I’m a volunteer mentor at Underdog Devs, a group of people led by Rick Wolter who help the formerly incarcerated in their transition into the software industry. Recently, an interesting question came up in the group’s Slack, “I have an informational chat with a dev at my dream company, what types of questions should I ask?”
An informational chat is not a formal interview, so you don’t need to come prepared to answer technical questions, but it is an interview with a twist: you’re the interviewer. Think of the interviewee as a lock and each question as a key. Your goal is to find a key that opens up the lock. If you manage to do so, the other person will give sage advice about issues you may face and may even help you reach your career goals faster. In essence, this is your opportunity to get something valuable: precious time from someone who Made It™.
During the Slack conversation, someone said, “ask for a referral!” and I had to jump into the conversation. Asking for a referral from an informational chat is like forcing a key into the lock. Most likely scenario is that it’s going to take so much work removing the key from the lock that it’s better if you just move on to another lock.
A referral is built on trust
You would never go into a job interview and say “can I get the job now?” so why would ask for a job in an informal interview? What you need to be doing is building rapport with the interviewee. I’ve already explained it a bit in my previous article concerning interviews; you need to convince your interviewer that you’re a great catch.
Finally, and the most important advice, be enjoyable! If your interviewer wants to chat about a topic, listen carefully and ask interesting questions or remark positively on something they said.
Usually people will sit down (virtually, thanks COVID) and let you ask them questions about the industry or your career because they want to help you. They want to feel useful and provide value, and how do they provide value? By giving you advice, telling you about their stories, and in general sharing insights about the industry.
In other words, mentors love talking about themselves.
I’ve mentored people for the last 5 years and helped them get jobs in the industry because I want them to have an amazing, well-payed, low stress job… and because I want to feel like I’m an agent of change in the world. It’s a win-win situation! People I help get valuable insights that would’ve taken years to acquire and I get a nice ego boost plus a few points to get into The Good Place™.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Ask your interviewer questions about themselves that will also give you information to reach your goals faster.
Want to ask about the interview process to get a job at Dream Company™? Ask “what was your interview process like at Dream Company?”. Need to know more about a technology you know your interviewer has used? Ask “In what projects have you used technology X? What did you like/dislike about it?” Trying to figure out what the “cultural fit” looks like? Ask “what are your coworkers like?”.
Keep them talking about themselves. Extract value by providing interesting questions that can be answered with their experiences. Also, flattery is incredibly effective when it comes to mentors. A single, random flattering comment that is not tacky will go a long, long way. Devs love it when people tell them they’re smarter than others in a non-competitive kind of way.
“It sounds like you fixed that bug very quickly!” or “I tried using technology Y and found it so difficult! How did you become an expert so quickly?” will net you brownie points if you use them at the right time.
I kept them talking and flattered them; how do I know it worked?
Think of the informational chat as your first step in getting a job at Dream Company™. If you asked interesting questions and the interviewer noticed, you’ll have gained Trust Chips™ that you can later trade in for a referral. Before the chat ends, ask them for ways of contacting them. Twitter is great because you can engage with them sporadically. Email works, though it’s much more personal. LinkedIn is fine but a lot of devs don’t actively use it due to recruiter spam.
Send them a thank you email after the chat. Be brief and tell them at least one detail from the conversation that stuck with you. Be specific so they understand you were paying attention. Then, write down an interesting question you weren’t able to ask. Do not send it. You’re only writing it down so you don’t forget. Again, specific questions about their experiences are what you’re looking for.
After that, you wait… this is the hard part. You’ve planted the seed and watered it a bit with your email. Let it grow.
You’re not compiling code, you’re building a relationship with someone else. Keep working on your career. Apply to other jobs. Read books. Write a few blog posts about things you’ve learned. Then, after a few weeks have passed, send them an email saying hello and asking the question you wrote down after your chat. If you get a reply, that’s it, you’ve found the key to unlock the relationship.
Can I ask for a referral now?
Asking for a referral means you’re spending chips and this is where it gets difficult. How many Trust Chips™ did you gain with your questions, your followup email and your interactions on Twitter/LinkedIn? There’s no easy answer and it’s very relationship dependent. However, even if what you established is not a solid relationship, you may have just enough chips to spend.
The way to ask for a referral is to let a few weeks/months go by. Keep looking for opportunities at Dream Company™. If you find one that you think is a great fit for your skillset, then yes, you may ask for a referral by emailing or DMing your contact and asking for guidance.
Do not ask for a referral directly.
Briefly explain how your situation has changed since you last met – the more you’ve improved, the better. Thank them for their advice and ask them for guidance. Here’s a brief example.
I hope you’re doing well. Thanks to your advice, I’ve done X during the past few months. I’m very excited to be learning about X because it’s improved my skills on Y by a lot.
I’ve been looking for a position at Dream Company™ and I see that they’re looking for [dev position]. I would love to apply and I was hoping you could take a look at my résumé or give me a few tips as to how I can make sure I stand out.
Working at Dream Company™ has been a career goal since I started programming, so I would love your input.
Same principles as before: extract value by appealing to their experiences. If you manage to snag another 15-30 minute video chat, and they seem receptive, this is when you go all in and spend your chips by asking if they would mind putting in a good word for you. If they say yes, congratulations! You’re one step ahead of everyone else for that position. It doesn’t mean you’ll get it, but a good word from a dev goes a long way.
I didn’t get the job
Even if you don’t even get past the first filter, you should again send a thank you email to your contact. Keep the relationship alive by pinging them every few months. If you did things right, maybe next time it’ll be them emailing you about an open position!
This process is complicated in ways that most developers don’t understand, so you need to practice it a lot. It is nuanced and time-consuming but it is worth so much. Most jobs don’t even get posted because they get filled when a company insider puts in a good word when a position is going to open up.
Finally, keep doing this again and again with different people. Your goal shouldn’t be to get anything out of them, but to learn about more people in the industry and make great connections. Who knows? In a few years you may be the one giving an informational chat at Dream Company™.
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