The Monster Guide to Get Your First Interview — Without Cold Messaging on LinkedIn

by | Jan 27, 2020 | General Information, Internships | 0 comments

 

Getting interviews is like throwing darts at a board without experience. The more you throw, the higher the probability of it hitting the bulls eye. I’ve heard that analogy come up in more conversations than I care to remember. The strategies below won’t make you a dart throwing aficionado overnight, no sire. But, they will help bring the target closer to you.

 

 

Let’s get to (b) Low bias, high variance from © High bias, high variance. Excuse the bad pun, math nerds.

 

If I were to oversimplify the process of getting the first interview, it involves the following:

  1. Finding the companies to apply to
  2. Networking and getting referrals
  3. Putting your best on the application

 

In this article, I will focus primarily on the second part — networking and getting referrals from strangers. Before I begin, I’d like to thank the over 50 people who responded to this survey and the ~10 who were kind enough to have a call with me to talk in more detail. This article has a crazy amount of strategies and resources, and it’s not meant to be digested in one sitting (like a slow roasted lamb). Use the ones that are relevant for you, and I hope you land your dream job! Sooo, let’s dive in, shall we?

 

 

Note: If you have feedback on resources or strategies I can add to the article, please reach out to me on LinkedIn or email [email protected]. I will keep updating this. Also, if you become a fan of my writing (girl’s gotta hope), here is my newsletter where I share (good) content on products, articles, books, and more. I’m a Product Manager at Salesforce and a writer of over 100 articles.

Table of Contents

STAGE I: FINDING COMPANIES
Big Fishes
Startups and SMEs

STAGE II: NETWORKING AND REFERRALS
2.1. Finding People Online
2.1.1. Using LinkedIn Effectively
2.1.2. Using Other Medium

2.2. Finding People In-Person
2.2.1. Networking Events
2.2.2. Hackathons
2.2.3. Volunteering
2.2.4. Community Gatherings
2.2.5. Hustling

2.3. Making a Good First Impression
2.3.1. Meeting People Online
2.3.2. Meeting People In-Person

2.4. Maintaining Connections

STAGE III: SUBMITTING APPLICATION
3.1. Perfecting Resume
3.2. Perfecting Cover Letter
3.3. Submitting Application

STAGE IV: EPILOGUE aka DON’T SKIP

Side Note: Sorry folks, seems like there’s no easy way to create a ToC with links. So you have to scroll through to navigate.

 

STAGE I: FINDING COMPANIES

This might be the easier of the three steps, but by itself, it still requires hard-work. Let’s break down the companies into three tiers: big fishes, medium sized players, and fledgling startups. There’s no need to write down the big fishes here. You can know the top 20, or even the top 100 by looking at various sources: Fortune 500 (top companies by revenue) or Statista 100 (top companies by market cap). But, what about the other two categories?

Startups and SMEs: 

Things begin to get fuzzy when you enter the other two categories. Specifically, if you’re just coming out of college and don’t have a strict niche yet, there’s too much to explore. Applying to any job that pops up on your LinkedIn feed while watching The Office on Netflix might look attractive because of its monotony, but you have to remember this: you are recruiting the company as much as the company is recruiting you. You will end up spending 30–50% of your life there, how can it be anything less than absolutely extraordinary?

 

 

For the medium and small players, you can use the following ways to find the top ones:

a) Companies built to find companies: Example? Crunchbase. Chances are you know this one already. But, do you use it proactively to filter out places to apply to? Although it offers limited functionality, it’s enough to kick-start your search by filtering on domain/niche, funding stage, number of employees, region, etc. If you’re reaaaally motivated, you can look at expensive but better solutions: CB Insights, DataFox, PivCo, etc. Most of them offer a free trial, which can be leveraged as well.

 

 

b) Portfolios of Venture Capitalists: Venture Capitalists have done the heavy lifting for you. They have combed through the thousands of startups out there to choose the crème de la crème. For example, you can look at companies in their Seed stage, Growth stage, and Exit stage under a16z’s portfolio. Some other portfolios to look at: Accel, Index Ventures (they call their portfolio relationships), Benchmark (they haven’t listed on their website), Sequoia Capital, and more.

Side Note: VCs also tend to generally focus on a certain type of companies. For example, Generation Investment Management invests only in sustainable companies.

