Laura Lindzey

robots, science, code

What does networking look like?

November 11, 2014

As a student, I often heard that "networking" was the way to get a job. I didn't have a clear picture of what it involved, other than the oft-cited advice of "invite people at your target company out for an informational interview over coffee." The idea of setting up a coffee date with a stranger just because they work at a company that I'm interested in felt devious and mercenary and awkward - as though I wouldn't be straight-up asking for a job, but kinda-sorta hoping that they'd submit my name. I wish I'd had better examples of what networking looked like, or how it could lead to a job.

I still struggle with networking (I'm way too shy at conferences, not particularly active on any form of social media, tend to over-analyze follow-up emails), but I've realized that my adventures in intentionally piecing together a series of internships and short term jobs over the past few years are an example of how networking has worked for a recent grad who hadn't even realized that what she was doing counted as networking.

So, in the interest of giving concrete examples, here are some things that went well for me:

Organization 1: I'd worked here before, years ago, and wanted to return for a short-term gig. It was a scary phone call to make, but I simply called my old mentor and asked if he had anywhere that I could be of use. After a few months of emailing, all the details came together and I wound up with an interesting project well-suited to my skills.

Moral: Ask for what you want, somebody just might say yes.

Organization 2: This one was the classic case where a professor had a contact in a company, and introduced a student in need of an internship to a recruiter looking for students. I had a great chat with the company, and would have taken the offered internship except for the problem that their bureaucratic rules were not a good fit with my timeline. Even after I turned down the immediate offer, the recruiter encouraged me to contact them again for a different internship cycle.

Moral: It makes profs look good to recommend good students to a company, so let them know you're looking!

Organization 3: There are only a few places in the country working on what I'm interested in, and this one sounded very appealing to me. I asked a friend if he knew anybody there. He didn't but he knew somebody who knew one of the guys I wanted to work with, and they were both willing to pass along the introduction. It turned out that this organization didn't have anything that matched what I wanted, but a collaborator at another institution did. I was this.close to taking a summer research position with the collaborator, working in my ideal role, until it fell through thanks to international bureaucratic fun. After our first attempt fell through, I visited his lab again, and was introduced to another potential collaborator.

Moral: Holy cow - 4 edges in the graph! It works like that?!

Later, I knew that I wanted an internship, and had my eye on a few companies in the bay area. I also had a few weeks of vacation, and friends I wanted to visit. So … I flew up there, having already arranged to see my friends and actually meet the researcher at Organization 3. This led to three other leads:

Organization 4: They consistently published job postings for internships, and I'd had my eye on them for a while, but had been procrastinating on sending in a cover letter. The friend from undergrad who I was staying with offered to introduce me, which led to an in-person interview on 2 days notice. While at that interview, I ran into another friend from undergrad who worked for a different group in the same company. I was roped into an impromptu interview with his bosses, who were also looking for interns, and wound up with offers from both groups.

Organization 5: I had had a half-finished cover letter to this place sitting on my hard drive for at least 6 months, but hadn't had the guts to send it. It was my dream internship. A friend from grad school and I met for dinner, and he had interned there a year ago. It didn't even occur to me to ask for an introduction because while we had been in the same department, we only knew each other through extracurriculars. As soon as he heard I was looking for internships, he offered to introduce me to his previous boss. This contact moved too slowly for an in-person interview while I was in CA, but after two telephone calls I wound up with an offer that led to the best internship ever.

Organization 6: I'd never heard of them, but the same friend from grad school worked there and was excited about the company. He set up an informational interview for me (again on a few days notice), and I had a fun day talking with the founders and some of the engineering staff. We wound up not taking it any further - they were an early-stage startup, looking to hire full-time staff immediately, and I was firm in wanting a time-bounded internship to aid in my exploration. However - their recruiter contacted me later, once they were stable enough to actually have intern positions open.

Moral: It's OK to say "this isn't what I'm looking for right now". "Not right now" doesn't have to mean "not ever".

Moral2: "I'm in town now, can we meet in the next week" can be way more powerful than "here's my resume, I'm interested". I know that Organization #4 has a big pile of typical resumes/cover letters that they slog through, and I totally jumped the line.

Organization 7: I went to a talk that I found stimulating - the speaker was working on problems related to what I was about to start a PhD on, but approaching them very differently. Afterwards, I milled around and eventually (awkwardly) introduced myself. As soon as I explained my interest, the speaker was effusively enthusiastic and invited me to visit her lab. This didn't go anywhere beyond a fun tour where I got to meet a number of research groups working in areas related to my own, but I include it as an example of how friendly people can be if you demonstrate an interest in their work, and how easy it was to get further introductions.

Organization 8: I first heard of them while working with Organization 1, and thought that their project was just about the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to work on it. I didn't know if they were hiring, but I asked my mentor from Organization 1 to introduce me to the CEO of Organization 8. I flew to town on my own dime to visit family and chat with the CEO, with the goals of finding out if the project was as interesting as I thought and of getting on his radar. A few months later, I visited town again, and mentor #1 invited me to attend a meeting with CEO #8 (and most of the rest of his company). At this point, I explicitly told the CEO that I wanted to work for him and sent in a resume, but the logistics didn't work out for me to accept a position until a few months after that.

I had a fantastic two years where I accomplished everything that I'd originally daydreamed of when deciding to take time off from grad school. (I wound up working with #1, #4, #5 and #8.) In that time, the only thing that I applied to directly was Hacker School - for everything else, the first contact was an introduction.

I have no idea if this is typical for what "networking" looks like for other recent grads, but I do know that I love my friends and that I have been very lucky. So far, for me, "networking" has simply been a side effect of keeping in contact with people I was going to hang out with anyways. Telling your friends that you're looking for a new gig doesn't have come across as a request for assistance - it happens naturally when updating them on your life, and that gives them an opportunity to help if they want to. I've also been surprised by how effective it was to openly and consistently state my goals and motivations:

  • The people I've dealt with seemed to want to find a way that we could work together, even when my preferences were atypical: I had explicitly wanted short-term work, and turned down the longer-term gigs that were offered.
  • I never encountered any rancor as a result of my saying "this doesn't fit with my goals right now - maybe we can work something out later?" In most cases, the other party very explicitly left the door open for future collaboration.

After reflecting on this, I've flipped how I see an "informational interview". Rather than an ill-disguised attempt to be referred for a job, it's a request to talk to somebody who is working on something that I'm keenly interested in. When viewed that way, it doesn't feel at all mercenary, or like I'd be struggling to come up with relevant questions. Instead, it would be an excuse to have a conversation that's worthwhile and entertaining on its own.