Four tips for your next informational interview request…

First, let me set the scene: Perhaps you are someone looking for your first job or you are someone looking to switch jobs and want to learn more about what is out there. In this process, you are doing unpaid research to see what exists, where you could go, and how to market yourself in the labor market. Let’s say you encounter someone online whose job you think is especially interesting and you could imagine yourself doing, so you decide to approach them for an informational interview.

I study labor and serve as an organizer because I believe it’s the best way I can contribute. I am especially interested in the role of social networks and employment and finding ways to reduce “friction” that people encounter when looking for the right jobs for them. Like many of my peers, I get a LOT of informational interview requests and I try to take as many as I can but it adds up over time. Let’s say 20 people ask me in a week (which does happen sometimes). Each of those 30 minute phone calls adds up, so even if I try to make time for 4 of them in a week, that’s 2 hours of additional unpaid labor a week to my workload. I do it because I believe in reducing the employment “friction” issue, but these are some things I wish people who reached out to me would keep in mind.

1. Do your research and ask me interesting questions. If our conversation is interesting, I will remember you. If you ask me generic questions, I will be frustrated and not impressed. Do not ask me how I got to this job when you can look at my LinkedIn profile and see my history. Do not ask me what I did before or what I studied, again, listed on my LinkedIn profile and my blog. If you did a little research and looked me up you could answer that for yourself. Make this time an interview about things you could not see online and show me you came to the conversation prepared.

2. 30 minutes is not a lot of time for me to get to know you and I will not be able to tell you what you should do. It’s easier if you come to the conversation having a sense of yourself. What do you need in an environment to thrive? What kind of work can you imagine doing day after day without losing your mind?

3. A lot of people show up and tell me about how great my job would be for them, which isn’t a good “sales” strategy. It’s hard to tell from the outside, but you’re much more convincing and appealing if you can tell me how you would play with or build something I do. I’m a researcher, if you want to do research tell me about an experiment you’d run or questions that keep you up at night. I scream internally every time someone generically tells me, “I’m good at research.” Like public speaking, it’s a skill people often take for granted. Show me some concrete evidence, the way a researcher would.

4. After the call, say thank you. Extra points for writing back to me after the call to say thank you for taking time to talk to me. And if you ask for a favor and/or someone follows up with feedback on something, say thank you again. They don’t have to do this… be polite and say thank you.

There are times you need to have a very open and exploratory conversation. I encourage you to have those with peers and mentors, sometimes even your family. I explored jobs by reading websites like the Muse and then following researchers whose work I found especially interesting, see how they got to where they were. I explored skills I had and tried to see how I could market them. I also spent time thinking about what I enjoyed doing day to day, acknowledging things I “thought I should want to do” that I didn’t and leaving those behind. I think it’s a slow discovery process for everyone and it’s ok to ask for help. I share these ideas to help you make the most of your time reaching out to people and to respect the time of those who offer to help you. Good luck!

Photo credit: Nicolas Nova / Flickr

An ode to cover letters

Cover letters can be beautiful, wild creatures.

Abused by formality and “advice,” a quick google search suggests that cover letters should be stale, formal language expressing one’s resume with some transitions between the content listed in bullet points. Please, no.

I hear from friends in banking that cover letters written with the right sequence of key words will get picked up by the screening algorithms and recommendations selected to weed out the “bad fits.” This turns the cover letter into a two part project: write the secret message of code words AND tell me about yourself. Good luck.

We read numerous cover letters from potential interns on our team at TED, and I am regularly surprised by how uncomfortable many of them are. I understand why. If our instructions just say, “send a cover letter” and “tell me about yourself,” it’s unclear how formal or “out there” you’re allowed to be.

I invite you to be unapologetically yourself.

The best cover letters, the ones that make me smile as I am trying to get through hundreds of applications in a handful of breaks during the week, tell me something that summarized work and academic experience on a resume cannot.

The language tells me about the voice of the person writing to me. Do you love the experience of words? Do you like the technical strength of your specific words? I love the sequence of sentences, what the writer decided they HAD to tell me first and how they wanted to conclude, tells me about the writer’s dreams and mission. I especially appreciate the questions that the writer needed me to remember to understand their personal quests.

The cover letter allows you to share a vignette with me. Who are you now, in a scene? Who are you becoming, who, within yourself, have you forgotten?

Or maybe you’re like me, and my cover letter guides you through the questions that lead me to tying knots in the cord of my headphones with one hand as my other ink-stained wrist dashes across my notebook scribbling down every fleeting moment of logic before it scurries away. These questions live in my notebook, and I never leave that notebook behind. Keys, phone, wallet, notebook. I never leave the house alone. I am questions.

Who are you now?

Who are you becoming?

Who, in yourself, have you forgotten?

You are more than a letter, or a scene, or your questions. But your letter is meant to be just a moment. Please, share that moment.

Navigating the Office Dress Code

Another piece of office organization to think through — what does the image of your team do for your company? Does it still matter? Is it relevant to think about for start ups, researchers and new companies?

When you search “Office Dress Code” in google, there are still many many entries and opinions about what you can/cannot wear to a meeting or an office. It gets more confusing as we add new cuts and fabrics to the market, but also because tech companies are really shaking up the “traditional office conduct” for things like dress, relationships with coworkers, office layouts etc.

I always had a lot of questions about this, particularly when I was interning in college in offices with varying degrees of formality and “traditional” work spaces.

I think the other interesting piece of “dress code” conversations is what it says about the way you want your office to be perceived. It’s been interesting to be in a start up based near the financial district… we definitely try to navigate the space between the two worlds (start ups with a leaning towards tech/research and finance), but it’s not always the easiest to figure out. We find ourselves in the tech/think tank/financial district office culture conversations.

Outside of that, women’s attire is generally more complicated because there are so many options.

There is also a lot of room for error, and the judgment attached to decisions about attire is apparently worthy of regular commentary, as we saw from some of the articles written about Hillary Clinton’s pant suits during her bid for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008. Unfortunately, a lot of people judge based on first impression of a person, which includes your immediate presentation of yourself (clothing choices, cleanliness, how neatly put together you are etc.)

I remember searching online for blogs explaining to me what the typical DC attire for an intern working for a conservative think tank vs. a law firm vs Capital Hill looked like. Even just skimming a few of those blogs, you’ll note how much judgment is attached to personal attire decisions.

The DC intern crowd definitely gets made fun of a lot for their poor fashion decisions.

Ozy jokes about the guys who show up in suits to interviews in Silicon Valley based businesses.

Other groups try to lend a hand in navigating the secret rules about fabrics, shapes, colors… really even things you didn’t know there could be rules about.

Levo League tries to explain in a sort of blanket approach to appropriate  office attire what women can do to dress for the job and their body types. Not necessarily helpful to navigating specific industries, but maybe some food for thought.

Even Jezebel digs into it.

The rules for female lawyers are as intense as ever…

Some offices have clearer rules than others. Capital hill has clear expectations for offices when in or out of session.

But for someone like me, formerly in pure research with think tanks and now with a start up, I’ve only read a few things that seem to hit the right tone of not-taking-itself-TOO-seriously and being respectable.

This Daily Worth article navigates the conversation well. It doesn’t feel like it’s condemning the reader, nor that it takes itself too seriously. A good way to talk about start ups and tech scene dress codes.

Who knew it would be so hard to find something clear?

[Best advice I’ve received, for those who have questions, ask your boss what he/she wears to work. Dress slightly more conservatively and adjust from there.]