A Tool for Job Hunters: The Informational Interview

I was recently talking to my dad, a chemical engineer whose been working for 30 years, about searching for new jobs, and I mentioned that I was doing “informationals” – he wasn’t familiar with the term. Then I talked to a student who works with me, managing IT for the Student Partners Program, and again he was unfamiliar with the term. Finally, I spoke to a friend from Cal who works at Google, and he hadn’t heard the term either. That’s when I decided I needed to share this concept with more people.


A lot of what makes up the informational interview, or “informational” as we call it at MSFT, is common practice for smart and experienced job-seekers. But this formalized approach gives beginners a formula to follow and, more importantly, this approach can hift the way you network, hegiving you a big edge over the competition.  


What’s Wrong with a Job Interview:

A job interview is a highly elaborate mating ritual. They have a job. You want the job. You dress up in your suit, you print a copy of your resume on fancy paper, your palms are sweaty, they take you back to their office, and you dance. It’s contrived, structured, and puts them in the drivers seat. They grill you with questions, you sit there and take the beating. Then in the last 5 minutes you get to ask them a few questions of your own, but your goal is probably to demonstrate you’ve researched them by asking insightful questions. You’re not thinking about evaluating how well they fit with your own values and goals, you’re too busy trying to get them to give you the job. 


How to conduct an Informational Interview:

Think of an informational interview not as a job interview, but more as a reporter chasing leads, in search of a story. Your goal is not just to get a job, but to share your passions with this person, learn about this person’s passions, and get this person to connect you to others that can help you pursue your passion. You start by identifying someone whose passions overlap with your own within your network, and you ask them out to coffee, or setup 20 minutes over the phone, to learn more about what they do.  You share a bit about yourself, and you pepper them with questions. You make it clear that you are indeed searching for a job, but the outcome of the meeting is that you ask this person to connect you to more people.  You ask this person to send an email to one of their contacts who is passionate about the same area you are passionate about, and may be able to help you.  Just a simple email, to someone they know, CCing you. That’s not a lot to ask for. Now you’ve got an introduction to someone even more-directly related to your passion. You send a thank-you note to the first person you interviewed. You go do an informational with this new person you’ve been introduced to. You share your passions with them. Then you get them to introduce you to someone they know. Send a thank you note to the 2nd person. Rinse and repeat.


So why is this any better than randomly getting coffee with people in your network?

First, the removal of the job interview structure allows the free-flow of opportunities, second, the conversational nature allows for the free-flow of passions and ideas, third, the focus on introductions as the outcome helps grow and operationalize your network, and, finally, in the event that you get within striking distance of a job, you’re chances of getting the job dramatically increase.


Free Flow of Opportunities & Ideas

The job interview is rigid. You only approach people who have said they have an opening. They are only prepared to discuss that one particular opening, they are the ones asking the quesitons, and they aren’t going to teach you anything, share very much about themselves, or introduce you to anyone at the end of it. What you need is something more friction-free, something more casual. Some of us are good at this by nature, but the informational interview can help break-down these casual conversations into a formula that you can use over and over, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you.


The informational removes all of the stress and structure from the interview. You’re not asking this person for a job, just for information, so the person you’re reaching out to is much more likely to accept. You’re also the one asking the questions, so the balance of power shifts in your favor. Once the “I need a job” dance is removed from the equation, almost anyone is willing to help-out a young person looking to learn, and spend 30 minutes sharing what they themselves are passionate about. Who doesn’t love talking about themselves? And almost anyone who you get referred to – say a friend of your neighbor – is willing to take out 30 minutes of their day to chat with you, as a favor to the neighbor.


Furthermore, because it’s casual, the informational allows the other person to be candid. In a job interview they would never dream of sending you to one of their competitors, but in a conversation, they might be willing to introduce you to a friend who works across the street at a rival firm.  In a job interview, you have to convince them you’re perfect for this particular job. In an informational, you aren’t trying to sell yourself, and they aren’t trying to sell you on their firm, so you can be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and ask them to point you toward jobs that will truly make you happy, and they can be honest about their company, and where you’re more likely to find fulfillment.


Second, the informational allows for the free-flow of ideas. This person can serve as a mentor for you, giving you advice. They can suggest books to borrow, bloggers to bookmark, and tweeple to follow. They can give you insight into the hours you might be expected to work, the kind of pay you can expect, and the honest pros and cons of their chosen field and firm.


Second-Degree Friends

Some research was done that stated that people rarely find their next job from a close friend. However, they very commonly find it from a friend of a friend. So it’s visualizing, targeting, and “operationalizing” your network, and more-importantly those second-degree-friends – that drives success in networking. Visualizing is markedly easier today thanks to Facebook and LinkedIn – I can figure out who my friend knows that can help me, and ask for an introduction. That’s the visualizing. Targeting means identifying who those first-degree friends are who can make the right introductions for you. Operationalizing your network refers to a personal challenge I have, that I think will sound familiar to many people  – I feel like I know a good number of people, but I know them as friends, and I have difficulty converting that social relationship into a professional relationship that can help me land a job. I feel awkward asking them for help. I feel awkward about them using their network to help me. I feel like even if I sat them down for a chat, they might be willing to provide a shoulder to cry on, but not necessarily be willing to use their network for my benefit. The informational formula can help.


