As part of my fellowship with TechSoup and ParsonsTKO, I had the pleasure to attend a seminar talk featuring Audrey Boguchwal, product manager at Autodesk, about the ethical challenges of machine learning, and her professional journey from Museum Studies to the tech industry. Something that struck me during the talk was her assertion of having conducted hundreds of informational interviews over the span of a few months, as part of her career scoping strategy. Although she surmised that her career opportunity was “being at the right place at the right time”, she had put in the work to make her luck materialize. Shortly thereafter, I requested an informational interview to peek at the method to her madness.
It is not that I am unfamiliar or shy seeking informational interviews. When I was scoping for graduate school in Montreal, I deliberately sought students and faculty for their experiences and advise. Additionally I have in several instances offered coffee for brief conversations, and as of late connected with folks via Twitter with whom I share common research interests. More often than not, even when sending cold-emails, messaging which combines brevity, purpose, and courtesy is often sufficient. Yet, in spite of my expanding LinkedIn network and growing collection of business cards, I wondered if I was really making the most of the connections I had started. Because, after a while, and for both parties, those connections got lost to memory and recognition.
Expanding the number of connections on LinkedIn is great, sure, but what I wanted was to sustain the relationships I had made. After a generous hour-long conversation with Audrey, I gained some clarity of purpose, as summarized below:
Keep track of your past communications
Having a paper trail of past conversations, including notes from the interview, is safekeeping your memories of the person’s interests and insights. Depending on your level of organizational diligence, that can take elaborate forms such as detailed spreadsheet or an Evernote notebook; or as simple as archiving emails and DMs. I personally like to keep a small moleskine notebook. Sometime information that may have seemed innocuous can evolve into a point of shared interest or curiosity to reconnect.
This is quite difficult for me, because I am quite introverted in that respect. However there are plenty of windows of opportunity to do so: life transitions such as career changes, graduations, fulfillment of projects etc…especially if shared over the person’s social media is an appropriate moment to shoot a message. It can be a process as simple as setting aside just an hour every other week, to send DMs or emails touching base with individuals in your network.
Repay the time that was given
People who agree to an informational interview often do so selflessly, even if they are expanding their own network in the process. And while they won’t probably be there for every steps in your professional development, it is nonetheless proper to thank those who have contributed towards your milestones. Sharing your achievement, and acknowledging those who have contributed in the process, is one of the most sincere forms of gratitude.
When we seek someone for an informational interview, we do so because we are inquiring about the nuts-and-bolts of their role, their organization’s work dynamic, the interview process, and the steps they have taken to be where they are, to name a few. Informational interviews can be formidable opportunities to scope for insider knowledge of industry trends or organizational’s changes, something that can be leveraged during an interview. More often than not, informational interviews occur at a transitional stage in our careers, which may be obvious to the person being solicited. And while there is always that unspoken hope for a word-of-mouth referral, thinking of informational interviews as an opportunistic set to be in “right place at the right time” is short-term thinking. Part of growing into a befitting professional is to cultivate the wisdom of your peers over the long-term.
Hadrien Picq is a fellow in the TechSoup and ParsonsTKO Summer 2020 Data Strategy Mentorship Program, a group of upcoming data analysts and scientists to learn more about what the social impact and non-profit analytics sectors look like from industry professionals.