 

CBInsights Report 2020 Tech IPO Pipeline

 

c) Crowdsourced data: Websites like the Breakout List are an excellent way to be updated on companies that are on the verge of their breakout trajectory, growing aggressively. Here is another Top 200 list by Wealthfront. For small scale start-ups, you can look at Makehub and ProductHunt.

Side Note: Want to find companies that care about the same values as you do? Check this out.

 

 

d) Startup Accelerators: Similar to the portfolio of VCs, this is a precursor to that step in finding the companies that already went through a thorough vetting process. Some of the top accelerators include YCombinator, TechStars, and 500 Startups (although they have their differences). Here is a more exhaustive list. Look at the list of startups that took off from these launchpads and obtained funding.

 

 

e) Finally, recruiting firms/portals: For those still in college, Handshake is a huge win. Recently, they opened up the portal to all students who have a .edu email address, irrespective of their University’s partnership with the company. While Handshake is specific to Colleges, recruiting sites such as Angellist and Indeed are open to everyone. And there’s more out there.

Personally, I did not use most of the above techniques to find companies, which is why I hope you do (please). I stuck to looking at job openings on LinkedIn and my University’s career portal. Those are definitely the easier of the options where all you have to do is fill out an application. While it’s imperative to do that due diligence, using the above methods will impart knowledge of the companies changing the world today and let you choose the company as much as they choose you.

 

STAGE II: GETTING REFERRALS

Don’t get me wrong. I got most, if not all, of my referrals by cold-messaging strangers who were generous. However, the return on investment is so low that you need to resort to other techniques that don’t involve seeing the following message (sigh).

Thanks for ruining my Sunday, LinkedIn

 

The following methods were assimilated by talking to Product Managers, Engineers, and many others from various tiers of companies: the big fishes, medium sized players, and fledgeling startups.

Getting a recommendation involves two steps: a) finding the person to reach out to (both online and in-person) and b) making a good first impression. Simple.

Er…

Not so much. Maybe the following will help?

 

2.1. Finding People Online

 

2.1.1. Using LinkedIn Effectively

But she just said not to use LinkedIn… Before I lose you, let me clarify. The word effectively carries weight. LinkedIn has noise, but is still the primary forum to make professional connections because that’s where all the people are.

So it’s on us to search effectively. There are two ways you can target your search, that I know of.

a) Searching via Companies: The first way is what most people use, but I’ll suggest a slight modification to make it easier. Instead of applying filters on a search yourself, search for a specific company and click on it to go to the People page.

 

 

Let me use Salesforce as an example. In here, you can begin applying filters on people. Let’s say I want to find someone who lives in the U.S., is currently a product manager, graduated from Columbia University, and majored in Geophysics.

 

 

BOOM.

I could have done this via normal search as well. If I knew this is what I wanted. What if you want to see the distribution of employees at a company who graduated from your University and works as Engineers? This page will give you aaall the statistics needed.

b) Searching via Content: Secondly, use the Content option while searching to find people who want you —a.k.a people who are actively hiring. Click on Content and type in keywords into the search bar: ‘hiring product managers’, ‘amazon hiring’, etc.

 

Hmm.. location seems like an issue though. 

 

While you need a Premium subscription to unlock the potential of this option (free users cannot use the filters), even a simple keyword search will show posts filled with employers looking to hire. This way, you get to narrow down the people to reach out to.

Apart from the above, one can leverage the one month premium trial on LinkedIn when recruiting season is at its peak. This article gives you an introduction to the features you can unlock with premium. In simple terms,

 — Use the advanced filters to hone in even more on the points above

 — Reach out to top executives via the five free InMails

 — Monitor who is looking at your profile and look for recruiters

Let’s shift gears.

 

2.1.2 Using Other Medium

Yes, I know it’s hard to believe but there are other mediums out there. The umpteenth problem with cold-messaging on LinkedIn? Apart from getting stuck in the noise, there is a mismatch of intentions. That Product Manager from Google you reached out to probably gets ten requests a day, but she uses LinkedIn only to keep herself updated on the latest news and the people she follows. However, if you reach out to her on Lean In or Elpha, she will respond quicker and with more fervor. Why? Simply because she is on those platforms to seek help and help people like you.

