Informational Interviews are Just Conversations
A few weeks back we had three alumni speak to our class. One of them mentioned being rather shy when it came to networking, but that she made a point of pushing herself past her comfort zone knowing the importance of relationships in business. While still a student, she set up several informational interviews with local people in the industry.
As I listened to her speak, I found myself agreeing with her about how going on informational interviews can be beneficial. For me at least, it’s always been one of those things that I thought was a good idea, that I knew I “should” do, but that I never actually followed through on…. at least until now.
If you’ve never been on an informational interview before you might wonder what to expect. You might also wonder about how to go about setting one up. Do I just approach a stranger and ask, “Can I interview you sometime?” It seems like it could be rather awkward.
I can assure you that it doesn’t need to be something formal. It can be a casual meeting, and while you naturally want to present yourself professionally, professional doesn’t have to mean formal.
How I Set Up an Informational Interview
I was looking for a part-time job, something that I could do to gain some real-world experience prior to graduating and found myself on the website of a local company with a broken link. They had a link to view available jobs that wasn’t working. I emailed the company through a generic email address posted on the website and received a response from someone thanking me for letting them know and promising to correct the issue.
Out of sheer curiosity, I then looked the person up who had responded to me. I read up on him both on LinkedIn and on their website. He had an entrepreneurial spirit and experience with land entitlement. Having an interest in development myself and limited experience with entitlements, I thought his background was rather interesting. So, I took a chance and sent him an email. I mentioned that I’m currently a graduate student studying real estate, that I’ve done some development work in the past, and that I have an interest in entitlement. I explained that I found his background interesting and asked if he would be open to sharing some of his experiences with me sometime. I never used the phrase “informational interview”. In fact, this is the exact email that I sent:
“My name is Mark Scarola and I'm a student at the University of San Diego studying real estate. I previously worked for a developer where I learned a bit about entitlement and capital raising. I'm currently trying to learn more about the process and whether or not it would be a viable and interesting career path. I noticed that you have quite a bit of experience in that area. In fact, much of your experience listed on your profile such as underwriting, funding, entitling, and developing is of particular interest to me. I was wondering if you're not too busy, if I could ask you a bit about your personal story and career path sometime.”
He replied with a simple “yes” and asked about my availability. Wanting to make it as easy on him as possible and also give him an option about where to meet, I offered to meet him at his office unless he would rather meet for coffee off-site. We settled on lunch and he chose a place near his office.
Not knowing how it would go, I wanted to be prepared. I jotted down a few questions and came with a padfolio. I read through my questions after parking at the restaurant and only planned to look at the list again if the conversation was slow. It wasn’t. He greeted me with a smile and asked about my own background. He wanted to first hear my story of how and why I decided to pursue a real estate degree. About fifteen minutes in, he asked where I wanted to “start”. In other words, he asked me what I wanted to know.
I referenced his background and asked how he got to where he is today. I then followed up on specific questions that would be more appropriate for someone in the real world than the academic world. One question I asked was about selecting cities. Every city is unique in what they want and how receptive they are to working with developers. I knew that it’s always easier to work with a city that you know. But to do so would inherently limit the number of cities and towns you can work with. You can’t be an expert in every community.
That led me to ask, “do you select a city, get to know the staff, the City’s General Plan and objectives, and then select a site to develop… or do you search for a deal and then start to make become familiar with whatever municipality it happens to be in?”
The response was that they search for the deal first. The reasoning behind this is that they, as the developer will hire an architect who knows the local zoning, a contractor who knows the regulations, a civil engineer who knows the planning and approval process, etc. They don’t have to personally be experts in every city that I assumed you would want to be. Your team should be your experts.
I also asked him about charettes. Charettes are community workshops where developers seek the input of citizens about a proposed project. They take the pulse of a community about a pending project, ask for feedback and concerns, and even open up the floor to ways to solve potential issues. A textbook I’ve been reading suggested that they can occur over the course of multiple days like an intense focus group with maybe a dozen people. I suspected that charettes might be more of an academic concept and not something really practiced in the real world.
It turns out that while the textbook may have presented an exaggerated version and the name charettes may not always be used, that community meetings happen all the time. These meetings may last for a few hours and can potentially attract hundreds of people. Still the goals are similar, regardless of the details, and the intention is to garner community support and discover what the specific concerns and interests of the neighbors may be.
After thanking him again for his time, he mentioned that they don’t currently have any openings. I cut him off assuring him that that wasn’t what I was after. “I know”, he replied. Still, he wanted to let me know that he would keep me in mind should something come up at his company in the future.
While I initially visited their website looking for a job, the meeting was strictly about gaining some real-world knowledge. I came away having learned something and for that I’m grateful. The fact that someone is now going to keep me in mind for potential employment is simply a bonus.
That being said, I think if I ever do formally apply to their company, that that lunch would likely be a better interview than most I’ve been on. It was very real. Neither of us was trying to impress the other. We were open about mistakes and I wasn’t afraid to admit that I didn’t know everything. He told me about having been laid off. I told him about trying to save a troubled project only to fall flat on my face due to my inexperience.
In that lunch, both of our true characters came across in a more genuine way than is often the case in an interview when you’re trying to make as positive an impression as you can.
If you’re considering an informational interview, my advice is that you let it happened naturally. Don’t force it, just to do it. Don’t reach out to a hundred different people hoping that one will say yes. Find someone that you’d genuinely like to talk to and reach out to them just to connect. Mention that you have some shared interests and ask them a single question. Gauge their receptivity. Some people are busy. Some people prefer to remain private. Be respectful of this.
When you find someone that is receptive and seems genuinely interested in sharing their experiences, then you can ask about setting up a time to talk further. Being respectful of their time, I would suggest giving them some options such as talking over the phone, a video chat, or in person. Offer to travel to them, to buy them coffee or lunch, etc. Make the experience as simple for them as possible and show your appreciation. Remember that they’re doing you a favor.