Your Job Search: The Importance of Informational Interviews | SoloLearn: Learn to code for FREE!

Your Job Search: The Importance of Informational Interviews

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 The informational interview, otherwise known as a coffee chat, is an important tool in your job search toolbox. By targeting the right people in the industry of your choice, and conducting these interviews successfully, you learn valuable information and grow your network at the same time. 

Informational interviews are a conversation with someone that has expertise in the field in which you plan to enter. They are typically 20-30 minutes long and take place in-person, over the phone, on video chat, or via email. 

Your goal for these informational interviews is two-fold -- to glean insightful and valuable information about your intended field, and to network and build connections that will be helpful for when you apply to jobs.  

Why Conduct Informational Interviews

Though you can probably find the answers to any of your industry or role questions with some internet search savvy and effective use of our Research Resources Sheet, it is still important to conduct informational interviews. Given the back-and-forth volley of a conversation, there is no substitute for direct  interaction to gain unique insights into your new connection’s very personal expertise and experience, their observations, their advice, and their willingness to help. Conducting multiple informational interviews is a great way to develop meaningful connections and grow your network in the technology field, which is a critical component of a successful job search.

As an example, doing an informational interview with someone who works at a company to which you are interested in applying offers you the advantage of getting an inside perspective of the organization from someone who knows first-hand. You may uncover new details of the company., such as pain points the company is dealing with that your experience can resolve, or qualifications or experience the company looks for in an ideal candidate, or how a target position adds value to the company. Information like this allows you to fine tune and align your messaging during the application and interview process. 

Examples of questions typically asked during an informational interview include (expanded list can be found here):

  1. What does their typical day look like?
  2. What do they like/dislike about his/her job/company?
  3. How did they enter into the field? What advice would they have for someone entering the field?
  4. What is the company’s tech stack?
  5. What trends do they see in their workplace, industry, etc?
  6. What kinds of projects do they do on the side?
  7. What resources do they refer to regularly (books, blogs, articles, etc.)?
  8. What makes for a successful engineer?
  9. What is the interview process like?
  10. What are some of the pain points for their current employer?

How To Prepare for an Informational Interview

Reaching out to people you have never met before (otherwise known as “cold outreach”) can be intimidating, particularly if you have never done it before. To overcome this feeling, think about the potential to learn from each conversation. Each cold outreach carries with it both opportunity and potential. Here are a few ways to think about these informational interviews to make them less intimidating:

People like talking about themselves

Direct your questions toward that person and their experience, and engage in what they have to say and their personal story. By doing this, they are very likely to walk away from the conversation feeling positive about the interaction and they will likely associate that feeling with you.

People generally like to help

Your target person has been in your shoes -- new to the field and learning new programming languages. Sure, people are busy, but if you connect the value of your conversation (how this conversation will help you achieve your goals) to your ask (a few minutes of their time), you will find that most people will set aside some time to chat. 

You are not the only one doing this

Your request for an informational interview is commonplace in a highly networked industry such as technology. Who you know sometimes becomes almost as important as what you know when getting an interview. 

Great networking

Informational interviewing is a great way to introduce yourself to people that work at your target companies. Initially, it will be easier for you to secure informational interviews over an actual job interview. Because this is the case, it makes informational interviews a great tool for jobseekers, because they allow jobseekers to quickly build a positive relationship with industry people. Very frequently, these relationships can lead to referrals for open positions.

How To Conduct An informational interview 

The first step is to create a list of people to whom you will reach out -- specifically people you are interested in learning more about. Search for the following:

Those in your existing network

Identify people in your existing network that may be able to refer you to relevant connections to talk to. These are likely 1st degree connections in your Linkedin network, family, friends, coworkers, alumni from a previous school, acquaintances through affinity groups, hobbies, interest groups, etc. 

Target Skills/Experience

Search for people on Linkedin that have a specific skill and/or experience that is relevant to your own job search. In other words, find  people that are generally doing what you aspire to do.

Target Companies

Search for people on Linkedin that work at your target companies in the roles you are interested in. Then broaden this list to include people in different professions that work at your target companies that can still offer valuable insight into their employer. 

Find Groups of People

Search for and join organizations, affinity groups, and interest groups related to your target jobs. For example, if you are interested in getting a job as a full stack software engineer, you may search for Javascript groups, or groups that focus on software engineering, or organizations tailored to startups, etc. 

The second step is to craft your outreach message. While you may use a similar structure or format for all of your outreach, each message should be customized and specific to that person. Additionally, make decisions about how you will send messages -- via Linkedin, emails to work addresses, or emails to personal addresses. There is no magic rule to follow here, so keep a few things in mind: 

Linkedin Messaging

Not everyone reads their Linkedin messages regularly. Unless you are connected to that person, you will need to use an Inmail message (which costs money) to send a message. (that credit is returned to you if the recipient responds to your message).

Work Email

Everyone checks their work emails at least a few times daily, so barring unfortunate spam filters, there is a high probability your message will at least be seen if sent to a work email. You will likely need to guess/figure out the company email convention in order to find the email. (example: a common convention is [email protected]). Clearbit gmail extension is an excellent tool to help you source contacts and emails at your target companies. 

Timing

Studies have shown that your messages (especially those to work emails) have the highest response rate if sent early in the morning (6-7am). In theory, your message should be near the top of their received emails when they first check their email in the morning. Avoid sending these outreach emails on Mondays, since the person is likely catching up after work has piled up over the weekend -- but people are generally in a good mood on Fridays!