Make use of small communities where interactions are more organic and asking for help is encouraged. Listing down a few resources below (If you know more resources, please let me know and I will keep updating):

a) Facebook Groups: Women in Product, Mentors and Mentees, Millionaire Mindset (for entrepreneurs), UI and UX Designers are some examples. What I’ve realized is that Facebook is great for specific groups, but almost useless for generic ones. I’m part of a group that’s focused on Solutions Journalism from which I derive more use than a group like Tech Jobs which lists all possible job openings without telling me what to expect. So ask around and use keywords to find the group and vet it — look at posts per day, quality of posts, interaction level — before you join.

b) Slack Groups: Women in Product, Product School, Mind the Product, Hashtag Developers, DataQuest for Data Scientists, Women in Tech, iOS Developers, and so much more. Whatever be your profession of interest, there’s a Slack group out there. The differentiating factor here is the concept of #channels in Slack which you can leverage to tailor your question. Most groups tend to have an #intros or #career or #advice channel.

c) Online Communities: I got to know about this Hackernews page that’s catered towards hiring recently. Although it doesn’t offer filtering functionality (which I believe is intentional), you can search via keywords. For the women out there, Elpha is an upcoming professional networking site that I’ve personally found to be very useful. You can reach out to anyone on the platform personally, and get a curated list of opportunities to apply to weekly.

Side Note: This is a hail mary, but you can also use Blind to get referrals from strangers by sending them your profile.  

 

Sending out resume like…

2.2. Finding People In-Person

So far, we’ve been sitting behind a screen and using the virtue of internet and the World Wide Web to build connections. It’s important to not forget the old school way: get off your ass and go out to meet people. Hey, I’m an introvert (too). I know it’s hard and uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. I’m listing down a few techniques based on the feedback I’ve received below:

2.2.1. Good ol’ Networking Events

 

 

You’re bored already, I know. Networking events might sound like a cliché, but the value you reap out of them depends on how you approach them (more on this in Section 2.3). If you’re still in school, make sure to keep track of the networking events that happen there through your all-encompassing portal. It’s tempting to attend all of them, but restrict yourself to one per week, unless it’s something crucial. If you’re out of school, focus on workshops and events that happen in your locality by looking them up on Facebook Events, Meetup, Eventbrite and the likes.

“The important part is to put yourself out there and be explicit about your need. I got my summer internship by approaching this Professor I knew from Harvard when I saw him at a store.” — Summer Intern, Harvard University

Side Note: I mentioned the above because, while it has become a cliché, it’s still important to put yourself out there in big crowds and sweat through your shirt. However, the better strategy would be one of the following points.

2.2.2. Hackathons

OpenAI Hackathon

 

Personally, I haven’t been to one. I’ll be honest. Twice, I signed up but the event itself got canceled in the end… sigh, I KNOW. But this is a brilliant strategy to look for jobs, especially if the hackathon is sponsored by a company you’re hoping to enter. Why? a) you will get to interact with employees from the company who are there to assist, b) you will get to work with the company’s technology, and c) you will build something useful (hopefully)

Major League Hacking has a list of most of the upcoming hackathons, if not all (this site’s for 2019 though). Apart from that, you can also hunt for company hosted ones, such as Google’s or Microsoft’s OpenHack. And hey, if you want to first understand what this whole Hackathon business is about, check out this guide (Lord knows I did).

“Go to hackathons and work with the engineers from the companies who are there to help you with the company’s tech. Great way to get a work sample in front of engineers who you could potentially end up interning for in the summer. True story of how I landed my first internship.” — Afreen, Software Engineer, Microsoft

2.2.3. Volunteering

This might sound strange, but after speaking to two people who found their job through volunteering opportunities, it made perfect sense. Two of the many reasons why networking events have low ROI is because of the limited contact time and mismatch of intentions. Buuut, when you volunteer, you are working for a reasonably long time with your partner towards a shared goal.

Wait. Don’t take this advice the wrong way and volunteer for causes you don’t give a damn about. You are still spending your time and effort, so doing it for something you care about should be the first priority. Think about the venn diagram of places where I can meet tech employees and places where I’d like to spend time. To start off, check out some of these organizations to volunteer for: FIRST (Robotics community), Code for America, Women Who Code, Chi Hack Night.

