I have been an IT professional for 30 years, spending the last 20 at one company before getting laid off. I’m now heading into the job market and find that I’m not very sure on the best approaches in getting informational interviews set up, the questions to ask, and follow-up tactics for getting to the next step—a formal job interview. Any advice would be appreciated.

Congratulations for having lasted several decades in a field that has transformed itself again and again. You must have a wealth of insight and experience to draw upon and to benefit any company or organization fortunate enough to hire you.

Finding the best contacts
Information interviews are a great way to meet people and to do research about a field or market segment. Reading and research will give you a lot of information, but to get the inside story, you need to talk with someone who has been working inside.

You also need someone who is willing to share what he or she has learned. That’s not always easy—for a variety of reasons. People are busy these days, often doing the work of two people. Executives are also used to people approaching them for jobs. Execs may even be leery that a competitor or a snooping upper-level manager is behind the request for the interview.

So, when you approach people for contacts to meet with and when you ask for interviews, make sure to say that you’re not looking for a job. You may have to repeat this statement several times before they believe you. And repeat it again when you start the interview to help put the person at ease.

To find people to interview, one good way is to search relevant trade show and conference speaker lists, which are often available via the event’s Web site. The site also typically lists contact information.

Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to talk with a president, VP, or CIO to get the information you want. First of all, they may also be too busy to have time to talk with you. When you write or call to ask for an interview, inquire if there’s another IT leader in the organization who could talk to you.

Trade associations and user groups can provide you with leads as well. Make sure you explain to these sources that you’re not selling anything or looking for a job. If they’re still reluctant to help, suggest that they forward your telephone or e-mail address to the appropriate person, and leave it up to the person to contact you. Most of the time, though, you’ll find these groups very helpful.

Listen, learn, and then write a thank-you note
Once you have the informational interview set up, realize that you’ll likely get 15 to 20 minutes at most, so be prepared with specific questions you’re looking to get answered. Always respect your interviewer’s time.

Research the company before you do the interview so you’re not asking general information questions about the company, its products, or its services. Have a list of questions ready before you start the interview. You may even want to send the questions to the person a few days before the interview so he or she can be better prepared. Discourage the interviewer from answering the questions in writing or via e-mail unless there is no other way to communicate.

Break the ice at the start of the talk by asking your interviewer about his or her career. People like to talk about themselves, so questions such as how they got the job, how they got into the field, how long they’ve worked there, or what they find rewarding will almost always provoke lively responses.

During the interview, listen courteously, and let the interviewer talk without interruption. The majority of your questions should be about whatever aspect of the job interests you the most. You may want to hear about the technology or about challenges of implementing the technology. Also feel free to ask broad questions about the industry, job demand, and any training or experience you might need.

When wrapping up the interview, ask for any names of people the interviewer might be able to suggest that you contact for more informational interviews. Always inquire if you can use the interviewer’s name when contacting these other people—and don’t mention the interviewer’s name without explicit permission in advance.

Send your interviewer a handwritten thank-you note within a day or two of the interview. Mention some specific detail of your conversation or a comment he or she made to add a special touch to your thank-you note. This not only indicates professionalism, but it will help keep your name and skill set fresh in your interviewer’s mind when job opportunities do come up.

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