2 years ago I was an attorney at a big law firm practicing antitrust law. Now, I am not. I work in business development at Foursquare and I love it (also, download the app or visit us on the web at foursquare.com – we’re building awesome products that’ll make you want to go out and explore the world around you!). I get a lot of emails, from lawyers and non-lawyers, asking me how I made that career transition. So I thought I’d put some of my thoughts down because I give some version of this chat 3 or 4 times a month. Hopefully it’s helpful.
Ok, so you don’t want the job you currently have. The question is, what job do you want? If you have a specific idea – if you know that you really want to work in business development at a SaaS company, in digital marketing for the NBA, or operations for a consumer tech company – that’s great and you’re well on your way to figuring things out. But, you might not have that laser focus yet. So figure out what you’re passionate about (cliche alert). For me, that meant spending a lot of time thinking about what I think about. I knew that I hated thinking about legal work – what I did find myself reading about or following on Twitter or chatting about with friends was news about tech companies. So I started there. After a little more digging I realized that business development at a tech company that touched on social networking was something that I really wanted to do.
Ok, so you’ve chosen a specific field but you have no idea what people actually do in that field. I made a huge mistake before going to law school – I didn’t talk to any big firm corporate lawyers about their lives. I had worked with suburban lawyers at small firms in Detroit and for the public defender in DC, but had zero idea what it meant to work at a big firm like Skadden Arps. I didn’t do any diligence on the matter and, surprise, didn’t have a great idea what I was in for until I had already committed to going to law school. This, to say the least, was dumb. So, don’t make the same mistake. Once you’ve narrowed down the field you want to work in start reaching out to people in that field. You want to find out what they do on a regular basis – you need to know exactly what their work day is like. At every interview, an interviewee asks “What’s your day-to-day like?” And it’s a bullshit question if you ask it like that – you have to be much more specific. Find out what they enjoy about their job. What they hate about their job. What they would change about the job. If they enjoy thinking about their work when they’re not at work. Don’t talk about things in the abstract – try to get down to the details.
Ok, so how do you do find these people to talk to? Make a list of companies that you’d like to work for and spend some time figuring out what job roles in those companies interest you and might be a good fit for your skills and background. Then hit your own network – do you know anyone who works at those companies? If so, great. Shoot them an email asking them to talk about the company. Ask them if they can introduce you to anyone that works in the specific role that you might want to pursue. Don’t know anyone at those companies? It’s not the end of the world. Google the job title and company name and you’ll see some names start to pop up. Look those people up on Twitter and LinkedIn. Start reading what they share on Twitter, pay attention to who they’re interacting with and responding to, follow who they follow (think like a stalker, but don’t actually become a stalker). Find people who blog about these types of jobs – there undoubtedly will be some. Be a sponge and start absorbing the vocabulary and cadences of the things that they’re focusing on.
That passive research itself might be enough for you to rule out this job as something you want to pursue. But if you still find yourself interested in the roles, you need to take it a step further and reach out to these folks to start building your network.
Ok, I hated the thought of networking. You need to get that bias out of your mind right now. Take it out of your brain and light it on fire. Networking is just talking to people. That’s it. It’s talking to them about their jobs and their interests and why you are interested in the same things. That should be easy once you figure out which form of networking works best for you. I, for example, absolutely hatd attending meetups and big gatherings and going up and introducing myself to people. I’m very awkward in those moments. I stumble through my name. I run out of things to say very quickly. I become very self conscious about what I choose to talk about. And when you’re trying to impress someone, when you’re trying to get them to help you, the pressure is even greater and it can become even more problematic. Luckily, I forced myself to get better at these things, but I still have to force myself to feel normal in those situations, which is not ideal. Maybe you don’t have these same issues, and if you don’t, then find meetups and industry events and get yourself to those.
But if you’re like me, it might be easier to launch your first networking assault from behind a keyboard. You’ve already taken the first steps – identifying your targets and learning more about them (wait, this is really starting to sound more like a post about stalking people). Now, you need to level up. Start communicating with them. If they have a blog, start commenting on the blog on a regular basis. If they’re on Twitter, start replying to some of the things that they’re saying. Tweet them links that they might be interested in. Start writing your own thoughts about this industry and share it with the world. If you don’t have experience in the field you’re looking into (which, you probably don’t because you’re switching careers) you need to build some social proof of your interest and curiosity. So, you’re killing two birds with one stone here. You’re starting to “meet” people and you’re also building your brand (oh my god, I can’t believe I just wrote that).
