[NOTE 1: March 8, 2011: This started out as a Facebook note with friends. There was such a great response/conversation, that I decided to turn it into a blog post.
[NOTE 2: Originally posted March 8, 2011. Updated July 19, 2011, January 7, 2012, October 18, 2013, January 16, 2014, February 15, 2015, April 21, 2015, December 23, 2016.]
[NOTE 3: Reformatted December 23, 2016. Sorry about the bullets below but for some strange reason, the paragraph formatting got lost after a recent redesign and port. Gotta fix that when I have time.]
I cannot tell you how many times in the last several years [Note 4: since 2009-ish] I’ve been asked to volunteer (that is, work for free) to do things that I get paid to do as a professional consultant. This includes speaking, presenting, organizing, organizing speakers, organizing presenters, planning, brainstorming, teaching, pulling meetings together, posting, tweeting, sharing resources information, finding web designers, assessing websites, making introductions, making referrals, answering questions that simply fall into the “tech” category, and otherwise connecting people.
Honestly, when I’m asked to volunteer or “let’s have lunch while I pick your brain,” my first gut response is that I’m flattered. [Note 5: Ok, that was in 2011 but no longer.] But, considering that I don’t have a full time salary (or any “free” time) I’m limited as to how much I want to volunteer in my “free” time, and how much I want to give up my “free” time for something that’s not a high priority for me. The line between professional, volunteer, and personal time is completely blurry. Actually, there is no line. It’s all one pot of time.
Sometimes I say yes to a request because I think it will bring me professional opportunities or connections. Other times I say yes in anticipation of personal satisfaction. I’m happy to chat with friends with whom I have a relationship that’s close enough such that I would turn to them for their expertise. Indeed, the most likely reason I’ll say yes is simply so I can hang out with interesting people. Regardless, I’m starting to feel frustrated (angry, annoyed, resentful), especially when it’s in exchange for lunch or tea. I don’t do lunch. If we’re not strangers, invite me to dinner. Even better, invite me to your house for a home cooked meal. Offer to do something in trade.
Please note that I’m not talking about situations where the request is for something where everybody is a volunteer, such as at my son’s school [Note 6: back in the day], at TEDx [back in the day], or for a fundraiser that we’re both involved in. I’m not talking about a question or conversation that takes place when I’m already doing something with the person who is asking, social or otherwise. I don’t mind if it’s a friend or colleague that I’m in contact with regularly for non-advise-giving connections who has or would help me in exchange as part of an ongoing friendship or professional relationship. However, it boggles my mind how often employed people (from the chamber, UCSC, Cabrillo, Banker, Realtors, etc), people that I know outside of the tech community, people who stand to benefit financially from my input, people that I would enjoy meeting with socially, think lunch or tea is sufficient compensation for my spending time — sometimes hours — talking, preparing, or simply scheduling. That say: “You’ll make all sorts of great connections that might lead to new clients for you.” That is, it’s ok that I work for free on something that’s for the benefit of YOUR business’s bottom line. Would you ask your attorney to lunch so you can pick their brain about legal stuff? Your doctor? Not unless they’re one of your best friends. Would you expect a masseuse to work at your office for free because it would be a great way to meet people who’d become clients? How about your physical therapist? Your mechanic?
So, recently [Note 7: written in March 2011] when I received yet another request to give my professional services away for free, and it took me waaaaay too long to compose a — what might have been an appropriate — response, I found solace in these articles (blog posts, see below). These writers have done a fine job in articulating my growing frustration. I’ll still volunteer from time to time but I’m getting more ornery about it.
[December 2016 update:]
Since launching Santa Cruz Tech Beat in July 2013, this “issue” has amped up considerably. The shift is something like this… About 3-4 times per week, I receive an email with snippets such as these: I <am a grad student> <recently moved to Santa Cruz> <am unemployed, looking for a job in tech> <bla bla> and I hear you’re the person to talk with. I would like to learn more about <the tech ecosystem in Santa Cruz> <tech jobs in Santa Cruz> <Looker> <Amazon>. How about if we meet for <lunch> <coffee> so I can pick your brain <yadda ya> and <find out what you’re up to w/ SCTB> <learn about the tech community> <find out which companies are hiring> <have you introduce me to someone at Looker/Amazon> <yadda ya> <so and so said I should talk with you about find a job in tech here>. Even: <will you read my daughter’s resume and forward it to your connections>. I’m terribly triggered by these requests but seldom ignore them although I’m increasingly tempted to. Here’s why. When I write back to get more info, about a third of the time, I don’t hear back. Another third of the time, they don’t answer the questions I’ve asked. The other third of the time, I get a gracious response but I don’t always have the bandwidth or desire to meet. What to do? Frequently I suggest meeting the half hour before the monthly tech meetup. This works well because the meetup is a great resource for the curious.
Note 8: My New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to protect my limited time to spend it how I want to spend it. Less tech. More fun. More time with loved ones. More tango. More tennis. So if you, dear readers, have any thoughtful solutions to help me survive my role as “bad-assador to the local tech scene” other than what I already do as publisher of Santa Cruz Tech Beat (a role and job that I love) please let me know.
Still want to connect? Here are some guidelines on how to ask me — or any busy person — for some of their time:
Introduce yourself properly. Tell me about yourself. Are you locally based or not? Have we met before or not? Be very specific. What was the context for our previous meeting?
Do your homework. Indicate your level of familiarity w/ my product/service. I publish Santa Cruz Tech Beat (SCTB). I don’t run the SC New Tech Meetup (SCNTM). If it’s in SCTB, find it and read it there rather than asking me. If I knew about that job or event or company, I would have published it in SCTB already.
WHY do you want to meet? Tell me very specifically what you want to know from me. Tell me enough so that I can determine if I’m the right person to provide it or not. Perhaps I’m not. Perhaps I can better help you in 2 minutes by email rather than meeting.
Are you offering anything in exchange? It’s not a requirement but it’s worth mentioning. Are you open to or offering to write an article for SCTB? (I welcome guest feature articles.) Become a partner? (YES, please!) Your offer need not be grand. If you’re seeking a one-way thing, that’s fine, too. Simply acknowledge it. Buying me lunch is not an exchange.
Remain responsive. If I’m taking the time to respond to you and if I ask more questions, then please, for goodness sakes, reply.
Make it easy for me. Ie: 2 minutes in email might be easier than meeting. Dinner might be easier than lunch. I’m busy and want to quickly assess whether I should meet or not. Vague requests are a turn-off.
Follow up. If we do talk by phone or meet in person or exchange email, follow up. If you said you were going to do something, do it.
Keep in mind. For every 3-4 people who want some of my “free” time, there’s the one who wrote a great article for SCTB, the one I got to know well enough to write a recommendation for and she got the job, the one who I respected well enough to send a job tip to, the one who became a friend or colleague. You never know.
And, if we were friends before you asked, I still want to be friends after I say no.
It’s not just me, folks!
[Note 9: Back to 2011, hope these links still work.]