Cultivate Those References

Software engineers tend to be practical people. They usually are focused on solving problems, both technical and business ones. Of course, this is a great thing, but not if it means neglecting the people aspects of your job.

One of these often-neglected people skills can be thought of as “cultivating your references.”

Anyone who’s changed jobs has probably experienced the new employer wanting to check references. Usually this is a pretty straightforward thing. You come up with a few people, often past managers, who know you and your work, check with them to make sure it’s OK and they’re willing, and pass along their info. Most of the time, this is something that’s put together at the last minute, when you know you’re getting an offer.

Sometimes, however, it’s not that easy. Maybe you’ve lost track of where someone works these days, and haven’t talked with them in a long time. Granted, it’s easier than ever to find someone using LinkedIn or Google, but sometimes you can’t find someone, or they’ve blocked InMails, and it’s difficult to reach them. Or maybe you didn’t leave a previous company on the best terms, but your new prospective employer wants to check your references from that company. You’re not sure what they’ll say.

Especially in the software development world, where things move very fast, and there’s lots of job changing, it’s best if you prepare ahead of time. Of course I suggest that you always have a current resume updated, and also I suggest that you always have a tentative reference list put together. Make sure that you have updated contact information (both email and phone) for people who you may wish to call upon for a reference.

If you or your manager leaves a company where you’ve worked together, it’s a good idea to speak with that other person at that time, and ask them if someday they might be willing to give you a good reference. How do they sound about the idea? Enthusiastic? Reluctant? Their reaction will give you a pretty good idea as to whether you might want to use them as a reference. Make sure to get their contact info and connect with them on LinkedIn.

It’s a good idea to stay in touch with these people, even if it’s only a quick update email or call every year or two. You want to keep yourself relatively fresh in their minds, because when the time comes to check references, there may be some time urgency or other constraint that requires you to pull things together quickly.

You might not want to use everyone on your list, but it’s good practice to have a master reference list always ready that contains a few past managers (naturally, you’ll want to pick the ones that you feel can best speak to your capabilities), a few peers. If you yourself have been a manager, you may also want to have a couple of subordinates. If you’re in some kind of software presales or postsales, perhaps a client or customer could also be helpful.