The third step is to create the message content. Your messages should be concise and to the point. Assume your contact is very busy, so don’t lose their attention! Here are a few points that you might include in your message:

Try to establish a connection in your greeting

As humans, we are more likely to read the entire message and respond, if you make it personal to them. “We both graduated from University of ________”, or “we share a passion for….” 

Introduce yourself concisely

Give that person a one sentence introduction to you. The idea here is that it helps contextualize and connect the ask to the person to quickly establish that the ask is appropriate/relevant for that person. Will that person’s time be spent wisely if he/she says yes? 

Make the ask

Request to set up a time to chat (in person is always great, but phone call or video call is okay too) to learn about _______. It is important to connect the ask to something specific and relevant to that person’s profile/experience. (“I see you have recently done some projects using React -- I am currently learning React and would love to ask you about ______”).

Connect the ask

How will this investment of their time help you personally? In other words, if they are able to answer your questions, what is the outcome?

Propose your availability

Suggest specific times that work for you, or when you are generally most available. While this may first appear to be presumptuous, you also want to make this request as effortless and frictionless for your contact. Do the work so that they don’t have to.  

Persistence

It is likely that even with a carefully crafted message, that  many of your messages will not be returned on the first try. Keep track of your outreach messages using this tracker so that you can send a follow up message after waiting 4-5 days if you have not heard back. In most cases, your overall response rate will increase with this followup. 

Preparing For And Conducting the Interview

In advance of the interview, do your research. Try to learn as much as possible about the person, his/her job, industry, projects they have worked on, how they got to be where they are, etc. Have they published articles? Read them. Are they active on social media? What are they tweeting about? Learn about your contact, as it will help establish rapport and guide the questions you ask. 

Create the list of questions you would like to ask your contact ahead of your meeting. Try to avoid asking questions that are easily answered by a quick Google search. 

Bring your questions with you to the interview, along with a pen to take notes on the person’s answers (use this Informational Interview Tracking Form). While this interview will ideally end up taking the form of a conversation, it’s very appropriate to show that you respect the person’s answers by taking some quick notes that you will reference later on.

Make sure to find out what your contact is really passionate about. Other than being interesting to learn, this will help you continue the conversation beyond this first meeting. 

If the conversation has gone well, ask for referrals -- if “there are other people I should be talking to, in my quest to learn more about ______”. People are often willing to help connect you with other people in their network if the conversation went well. 

End the informational interview on time to be respectful of his/her time. If you feel the conversation went well, state that you would like to digest what they’ve said, and that you are interested in continuing the conversation and staying in touch. Ask if that is okay with them, and, if so, ask what is the best way to stay in touch. Make sure to mention that the conversation has been very helpful, and will help you reach your goals.  Offer to connect them with someone in your network, or to send them an interesting article related to their interests in return for their valuable time.

After The Informational Interview

After the interview, promptly send a thank you note to the person. Your thank you note is important, because if you do it well, you are more likely to continue the conversation at another time. Include the article that you mentioned you’d send them, that you have researched after the interview based on what you learned of the person’s passions, or help connect them to others that might share the same passions, etc. There is some debate on when to do this, but the general consensus is to send a thank you note within 24 hours of the meeting. 

Pro Tips

Ask for an unconventional amount of time

This tip is angled toward the busy person. When you ask for 15 or 30 minutes of someone’s time, they are more likely to think that the time commitment may not be honored. Instead, ask for 17 minutes of someone’s time. You may catch their attention with the lesser-used number, and they may be more willing to give you a chance!

Be prepared to talk about yourself

It is likely that the other person will want to learn about you. Be prepared to talk about yourself only if the person asks you questions - but do not intentionally turn the conversation towards yourself. This is a great opportunity to let the person know what you’re interested in, get some tailored advice, and get a referral for the company if there is a suitable open position.

Follow up

Start doing informational interviews before you are actively on the job hunt. In the weeks and months that follow, check back in to let the person know about your progress in your course, and to add value in any way you can. This will help build the relationship. When you do finally hit the job market, let the person know -- if you have kept in touch, this could lead to recommendations or referrals for jobs.

Do not ask for a job

If the conversation naturally comes around to topics of employment, or the person you’re interviewing offers this kind of help, that is great! But you should never ask for a referral for a job. You will make the person feel like you had an ulterior motive, and did not really care to learn about him/her.

Come prepared with planned projects: 

Review their technology stacks, and identify tools you haven’t used before. Before the interview, create a plan for how you intend to learn these new skills prior to your start. This will help mitigate their concerns around lacking experience with their specific tools and stacks. 

Try to enjoy the process of learning about your future career. Pay attention to your own energy level during the process -- topics that interest you provide clues that may help refine your focus as you conduct your job search. For example, you can match your interests to the stated requirements in job descriptions. Future blog posts in this series will focus on unique attributes of the tech industry and how to align your brand and personal narrative to the employer’s hiring requirements. 

 

In his over 20 year career, James Van has helped thousands find their next job. James began his career as a technical recruiter in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. After nine years of recruiting, James completed his Masters in Counselor Education at San Jose State University and transitioned into career counseling and coaching. James has supported the career growth of his students at institutions such as UC Berkeley, Hult International Business School, and Galvanize. He recently joined SoloLearn , a self-paced earn-to-code platform providing excellent technical instruction. In his personal hours, James enjoys spending his time with his family, windsurfing, surfing, and cycling. 
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