Alright, you’ve really done a great job at laying the ground work here. Now you need to make a big ask – to meet with the people that you’ve started to interact with online. The nice thing is that by this point, they might recognize your name. So feel confident about sending them an email – definitely reference some of the communications that you’ve had:
“Hey Bob, I’ve read a ton of your posts about the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem and actually commented on a few of them. I think . I’m making a little bit of a career transition and am super interested in working in this space – I’m obviously very curious about it. Any chance we could meet up for coffee and chat?”
Weird, right? But here’s the thing, people like talking about things that they’re interested in. The absolute worst outcomes here are that the person doesn’t write you back or says no. That is not the end of the world. There are many many many many other people that you can talk to. Also, here’s the thing about them not writing back. They a) might not have seen your email or b) might have seen it but just not have had time to reply. My advice? Keep writing until you get a yes or a no. Don’t be a creep or obnoxious about it, but absolutely do not shut yourself down just because you haven’t gotten a response. Space your salvos out. Be gentle about the reminders – “Hey, I know you’re super busy and that I’m asking for some of your time here, but I just wanted to resend and put this at the top of your inbox.” A/B test your emails, too. Figure out the best way to present yourself to people – it takes some practice. Figure out the best way to make an ask – try some that are aggressive (“Give me a job, I’m a great fit and I’m awesome!”) and some that are not (“I’m just looking for advice and really respect what you’ve written about the field”).
One great piece of advice I got about sending these cold emails is to take a look at what you’re giving vs. what you’re asking (thanks Eric and Christina!). What you’re giving is basically how you can help the person you’re emailing. This can be a helpful link you’ve included in the email. An idea about their company or a problem that they’re facing. A skill that you have that could actually help them out. Be proactive and ask if you can take on a project for them – get it done on nights and weekends. Or, be even more proactive, and hand them something they can use. What you’re asking is obvious. You’re asking for a job. Or for a cup of coffee. Or for a lunch (No, wait. Do not ask for a meal). Or you’re telling them why meeting them would help you. Actually highlight your asks in red and your gives in blue. The blue has to outweigh the red.
Send these emails out. Send lots of them. Don’t be bashful. Don’t think about success rates. Just sending the email out is a success – it really is. Or, think about success rates and realize that what you might think is a low conversion rate, is actually not that bad and that every conversion is a real opportunity. Plus, think about this from the recipient’s perspective. If they get an email from a total stranger – but that email is thoughtful, concise, and actually provides some value to them – they are not going to knock you for that. They might not get back to you right away, but they won’t look down on you for it. I sent lots of these emails. The ones early on were laughably bad. But some of them got responses. And they got better.
So, at some point you’ll get a response and you’ll meet with people. I don’t have a lot of advice here other than to be genuine. If you’ve done the things above, you should have a lot to talk about. You won’t come away from these meetings or coffees with a job (you will day dream about coming away from these meetings with a job, but the truth is that you probably won’t. The day dreams are fun though – so keep having them).
So, that’s it. You’ll probably need to repeat this process many times. Don’t be disheartened by that. You’ll meet a ton of interesting people and learn a ton of interesting things. You’ll get better at the process each and every time.
I think this process banks on three things: 1) People who like their jobs love talking about their jobs. 2) People are inherently willing to be helpful if you approach them the right way. 3) Do the work to approach people the right way.
This is a tough mental and emotional process. Going from being an attorney to working in BD at a tech company (which was my ultimate goal) took me 16 months. 16 months of self doubt, of wondering whether or not I was making the right decision, of wondering if I would ever get there. It was 16 months of selling myself and a lot of people didn’t want to buy. But don’t sweat that stuff, take things day by day. Talk openly and honestly about what you’re trying to do – use friends and family as an emotional support here. There were definitely times where I was depressed throughout this process – but I rebounded from that by getting small wins and by talking things out. It took a couple of steps to get me here and I was fortunate to have jobs while I was looking for a job that I wanted to turn into a career. It took 106 separate Gmail threads (and those are just the ones that are clearly labeled). It took dozens and dozens of blog posts. It took building relationships and being lucky (in the end, I got connected with the folks at Foursquare because my friend Will felt comfortable passing my name along).
If I thought about the process in the aggregate – about how long it would take – it would bother me. So I focused on getting one thing done every day. Write one blog post. Email one person. Read 5 interesting articles. I looked at all of those things as an accomplishment to keep things in perspective. If you ever get down you can email me, and I’ll send you some of my worst cold emails to make you feel better. Or I’ll actually try to be helpful.
So, that’s it. This is longer and more rambling than I expected it to be. But that’s sort of how this process is. You have some false starts and dead ends. You get close on some things and realize you don’t want others. You find that some people will be unhelpful but other incredibly generous people will put their credibility on the line because they believe in you. I really do believe that if you put in the work, you can get there. And shoot me a note if there’s anyway I can help.