“I think meeting people physically helped a lot. I volunteer a lot in Seattle, and a lot of engineers use their volunteer match hours for those programs. In fact, I met Amazon’s VP of APAC expansion — the guy Bezos sent to India to start Amazon.” — Mayank, Software Engineer, Convoy

2.2.4. (Niche-specific) Community Gatherings

This builds on top of the idea above of spending quality time with people with shared intention. A community gathering can be one of the following: a local meeting to discuss a topic of interest, an intimate speaker session with < 20 people, or a combination of both. Focus on finding these sessions in your community as opposed to traditional networking.

Before I move on, I’m sorry, folks. I’m a Product Manager at the end of the day, so I’m going to specify some niche resources here: Product School, Mind the Product, City specific organizations like the ones in Boston and Silicon Valley. To give you other examples, I’ve gone for meetups for writers and for tech enthusiasts in general. If you cannot find something in your niche (which, let’s be honest, is pretty rare in this age, what with all the Facebook Events, Meetup, Eventbrite, and other apps..), think of creating one yourself.

Side Note.: I created a ‘Get sh*# done on weekends’ for fun, and people actually showed up. One guy thought it was a hackathon though… oh well. 

“I often attended free Product School events in Boston where I would actively engage with the speaker through the talk, which made them remember me. After the talk, I would thank the speaker and explain my situation, which led to calls later on. The more I did this, the more refined my questions got, and the more valuable the answers I received.” —Harish, Product Manager, ROI Hunter

2.2.5 Hustling a.k.a The Costly Signaling Theory

YES, hustling! Have you heard of the Costly Signaling Theory yet? No? Okay. Here’s the crux of that article. If you can write a heart-warming birthday card instead of sending a ‘HBD’ text (ugh), do that. If you can ask someone out face-to-face than on Tinder (ouch), do that. If you can afford to go to a new strange city (read: tech-hub), couchsurf out of an apartment, work out of a co-working space and meet potential recruiters in person over cold-messaging on LinkedIn, do that!

Marketing Examples

The meaning and significance we attach to something is felt in direct proportion to the expense with which it is communicated — Rory Sutherland

Hustling doesn’t have to be confined to the definition above (but if you can do that, hey, go for it!). It can literally mean anything into which you put your heart and soul. Let me give you some real-life examples I’ve heard of:

  • Creating a one-pager feature pitch with a crazy idea (or another cool project) and sending it to current employees and posting on online forums (check out this cool example of a pitch for Spotify). 
  • Creating a video pitch where you tell them why you’re awesome and why they’re awesome and why you both should be awesome together (look at this example where this guy almost asked the ‘Will you …’ question)
  • …and finally, the testimonial below.

“I traveled to a new city and hustled. I worked out of shared co-spaces and introduced myself to the people there. In fact, I got an interview by doing that, and I work at that company now. I would recommend students not in prime areas of tech to move to a major city, find inexpensive housing, and apply from there. Also makes it easier to attend conferences/events.” — Sreenivasan, Software Engineer, Fathom

2.3. Making a Good First Impression

So far, we’ve looked at ways to find companies and people. Now comes the sweaty part: how to make a good first impression? 

2.3.1. Meeting People In-Person

 

Thankfully, you don’t have to stick to the ‘how was your day?’ mood-killers anymore. This completely audacious guide to breaking the ice might help you. Let me pick some strategies from the guide and write them here:

  • Ask a close-ended question: “Sorry to interrupt. Over the last few weeks, I have been asking everyone I meet their opinion regarding this one question…”

 — “Why was your best boss the best?”

 — “What one quality is mandatory to be an effective leader?”

 — “If you could take the stage tomorrow and give a talk about anything you wanted, what topic would you choose?”

“I really enjoyed speaking with you. I only have one more question: my name is Michael. What’s yours?” — From the guide

  • Be interested to be interesting: For the few minutes when you’re talking to the other person, try to forget your agenda and focus on their words. And when you hear the words ‘What do you think?’, interact back with them with equal vigor. TL;DR: Don’t be a wall.

I would recommend reading the guide to see some real-life examples mentioned by Michael.

2.3.2. Meeting People Online

This is somehow harder. Not the reaching out part, but the standing out part. It is frustrating to see the number of messages where someone asks me an open-ended question: ‘what is product management?’, ‘is it easy to get into Columbia?’, ‘how do I start writing?’ It might have taken the other person a few seconds to send that. But, in return, they expect an answer that might take me upwards of an hour.

