Avid Surfer, Forecaster Receives Joanne Simpson Award for Sustained Mentorship of Colleagues

Mark Willis, a development manager and forecast strategist for Surfline—the go-to global surfing forecast company—is the 2012, and first, recipient of The Joanne Simpson Mentorship Award. Willis, a lifelong surfer who is at home when the surf is cranking, won the award for aiding NWS volunteer interns in gaining experience valuable to their future careers through dedicated mentorship, and sustained encouragement and guidance.
The Front Page set out to learn more about Willis and his penchant for mentoring. He worked for Surfline for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s before joining the NWS Eastern Region marine program. Then, recently, he returned to Surfline. The following is our Q and A session in which Willis sheds some light on his particular style of engagement with colleagues.

Mark Willis surfing an impressive wave along the North Carolina coast.

What’s your area of expertise in meteorology? And did that help you secure the most recent position you had with NOAA?
My expertise is in marine and coastal forecasting, but I enjoy all aspects of meteorology and oceanography. My marine background definitely helped me secure my last position at NOAA as the Marine Program Manager at NWS Eastern Region Headquarters.
What was your passion that got you into marine forecasting?
I became interested in marine forecasting through surfing. I grew up surfing on the East Coast and became fascinated by waves and how they changed so quickly. I learned much of the science behind wave forecasting on my own and by working at Surfline as its difficult to get much formal training on the subject. I became involved in ocean wave modeling in graduate school and continued to work on wave modeling projects in the NWS. I’ve been lucky to be able to work in forecast offices that have marine responsibility as this has greatly enhanced my knowledge of the ocean and the atmosphere.
What is your current title and affiliation, and what is it you now do?
Global Forecast Development Manager/Lead Forecast Strategist with Surfline, Inc. Surfline also owns Buoyweather.com and Beachlive.com. My job is to lead Surfline/Buoyweather/Beachlive’s push into international markets and also help to fine tune existing products and develop future products.
Who were the folks you were mentoring?
I have mentored several students and employees throughout my career as a meteorologist. I mentored volunteer interns when I was a forecaster at the NWS forecast office in Newport/Morehead City, North Carolina. Most were college students but I also worked with a couple of high school students. I also mentored new employees when I was the East Coast forecast manager at Surfline in the early 2000s. I have been fortunate that both of my employers have allowed me to mentor, as it’s something I greatly enjoy.
Tell us your philosophy on mentoring and what sets it apart from others’ techniques/methods?
One thing I always thought of when I was working with students and/or new hires was that I was in their shoes not too long ago. I always ask myself, “What would have made me grow and feel more comfortable?” The answer to that was always the same – just make sure they feel welcome, included during forecast decisions, and find the right times to train and teach. I think it’s important not to continuously throw things like QG theory down their throats and show them how much you know. It’s more important to get to know the person, find their learning style, and adapt to the human being. Most of all, get to know who they really are, ask about their family, hobbies, find their true interests in meteorology and just try to educate and mentor where you can.
As far as what sets that apart from others’ techniques/methods – I’m honestly not sure. I did take the student that nominated me for this out surfing a couple of times though where we talked about life and exchanged waves, so maybe that’s what set it apart!
How do you use that to promote excellence in forecasting/the atmospheric sciences?
I just try to be a hard worker, lead by example, and follow my passions. Hopefully that promotes excellence in our ever so humbling field.
Will you continue to mentor in your new position?
Every chance I get. I also hope I get the opportunity to be mentored by some of the veterans at Surfline as well, as they have an incredible staff with the best group of marine/surf forecasters and modelers in the world. Surfline is always looking for the brightest and the best so hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to mentor new employees in the future.
When you first learned you were going to receive this particular award, what was your reaction?
I was shocked when Jon [Malay] called me to tell me the news, honestly. This award is hands down one of the highlights of my career. I have a great sense of pride in the fact that the students and colleagues I mentored went out of their way to nominate me for this.
One additional thing I’d like to highlight on this subject is that the news of the award came right after a very stressful period of dealing with Hurricane Irene both professionally and personally. The award definitely lifted my spirits after that!
What advice would you give a colleague who wanted to win this same award next year?
Be yourself, get to know the people you are mentoring, and find good entry points to train and mentor. Don’t force it.
What single piece of wisdom would you hope those you mentored would carry into their careers?
As the late Sean Collins (founder of Surfline) taught me and inscribed into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame—“Follow your Passions.” You’ll perform much better and find more satisfaction in your career if you enjoy what you are doing.