I used to be really afraid of referrals. I grew up in a small blue collar town in rural America and did not hear the term “networking” until I got to college. During my first job search I was especially anxious of making any asks as I didn’t feel confident in my skillset and I didn’t feel comfortable expecting people who hadn’t worked directly with me to help me get a job. I knew that getting referrals would help me as opposed to applying through the front door, but I didn’t think I knew enough people. However, I learned that referrals and networking are important and good things and you can be a good person and learn a lot by doing them! Here’s what I’ve learned about referrals:
What is the purpose of a referral?
- From the perspective of the recruiter: if you come in through a referral, it’s easier to sell you on the company and close you.
- From the persective of the employer: it means that someone “found” you and sold you on a company.
- It means someone likes you and thinks it would be cool if you worked at their company; they think you’d be a good culture fit.
What referrals are NOT:
- Not a technical endorsement of your skills
- Not a substitute for the interview process
- Not a guarrantee you’ll get an interview
For some companies a referral may guarrantee you a first round recruiter phone screen or at the very least a recruiter read your resume. But it’s not a guarrantee.
What referrals can get you:
- usually on average a faster response, even if it’s negative
- a separate funnel that may be prioritized from other hiring funnels
- recruiters and hiring managers may be more reluctant to dismiss your resume; at least they will consider it
- an opportunity for that initial interview
Who can refer you?
The following must both be true:
- (1) anyone who likes you
- (2) anyone who works at a tech company
It doesn’t matter if the person is someone you met at a tech event 6 months ago and they aren’t on the engineering team. If you hit it off with them and left a likeable impression and they work at a tech company, they can refer you. Remember that referrals are not a replacement for interviewing or an endorsement of technical aptitude.
How to find people to ask
If you have some contacts but not many: start with FB friends, first degree LinkedIn connections, members of interest groups (Slack/FB/etc), members of your college/bootcamp network, previous coworkers. They can be anyone who has had a generally positive impression of you in the past.
However, let’s consider the worst case scenario: say you literally know zero people. There are a couple of other strategies.
First strategy: make more friends! Reach out to folks at meetups. In San Francisco, there are so many different kinds of meetups that this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to tech related events. I would recommend going to events that make you the most likeable version of yourself; some topic you really dig whether it’s rock climbing or swing dancing. You’re going to find tech folks at the event.
Another strategy is to make use of friends of friends and second degree connections. This involves a bit more sophistication. I would recommend approaching second degree connections directly– do not go through the first degree contact. For example, on LinkedIn, if you try to go through the first degree contact you introduce another point of failure. You also cannot control the introduction (your 1st degree contact has to do the work of introducing you and you have no idea what they’re going to say). The person will be able see that it’s obvious you have a mutual connection if this is through LinkedIn. Additionally you can mention it in your introduction to them. You should also include a call to action. Which leads me to…
How to make the ask
For first degree connections:
- Use chat instead of email or LinkedIn to keep it casual, but email is okay too.
- Ask first, catch up later. Do not “warm them up”.
- Make it easy for them to say no.
- Have your resume, social media links, and blurb/cover letter in hand.
If they say yes (they don’t have to), you should:
- follow up
- keep them updated on your progress in the interview process
- reach out to them first if you get an offer and do not take it at their company; make sure they hear it from you
If they agreed to a referral and you don’t hear a response from a recruiter, I would wait up to a week before reaching out to them again. If you still don’t hear back from the recruiter I would reach back out to your referral and say something along the lines of “Hi, just want to let you know that it’s been a week and I haven’t heard from your recruiter yet. Is that the normal time frame or should I follow up with them?”. They might have forgotten to actually submit the referral and this is a good reminder without nagging them! You do not want to assume they didn’t submit it.
If you are reaching out to second degree connections I’d recommend the following:
- In your reach out, introduce yourself as someone interested in learning more about their company.
- Offer to buy them coffee or jump on a quick phone call.
- Do not ask for a referral before chatting.
It’s important you do not ask for a referral in your reach out because one of the two requirements of a referral is that they like you, and they have not been given a likeable impression of you yet!
I also really love asking for informational interviews even when I’m not actively interviewing because it lets you do really important information gathering that can be useful down the line. You can also think about what you can help them with; offer your knowledge and experiences so you can learn from each other.
It’s also an opportunity for you to ask about their experience and ask really good questions. You can impress someone a lot by asking good questions. One way to think about what questions to ask is to think about what your dream company is and what your “okay” company is. There should be a difference and the questions you ask should help you understand whether the potential referral is working at your dream company.
Referrals aren’t everything
Everyone has a different policy in their mind and it can be really easy to be nervous to make the ask. Don’t, it really doesn’t matter if they say no; different people may have different criteria. From the perspective of the person giving the referral they have nothing to lose; if you get the offer they get a referral bonus and another person they like working at their company. If you don’t get an offer they lose nothing because it’s not their responsibility to interview you.
It’s really important to consider referrals and be comfortable making those asks and reaching out for informational interviews as part of your career development. The best way to find your dream company and grow in your career is to engage in information gathering and meet other folks with different experiences. Some dream companies might highly stress referrals and may be your only way in the door.