Make the ask

Dear new developer,

I’ve been surprised by how often I get a response from people I consider “famous”. A few examples.

  • Brad Feld, a well known venture capitalist, was willing to do a sixty minute AMA for the Boulder Ruby group. (If you want to watch the video, it was recorded.)
  • I asked a question of Patrick McKenzie years ago about whether I should write a book about testing ETL jobs with Pentaho Kettle. (Short answer: no.)
  • The guest posts on this blog.

How can you get help from someone prominent? I’m going to assume that you have someone in mind who you want to ask a question or otherwise get help from. Let’s say you are working on a post about React and you want someone to give it a review to make sure you are on the right path.

Find out more about the person. This involves some research, because you want to ask them for help on a topic they are interested in. Many people have profiles online, so review them to tune your “ask”. Google plus social media is your friend here. You don’t have to do exhaustive investigation, but if you can tune your question to their interests, you are more likely to get a response. It can also really help if you reference anything they’ve shared that is relevant to the question. If they recently posted about Redux and how it is awful, mention that you’ve read it and make an intelligent comment about their argument.

Next, get their contact info, or find it. So you need to do some more research. Lots of people make their email addresses known; that’s a good signal that they want to respond to email. I’ve had some luck with Twitter direct messages, Slack DMs, and LinkedIn messages. I’ve not had luck with public outreach (@ing someone on Twitter, for example). Find out how this person responds to others. I haven’t run into this, but I suspect there are certain people for whom Youtube comments, Tiktok messages, or Twitch DMs are the best form of contact.

Interact with this person before you make the ask. Follow them on Twitter. Share one of their posts to an online community. Comment on their blog. If they write a newsletter, subscribe to it. Even better, respond to one of their newsletters; even if someone has 10,000 subscribers, the number of email replies they receive is for each email is nowhere near that number. If you respond with a cogent comment, you’ll begin to build a relationship with them. Put in some work and you’ll also have a better idea if they are even the right person to ask.

Make sure your request is reasonable. Asking for feedback on your post is fair. Asking for 30 minutes of face to face video chat to discuss ideas is less so. Requesting someone promote your post to their followers is lame.

When you make the request, make it easy for them to both understand what you are requesting, the timeline, and the means of fulfilling the request. Here’s a good request:

Hiya <name>,

Would you be interested in reviewing my blog post about React deployment strategies? I have a blog focused on React front end development.

I was thinking that something on this topic might be up your alley. I saw your rant on Redux on Twitter and thought it had some great points. But one thing I wasn’t clear about: Redux sucks, but what is the alternative?

I’m looking to get this blog post published in the next week. If you are interested, I’ll send you a google doc (unless you would rather some other format; let me know). If not, no worries, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on React! I have learned a lot.

Thanks,

Dan

In this note, I have a single, reasonable request. I outline the timeframe; this makes it easy for the recipient to determine if they can possibly fulfill it. I let them know that I know who they are and their opinion on this technology, as well as that I’ve actually read and understood some of their opinions. It’s also important to make it easy for people. Google docs work for a lot of people for reviewing documents, but not everyone.

What a note like this does is encapsulate everything that this person might need to know about the request. There’s no back and forth about when the review would need to be finished. This makes the decision easier, which is what you, as the asker, should aim for.

Pick people at the right level of prominence. Don’t ask the creator of React to review a basic blog post. But if you saw someone speak at a local meetup about React, they’d be a good choice for this request. If, on the other hand, you’ve written an in-depth piece about the performance of React deployments in various scenarios and haven’t seen anything else like it, that might of more interest to someone more prominent, possibly even the creator. As long as you are thoughtful in your request, asking prominent, even famous, people is fine. I’ve been surprised at who has replied to my requests.

Next, follow up once or twice, but don’t bug them. The more prominent the person, the more they are pinged. (This is another reason to ask someone less prominent; they’re more likely to respond.) I always follow up a week later. Give them plenty of chances to say no. I always like to say “feel free to tell me to buzz off if this won’t work for you now.” But don’t give up after sending just one message; we all deal with overflowing inboxes. Patrick replied in 24 hours; Brad responded quickly but it took months to have schedules line up. If they say no, you can thank them, ask for a referral to someone else who might be able to help, or ask if you can follow up in a few months.

Finally, if they say yes, make sure you follow through on the request. For the React blog post example, make sure you send them the google doc, incorporate their feedback, and publish it. Send it to them with a note of thanks after you’re done. This completes the loop and lets them know you didn’t waste their time.

Asking someone prominent to help you out is not as hard as it sounds. Make sure you do your research, make a thoughtful request, and follow up. Not everyone can help, but some definitely will.

Sincerely,

Dan

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