How To Get A Reference

Getting References

A good network is helpful for finding out about available jobs, but it can do a lot more for you. One of the most critical things your network should do is provide you with references.

At some point in the hiring process, companies will check your references to determine whether they want to work with you. This often happens even if you are just doing contract work with them. Previous employers often give very limited references due to liability concerns, with many of them simply confirming that you worked with them and when you were there. Obviously, if you can get better references, that makes the rest of the interview process much easier. Good references help you stand out from the crowd, and you should be trying to cultivate as many as you can.

You should begin reaching out to previous coworkers, as well as people that you have helped through user groups and open source projects. However, unless you know the person really well and have remained in contact, it might not be the best time to ask for a reference. Instead, it’s often better to ask them if they know anyone that is hiring developers. Not only will this give you good information about open positions, but many people will offer to write you a reference if required. If they don’t openly offer to write your recommendation, you should ask if they can introduce you to anyone at the company. Because they offered the introduction, the company is likely to contact them for a reference anyway.

In addition, you should also be writing references for other people. Your career lives within a larger ecosystem that includes the careers of the people in your network. The better off your network is, the better off you are. That doesn’t mean you should be writing references looking for a reward, but rather that you should be looking out for your network. You’ll find over a long career that many of the same people show up over and over again. Sometimes you write references for them; sometimes they write references for you. I have a friend that hired me at one job, and I recommended him for another job a few years later. Next, he wrote a reference for me for another job. Two contracts later, I wrote one for him and he joined my team. Unless you are truly in a huge tech market, this will probably happen for you at some point as well.

Additionally, it’s valuable to write references for others because it makes you more aware of what constitutes a good reference, what you want people to say when writing a reference for you, and how to clearly express these things. Not only does it make glowing references better, but it gives you a good idea of what you should be doing to get better references at your next job.

When writing references for others (or asking for them for yourself), there are a few things that need to be present:

  • You need to express how long you’ve known the person and in what capacity. This makes your reference more credible.
  • You need to keep it positive. Nearly everything can be spun in a positive light. For instance, I’ve worked with good developers who were argumentative. In a reference letter, you either should not mention that, not write the letter at all, or turn it into a positive. While the argumentative types can be a pain to work with sometimes, they also force you to keep things honest, especially if they know how to argue well without making it personal.
  • You also want to make sure that the reference letter is targeted toward the kind of job they are currently pursuing. For instance, if you knew the person as a junior developer, but they are now moving into the role of a database administrator, you need to shape the content of your letter in a way that helps them get that job, instead of another junior developer role.

Recommendation letters and other forms of endorsement are not hard to write, but you need to practice doing so in order to do them well. This practice is critical, not only for helping your network to find better jobs but also to learn what kinds of things you should be looking for when others are writing recommendations for you.

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