Do you have time for a quick chat?

(Maybe, if you follow these simple guidelines)

The quick chat email. We all get them with varying frequency.

“Hi Trey, any chance you have time for a chat? I’d love to pick your brain about my [project / job search / career choices] over lunch or coffee.”

First, let me make absolutely clear that it is flattering to be seen as someone whose opinions are valuable and it is certainly a position of privilege to be seen as a source of career advice. I’d also say that I’m probably the last person you should be seeking advice from. I’m stumbling around in the dark without a flashlight just like everyone else!

Second, let me just tell you how much dread that simple email can bring about. If I ignore this email, I’ll feel like a jerk. If I respond to this email, I’m almost guaranteed 30–60 minutes of meandering, unplanned conversation. Don’t do this! The person you are emailing is a) busy, b) not invested in your project or job search, and c) going through their own struggles in life. If you’re hoping the person will also consider you for some kind of position down the road, you haven’t done yourself any favors.

Third, let me say that I’ve been guilty of violating all of the guidelines I’ve listed. I am not without sin. These guidelines have been collected from many ‘quick chats’ on both on the requesting and granting sides.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll find yourself much more likely to get a response and not waste anyone’s valuable time.

  1. Have an agenda for what you would like to discuss. Include this in your email requesting the chat if possible.
  2. Suggest a time and location that are very close to the person’s job. Set an ending time for the discussion. 30 minutes is best. Don’t suggest 5–10 minutes because no actual conversations happen this quickly. Don’t suggest an hour, the person will stay longer if they want to or are able to.
  3. Buy their lunch or coffee. Make sure, at the very least, you have offered to buy their lunch or coffee. If you see that they are in line, join them in line and offer to pay. Failing to do show this very simple gesture of gratitude/reciprocity can sour a meeting. Alternatively, if you get there early (see #4), leave some money with the cashier or tell them you will be buying someone’s drink/lunch later.
  4. Get there early. Don’t get there right on time, because that leaves no margin for error and it will take 5–10 minutes to order coffee / lunch.
  5. Use your agenda from #1 to guide the conversation. Don’t come unprepared and just ask for “any advice you can give me.” Have specific goals you’d like to accomplish and specific questions you want to ask.
  6. Keep track of time. When the time you have allotted is up, politely state that you’ve used up all of their time that you asked for and that you know they are busy. If they want to continue chatting, they will.
  7. Thank them and note any followups that you have discussed and agreed upon.

Let’s revisit the email from above.

“Hi Trey, I read your blog post on data science interviews and was hoping I could buy you a coffee at Storyville in Pike Place this week to ask you a few questions about your post.
I’m currently interviewing and the part about whiteboard coding was really interesting to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to improve whiteboard coding questions and answers as well as share some of my own experiences with these types of questions.
Could you spare 30 minutes sometime, say Tuesday or Wednesday of next week? Thanks for writing the post!

Is this wordier? Yes. However, I have a much better sense of where you’re coming from, why you want to talk, and what we’re going to talk about. You’ve signaled that you know my time is valuable and you don’t want to waste it. I am much more likely to say yes to this email.

Finally, sometimes people just won’t respond to your requests. I do this too. People are busy. Some people don’t read their LinkedIn messages. If you get ignored, don’t feel bad, and don’t resend a request without waiting a while.

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