Let’s establish this.

We cannot expect to receive a well thought-out response from someone to whom we did not ask a well thought-out question.

Side Note: In fact, I wrote an article on asking questions effectively that might help. 

 

a) Being Specific 

This is building on top of what is mentioned above: don’t try to boil the ocean with your question. Every time you send out a message to someone else, ask yourself how you would respond if someone sent that to you on a topic you were familiar with? Even if you feel it is well thought-out, err on the side of caution and be ruthlessly specific.

— “I have been writing articles for a year on Medium but want to build a website of my own. I looked at yours and really liked it (shameless plug), can you tell me what tools you used to build it?”  

— “I have been reading about the culture at Salesforce for the past week and it sounds wonderful. I can deeply resonate with the emphasis you place on volunteering. What do you, personally, feel has kept you at the company for a year?” 

“As a marketer, I’ve always been able to ‘network’ banking on the brand or product that I’m representing. However, as a student I clearly miss the boat every time. What is a strategy you followed to get yourself out there to land interviews or phone screens for PM roles?”

— “I’m an aspiring product manager, and just finished reading Decode and Conquer and The Lean Product Playbook. Great reads! What, apart from books, was most useful in securing your job?” 

“I don’t come from a CS background. In a technical interview for example, although I can explain technology at the high-level architecture level, I may not be able to dive deep into the nitty-gritty. Will that pose a problem when interviewing for PM jobs?”

Side Note: See how every question begin with the person having done some background research or giving context. Show them why this is important for you.

 

b) Being Respectful 

This is crucial. 

Money is not our greatest asset. Time is.

 — DO NOT send a hoard of ten questions and expect a response. Limit it to three.

 — DO NOT message people on holidays. They probably won’t get back anytime soon.

 — DO NOT send follow-ups within the same week. I’m all for persistence — and think it is incredibly useful — but it might come across as desperate, or worse, disrespectful.

 — DO thank them in advance for taking the time to read your message.

 — DO tell them you will pass on this gratitude to people who approach you (and do it).

I think this point is pretty self-explanatory. So I’ll leave it at that. It is essentially this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

 

c) Show Value Proposition

This is not a necessity, but could add a lot of value. Make your interaction a two-way street by providing them some value occasionally.

This can manifest itself in multiple ways.

 — Tell them about an article you read recently that might be of use to them.

 — Inform them of an event that is happening in their neighborhood or something they would be interested in.

 — Mention someone in your network that you believe would be a good addition to theirs.

This cannot be a one-off solution. It needs to stem from your heart. Sharing knowledge and adding value to others has to be something that you fundamentally believe in.

Side Note: You can also do this with start-ups, by the way. Leverage the chat option on their website to give them feedback on their product, and when they get back, start a conversation. True story of how I wrote this article.

Wrapping it all up…

A message I received recently

 

The above is a good example that practices the three measures! They did some background reading, asked specific questions, and were respectful of my time. You might be thinking.. uhh okay but where is the value proposition? 

It’s a subtle one.

The value proposition is in giving me an opportunity to help out a fellow writer. This entirely depends on your perspective and what you find valuable.

Ultimately, it’s a hit and miss game. Some people are naturally more generous and believe in giving back than others. How to identify those people is a question that I’m myself finding the answer to. So keep reaching out and follow the above practices when you can.

 

2.4. Maintaining Connections

If we spend half the time trying to maintain connections as we do trying to make them, our network will go a long way in terms of quality and quantity.

I went back to look at the list of contacts I had made during my time at Columbia University. I have over a hundred on my list. However, I keep in touch with less than five of the people there. Why? Simple.

Noise.

We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge. — John Naisbitt

Here’s one way I learnt recently to keep a connection alive: Create a list of mentors you would like to be in touch with, and place them in different categories: one week, one month, three months, > three months. What do these categories mean? The frequency at which you should contact them.

 

Example of my dashboard: Last Spoke column is crucial.

 

Ideally, the one week frequency should be your immediate mentor cum co-worker in your office, one month frequency should be people who you would like to be an active part of your career growth, and three months and greater should be people who are not easily available and hence would appreciate when you respect their time.

