Unprofessionalism

I came across this article today about Tristan Walker, a Stanford business school student who got a job at Foursquare by sending a cold email to the cofounders of the company.

A few interesting things:

  • The idea of sending a cold email directly to the founders is brilliant. Obviously this strategy would be most successful with a smaller company, but there’s really no reason why you couldn’t do this with anyone. If you find someone you really want to work for, you probably already share some of the same thought patterns, values, sense of humor, etc. So it might not matter so much who you contact; if there’s a fit they may be able to detect it immediately and refer you to the right person. It’s worth a shot.
  • His dedication was amazing. He send 8 emails to the cofounders. Eight! I can’t imagine sending that many emails to someone without getting a response. I’d be too worried about annoying the other person, even when I have nothing to lose. To keep trying even after 7 emails got ignored is a serious lesson in persistence. When he finally did get a response, he made an appointment across the country the very next day.

But the most interesting part is this: The quality of Tristan’s writing is absolutely terrible, and apparently it didn’t matter. As one of the commenters pointed out, the original pitch uses grammar, syntax, and vocabulary typical of an 8th grader. He actually omits the apostrophe in “I’m” not once, but four times. Many other commenters are quick to note how unprofessional all of this is:

“If this is what it takes to get that kind of position, I’ll start writing “Im” for “I am” in all my emails!”

“This letter has lowered my opinion of Stanford immensely because it’s so poorly written. I can’t believe they’re turning out people who can’t write a decent sentence.”

“For someone asking for a job, I’m surprised he got hired with the letter he sent. Doesn’t seem very professional if he couldn’t even punctuate and capitalize words correctly??”

“To Who is COnserned; I want a big paycheck job and will work for you? Dearly, out of werk job seeking gragatate of once presteejus collage”

And so on. (OK, that last one is pretty funny.) But these people are missing the point completely. The people leaving disparaging comments are idiots who think they deserve a job just because they can use spell-check. They sound bitter and entitled. They’re looking for an excuse, for a reason to say, “Yeah, but that wouldn’t work for me….my situation is different…” As a result, they do not work at Foursquare.

But there’s something else going on here, something that has very little to do with the fact that he’s a Stanford guy. What they do not realize is this: People do not get jobs because they have an impeccable cover letters and  well-punctuated resumes. They get jobs because they prove themselves in meaningful ways. This guy got the interview because he made direct, candid, and persistent contact with the people who make the decisions. Spelling is irrelevant; he showed drive and that he had actual ideas. They knew he could write, because of his academic reputation, so he knew there was no need to show off in the email. Instead, he focussed on authenticity, personality, and excitement for the company. This bold decision made a stronger impression than any formal letter of inquiry could have. Strong communicators know that there’s more to communication than professionalism, and they know when it’s proper and effective to dial back the business-speak. When done right, a super-casual email like the one Tristan used can say, “Let’s just get stuff done. We’re both too busy to bother with technicalities.”

When I look back through emails I sent when I started working at my current job or from college, I’m amused by how overly formal I was. So many needless words, so few contractions. So many exclamation points. Now my emails are shorter and more to the point. Even when reaching out to new people, I find myself being more casual, and in a very natural way. I think it’s mostly a function of higher confidence; when you really know you can do the job and take care of what needs to be done, you feel less inclined to sound impressive. Not only does it make the other person feel more at-ease, but it paradoxically exudes higher competence. You can ditch the gimmick, the affectation of competence, because you know you actually have it.

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