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How name-dropping can make interviews fail

No matter that Chicago is continually duking it out with Los Angeles for second place in the roster of largest U.S. cities. As a practical matter, Chicago's business community is finite.

In Milwaukee and throughout the Midwest, the small-world phenomenon holds even more true. It therefore follows that the technology business community is even smaller. People know one another. This is a blessing and a curse.

One of the inevitable outcomes of spending some years working in the Midwest technology arena is that you'll begin to know a lot of people who know one another.

This will happen so much so that you'll no longer be surprised when each new acquaintance has heard about you, knows half the people in your Palm Pilot and can plot a six-degrees path of connections between you and him or her and almost anyone else in the Midwest tech ecosystem. That's OK.

It's neither good nor bad (unless you're working on a secret project or have witnessed a Midwest mob killing and want to become invisible for a while. In that case, my advice would be to move out of town entirely to one of the perhaps three spots on the globe not already lousy with Cubs and Brewers fans. Tierra del Fuego comes to mind).
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For the rest of us, the connectedness of our tech world is mostly a good thing. It's easier to make new connections, hear late-breaking news and benefit in all sorts of ways when you're in the middle of a tight group. When you're job hunting, you'll be especially grateful to know people who know people and people who hear things.

In fact, it's easy to float through the Midwest tech fish bowl on the recommendations and referrals of all these wonderful people you've befriended over the years (moving in and out of companies on the sterling endorsements of your longtime cronies).

Because it's so cozy to be well networked, it's easy to fall into the trap of name-dropping to get where you're going (to get an interview, to impress a hiring manager or recruiter or to try and close the sale). For job seekers, it's about trying to get a job offer in a competitive hiring process.

I really hope you don't start this practice. It has serious downsides. Just look:
  1. Name-dropping is a way of saying: "My significance is proven by the lofty company I keep. Just look at these notable people who know me." It also says: "I couldn't impress you without tossing this or that press-worthy name into the conversation." It even says: "I am insecure."
  2. Used sparingly, dropping a name can show that you know something about the person you're approaching. If you know that Joe Olsen (the CEO of a promising Midwest tech start-up) likes to go fishing with Sally Smith (for whom you'd love to be working), you can mention to Sally that Joe sends his regards.

    Please don't add this: "You can ask Joe about me." Sure, go ahead and include Joe as a job reference.

    If you don't list Joe as a reference, you're only allowed to mention him in the "coincidence" vein of: "Wow. What a coincidence. I mentioned to Joe Olsen that I was meeting you and he said the bass are really biting this week in Lake Okauchee." Other than that, mentioning Joe is name-dropping and it's in bad taste.

  3. Name-dropping is lazy. It broadcasts that you'd rather tell your story by way of the people who know you than by explaining in patient detail how you'd bring value to your prospective employer.

    In your interview, you want to tell stories (stories that are relevant to the message you want to send). Spending time listing the people you know in common tells the story that you're all about your Rolodex and you're more concerned with flash than substance. That's never positive in a job candidate.

  4. Name-dropping is dangerous, too. You may have met Mr. Filipowski four times and be certain he'd remember you in a heartbeat. Well, you could be wrong.

    There's nothing more deflating for a hiring manager to ask someone about a promising candidate and be told: "I'm sorry. I don't remember him." It takes a lot to extend an offer after that kind of miscalculation. Is the extra half brownie point you may earn from invoking Flip's name worth the risk?

  5. Lastly, name-dropping suggests that you're a networking fanatic. It can send mixed signals to an employer. If you've been around forever, you'd be expected to know a lot of people. If you're on the younger side, an employer may wonder why you're so looped in. Are you always on the hunt for your next job?

    Employers like to bring people onto their teams who are somewhere between starry-eyed and world-weary. They like people who have some experience under their belts but are open to learning a lot, too. Signaling that you're Mr. or Ms. Tech Midwest might make an employer leery. An employer may wonder: If this person is on top of everything, is he going to bolt when his buddy's start-up gets funded next quarter?

While these reservations about tech name-dropping are all pretty good reasons to limit the practice, the fundamental reason not to do it is that name-dropping is lame. It's showy and it's in bad taste. I know your mom raised you better than that.

The next time you're tempted to drop a name with lots of status, why not say "tell me about yourself" instead?

You'll have a nice conversation and you'll impress the interviewer much more easily with your lovely conversational skills than you would have by throwing names at him. Besides, you want the interviewer to be left thinking "now there's a smart person" rather than "now there's someone who gets around," don't you?

Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at lizryan@worldwit.org. Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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