Set reminders so you follow up properly with people in each of those categories. This list would be ever-evolving: so try to keep the list small, but the connection rich.

 

STAGE III: SUBMITTING APPLICATION

Phew, alright. We have made it till here. Are you exhausted yet? I sure am.

Just a minute or more people.

 

3.1. Perfecting Resume

I used to create my Resumes on Overleaf when I was in my undergrad. Specifically, I used Deedy’s format. While this Resume format is still clean and visually pleasing, I switched to a one column format in grad school as I heard those were more common for product managers (could be just hearsay).

A few ways to perfect your Resume,

 — Get feedback from your network but don’t try to incorporate it all. Listen to everyone, but filter out using your own intuition.

 — Get feedback online by posting in forums like Reddit, Women in Product, and all the other channels I have mentioned in Section 2.1.2.

 — Learn keywords specific in your niche and use them. E.g. I use keywords like wireframe, usability testing, user research, etc in mine.

 — Use action oriented words (think spearheaded, lead, built), limit each experience to three to six bullet points, limit each point to one sentence.

3.2. Perfecting Cover Letter

People ask if this is even required while applying, given how most companies make this field optional. I say write it for your sake more than theirs, at least for the top five to ten places.

What’s the vision with this?

  1. Cover letter is to get them to read your resume
  2. Resume is to get the interview
  3. Interview is to get the job

With that in mind, bring out the human aspects of the numbers on your resume in your cover letter. For e.g., one of my Resume points read, ‘Founded the chapter of AIESEC at NIT Trichy and led ~30 students.’ Great, but this doesn’t tell the recruiter anything about the dozen successes and more failures that were encoded in time along the way. It doesn’t tell them that I learnt to be more empathetic and learnt all the untold secrets to making an event a success. That’s where a cover letter swoops in to save your memories!

A good cover letter should begin with a clear statement on your intention: which role are you looking for? what’s your past experience? how does it tie in? It should follow with giving them instances where you portrayed the skills which are a requirement for the job at various points in life. Tell them why you frikkin love the role, and think you’re right for it. End it with a few intimate sentences about the company itself, and how its ideals map to some of yours. This is an interesting and atypical format for a cover letter that you can follow.

In the end, after you’e done going through articles and samples online, use your best judgement.

Side Note: If you’re a student, please make use of the career center at your University to give you feedback on your Resume and Cover Letter. 

3.3. Submitting Application

 

 

 

Don’t overthink this process. Just hit that button! I’ve spent many hours trying to perfect every section of an application. Like they say in the world of product management, done is better than perfect. 

For the engineers out there, TripleByte is a great, free way to kill two or more birds with one stone (Disclaimer: It’s a metaphor. Not promoting animal cruelty). You sign up on their site, interview with them, and get a score and a certificate. After this, you get to filter out companies and skip the first few interviews to directly go on-site.

No resume checks. No referrals needed. Nada.

It does sound too good to be true, but it’s legit. However, only for engineers (pfft).

STAGE IV: EPILOGUE aka DON’T SKIP

Okay.

WE ARE DONE!!!

 

Now… what?

Now, you are supposed to actually put these strategies into practice. That’s the hard part. But I know you can do it! Why? Because you just finished reading a 23 minute article my friend. I know this is an overload of information, so humbly request that you do the following (pretty please):

  • Bookmark or save this article so you can come back later to it. 🔖
  • Share this with a friend who can also reap value. In fact, if you share this on LinkedIn and tag me, I will send you the link to a Google Hangouts group session where I will answer all your questions (along with a guest). 🤓
  • If you have more tips or strategies, email me at [email protected] or message me on LinkedIn. 📧

Don’t leave just yet.

For the Product Managers reading this, I wrote another equally exhaustive guide on preparing for the interview.

 

For those seeking internships, I wrote a guide on the ten step process you can go through (you must think this is all I do) back in April, 2018.

When the time comes, pass on the gratitude you receive to those who come after you.

References:

[1] An exhaustive list of strategies put together by a friend

[2] The Completely Audacious Guide to Meeting People

[3] An example Product Pitch

[4] Sample Resume Format 1

[5] Sample Resume Format 2 (mine)

[5] Sample Cover Letter

[6] Undocumented Formatting Ticks to Writing A Medium Article (lord knows I needed this for the ToC)

[7] My mind I guess