When I was 22 years old and fresh out of college, I would walk down the streets of Portland, Maine imagining what it would be like to do all of the jobs that I saw people doing in their daily lives. I hadn’t yet decided to join the software industry, so I literally felt like anything was an option. The tricky part, as I saw it, was figuring out how to GET any of those jobs without any experience in the field (once I decided what field it was going to be). I would look through the employment classifieds of the local newspaper, and even entry-level positions seemed to demand a certain amount of experience. It was clearly a Catch-22: you needed experience in order to get experience. I decided that there must be some way to get your foot in the door of a new career, and I was determined to figure out what that would be.
There was the additional question of figuring out what I actually wanted to be doing. At the time I had also been thinking a lot about real estate, since fulfilling my “basic human need” of shelter was high on the priority list. I wondered how someone became a property owner, and since I noticed that real estate agents were often “owner-brokers”, that avenue seemed to be worth exploring further. In a quest to get more information, I walked into a local real estate company, and I asked the receptionist if I could talk to someone who could tell me more about what the life of a real estate broker was really like.
Five minutes later, I was sitting in a conference room with the president of the company. I wasn’t looking for a job, remember, I was just looking to learn a little bit more about the world of being a real estate broker. I also wanted to learn more about this man’s personal story – why did he choose to go into real estate, and did he find it to be a fulfilling career? We talked for nearly an hour, mainly with my asking him questions about his own choices, goals, and values – and discovering how his real estate career matched up with who he was on a deeper level.
Towards the end of our interview (I was interviewing him) he asked me what I was doing for work. I mentioned the random things that I was doing at the time, and talked a little bit about my quest to find a career that felt right for me. Then he offered me a job.
You read that right – he offered me a job! And it wasn’t just any old job in the company, it was a job as his assistant, which would allow me to learn the business directly from him while I studied to get my real estate broker’s license. I gave the whole proposition some serious thought, but in the end turned down the offer – from our conversation it still wasn’t clear whether or not the real estate world was a place where I would have been happy, and the two-year-long commitment that they wanted from me was more than I was willing to sign up for at that time (which is funny, in retrospect, because now I realize just how short two years can be).
Flash forward a year, and this strategy was exactly how I ended up with a job in the software industry after having decided that was where I wanted to be. I asked people about THEIR path into the industry, what led them there, what they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it, what about it fulfilled their dreams – and soon there was another job offer on the table. And that was a job offer that I pounced on.
Perhaps you’ve read Wishcraft or What Color Is Your Parachute, where you’ve learned that one of the worst ways to find a job is through looking in the classified section of the newspaper. It can be downright discouraging, sending resume after resume, waiting for a response. And when you don’t have the conventional qualifications for a job, there’s almost no way that you’ll make the cut when the HR person does their resume-sifting. The best way to get hired, on the other hand, is through the people that you know. Or the people that they know.
The method that I’m suggesting assists you in a few ways.
First, you DO need more information about a job when you have no experience in that field. On what are you basing your decision to work in this new field? Do you have all the information that you need? Wouldn’t it be helpful to hear exactly what life in your chosen career is like from a person who lives that career every day?
Second, you are using your quest for more information to generate more contacts in the business in which you’re interested. And these are the contacts that matter – people in a company who are in a place to make a decision (ultimately) about whether or not someone new gets hired. If they like you (and they will, because you’re really cool – right?) then they will want to help you in some way. It might not be through offering you a job – in fact, it might simply be through advising you of other places to get even more information – or, even better, other people in the industry that you could interview (and tell them I sent you). Eventually, through the information you gather and the people you meet, you will uncover an employment opportunity (or you’ll decide that you don’t want to be in that industry after all).
Finally, through the informational interview, you have the opportunity to show off the one quality that you can leverage when you have no experience: your aptitude. Ask questions that matter, questions that get at the heart of why someone has chosen to follow the path that they’re on. When you talk to someone who’s successful, and especially when you get them talking about their hopes, dreams, and passion, they will feel really good being able to answer these kinds of questions for you. You will feel like you’re getting to know them, and, in a strange way, they will also feel like they are getting to know you better. In fact, most people are rarely asked those kinds of questions, and through asking you are finding a way to connect with people around the things that matter to them most. As long as you’re genuinely curious and respectful, you WILL make a good impression on them.
Sure, experience is important to someone who’s trying to build a successful team in their business. What’s even more important to them, however, is building a team of people whom they can trust, respect, and whose opinions they value. People with whom they actually can connect. People who seem bright and eager to learn. A human resources department does their best to find those people – sometimes they’re successful, and sometimes they’re not, because they generally filter out all kinds of people who don’t seem, on paper, to have the “right” qualifications. The qualities I just mentioned don’t easily come through on paper. Through using this process, you can go straight to the top (or close to it) and have the conversations that REALLY matter when it comes to getting hired. After all, experience is something you can acquire over time, once you’ve got your foot in the door.