Visualize your network. Target the first-degree friends who can help you. Setup a 30 minute informational with your friend to discuss your career and ask for their advice and for their help. Now, everyone likes to be asked for advice – it makes them feel important, and makes them feel like you value their opinion. During the meeting (not afterward, because afterward it’ll be difficult to pin them down via email to get them to do this for you, and it’ll never happen), you discuss, and decide upon, who your friend is going to introduce you to, so you can do an informational with that person. You ask them to send the person a short email. One sentence hello. One sentence “Can I introduce you to Prasid, he wants to spend 30 minutes with you” and one sentence “Prasid currently studies/works at blank university, and is the President of blank organization.” This email has tremendous power. Your friend has credibility with this person that they’re introducing you to, and with this “warm hand-off” introduction, that credibility is transferred to you, making this second-degree contact much more willing to meet with you and help you. You’ve essentially now pushed-out beyond the fringes of your network into your extended network, to a person who can really help you, and put yourself in front of this person not as a desperate beggar in need of a job, but as an equal, a friend of a friend, who wants to learn. And it’s people – not knowledge or experience – that matter.


Put People First

I’ve been a complete failure at dating for many, many years. The only times I’ve been successful in converting random girl into girlfriend is when we get introduced to each other through a mutual friend. When that happens, I’m no longer “random guy standing next to Robert” – I’m now “Robert’s friend from college, who Robert says is a really smart marketer and blogger.” It’s the transitive property:  which you’ll remember from 9th grade Algebra. It works like this: I’m talking to the girl, I’m cool with Robert, Robert is cool with her, therefore I’m now cool with her. By making a good introduction between me and her, Robert has implicitly vouched for me, and I’m now “inside” rather than “outside,” which in her mind makes me “safe.”  This same mentality exists in the work world. Companies get thousands of resumes from random guys on the internet, but research shows that companies much prefer employee referrals – they find better people when they hire people they already know. In fact, most big companies today offer employee referral programs, so that the money Microsoft saves by hiring my friend whose good, rather than weeding-out a hundred resumes, they pay me as a $5000 referral bonus. That’s how much more we trust people we know.


How Informationals turn into Jobs

This may all sound very well for networking and researching, but how do informationals actually land you a job?

Eventually, and usually very quickly, one of these informationals will connect you to someone who has an open position. Eureka. By then you’ll have honed-in on your passion, found the exact niche and the exact role in the exact field that you are most interested in, and you’ll be able to talk knowledgeably about not just that area, but all the neighboring areas, from all those  informationals you did along the way.


If the person in front of you has a role open, then the informational interview changes – it becomes even more powerful. Now you’re in a casual conversation, without the pressure, where you can still share ideas and passions, and you can really figure out what the hiring manager is looking for in a job candidate, before an actual interview. If they like you in the informational, they’ll be sure to put you through a formal interview. And because you were introduced to them through someone they trust, they know “you’re good people.” You’re not just some random resume that came-in through a series of tubes, so they’re much more likely to take a chance on you.


A few years back I met the CEO of Flextronics, and one of the things that he pointed out is that most companies love getting employee referrals – most companies – based on organizational behavior research – have realized they get much better quality candidates through employee referrals than through weeding-through resumes submitted online and at job fairs.


Use Informationals to Prepare for that Job Interview

Think about jobs you’ve applied to in the past. You sit their with a 1-page job description and the company’s website, studying random facts and breaking the JD down and analyzing each sentence. Now compare that to having just done 30 minutes with the hiring manager –  you can ask them what they’re looking for and tailor your resume. You can get a feel for where you may fit well, and fit poorly, and try to compensate.  You can tailor your answers and follow-up quesitons to the job more effectively.


I once got a pitch from a marketing agency who said they employed a “surround” strategy for targeting the audience of the campaign. You should surround your target. Do multiple informationals for this open job. Meet with the hiring manager,  someone on the team, someone on a related team, someone who is a customer – who uses what this team creates. It shows you care. It gives you context. You can come to the formal interview with insight about the what the hiring manager really needs, that perhaps the hiring manager doesn’t even know, about what’s making his employees or customers happy, and what’s making them frustrated.


Ultimately, I believe that the informational interview formula can help you put a structure and set of goals around the meetings you might already be having with people who can help you. Furthermore, it can help give you a mechanism to “operationalize” your network, and turn social friendships into professional relationships. Finally, it can help shift the way you network, putting you in the drivers seat, so that you always go into a formal interview with insider-information and an inside-track.


6 thoughts on “A Tool for Job Hunters: The Informational Interview

  1. Pras beta…
    I know how you can make $5000 in an instant…REFER ME! hahahaha!

    I was just browsing through the internet and I found YOU and your blog! I am utterly proud of you! Now time to read what else you’ve wrote – I’m on the job search…

  2. Funny – I hadn’t heard of this term until just last week. It’s something I plan on doing over the next few months though. Tis a helpful post from the past :o)

  3. I like how you laid out the nuts and bolts of an informational, now I REALLY understand what I have to do and expect. Well written!

  4. This is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The interface is colorful, has more flair, and some cool features like ‘Mixview’ that let you quickly see related albums, songs, or other users related to what you’re listening to. Clicking on one of those will center on that item, and another set of “neighbors” will come into view, allowing you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” is also great fun, letting you find others with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist created based on an amalgamation of what all your friends are listening to, which is also enjoyable. Those concerned with privacy will be relieved to know you can prevent the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.

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