant. I’ve been a designer, engineer, and product manager. I’ve worked both as an individual contributor and manager. I've worked in all the roles of all the stages of technology.
Merit is my thesis on tech careers — the idea that your network dictates the quality of your career. We fundamentally believe that high-quality mentorship is the best way to grow your career. So that's the kernel behind Merit.
What key habits, mindsets, or behaviors do you attribute your career success to?
Although I wouldn’t say I’m successful (or at least I don’t feel like I am), over the last year or so I’ve found some behaviors to be really helpful.
The opposite of work isn’t rest: it’s play.
Whenever I’m tired, it’s usually because I haven’t played enough, not because I haven't rested enough. Being a founder is an energy game, not a time game. So you have to protect your energy above everything. The more energy you have, the less time matters.
Everything is about people.
I believe everything is just about people. A market is just people. A company is just people. A cap table is just people. A product is just the people who use it. There is always a human being at the other end of every interaction.
Triage inbound like a hospital, not a restaurant.
Triage your messages like a hospital, not a restaurant. Most important versus first come, first serve. It’s okay to ignore people; they know you are busy. Just respond (eventually).
What are your sources of inspiration and motivation?
I am inspired by New York City. It’s one of the funniest places I’ve ever lived in. If I leave my apartment, I will definitely laugh at something while I’m walking around.
Music and live music are probably the most inspiring things to me. I know when I’m sad when I’m not listening to new music. I listen to hours of music each day: lots of mixes, old and new. I’m older now, so I outsource a bit of my curation to DJ sets (Boiler Room, Mixmag, etc.). Someone playing songs they like for you is better than any algorithm.
I try to go out and listen to music at a bar, club, or restaurant every week if possible and try to see a show or concert event every month. I get energy from listening to music in real life. It's fun to consume things together.
What is some unconventional advice you’d give?
Thinking isn’t useful. Writing, reading, speaking, listening, drawing, coding, etc. are all useful activities and much closer to actual thinking. But just “thinking” isn’t useful, and if you do it too much, it’s counter-productive. All your good ideas will come to you anyways; you don’t have to schedule them.
If you don't want to go to an event you were invited to, there's a high chance it's really about the people involved vs. anything else (the format, location or duration). Obviously, some events and meetings are required but way fewer than you think. Change the people in the mix, and you’ll want to go.