Welcome to the time of year when media channels are clogged with best-of lists, curation of last year and stuff to look forward to. (FYI, Guns ‘n’ Roses will be at Coachella.) It’s also the time of year for resolutions, big plans and the general cleaning up of one’s act.

Yeah, I’m bored with that, too.

However, in the spirit of making good choices and succeeding this coming year, let’s discuss how to ask for help. You’re going to need to do that at some point for some reason. I can’t guarantee success, but it should help keep you a bit more focused and prevent wasting time – your own or others.’

TL;DR: manners and common sense. We’ll look at a few ways techies need to ask for help in additional columns. Today we’ll look at making requests of people.

Let’s begin with one of the most common asks: grabbing a coffee/beer. Now, of course this isn’t about coffee. It’s about advice, mentorship, seeking investment, etc. It’s an introductory move intended to lead to long-term benefit. But a lot of people screw this up and hamstring themselves.

No one wants to think of themselves as less important than others. But let’s face it, if you were the professional equal of the person whose time and input you’re seeking… you wouldn’t be asking. At least not in the same way or for the same reasons.

So get humble. Approach the request from the perspective that the other person’s time and information are more valuable and scarce than yours. Yours is not the only request they’ve received. Not even the only one in the last hour.

To figure out where their time and expertise are best spent, they need data, the more concise and clearly presented, the better. If you don’t give them that before coffee, you’ll be caffeinating alone.

When you send that request, make it very specific. Don’t ask to “grab coffee.” Ask for a half-hour or hour. Don’t suggest “some time.” Give them a few times that work for you in the next couple weeks (if it’s too far out, they’ll forget), or ask when they’re available.

Don’t ask to just “pick their brain” or “have a chat.” Tell them you’ve been tackling Problem X and would really like input on Aspects 1 and 2 of it. Or you’re working on funding and want to approach this or that VC, and would love pointers, since they’ve talked to/worked with them before. (Also shows you’ve done your homework.)

The nice thing with this request, too, is that it tends to be understood that you’d also love an introduction, but you don’t have to come right out with it. Granted, that does leave it up to the person you’re asking to determine if it’s forthcoming.

Further to that, if you’re asking for an introduction, basically provide something they can forward verbatim. What you’re doing, where you’re stuck, what you hope to gain by getting access to the person or company.

You’ll need to try to strike a balance of humility and confidence. You’re politely asking for help, but everyone gets turned off by someone who seems too self-deprecating, communicates poorly, or doesn’t seem passionate about his or her work.

You also need to demonstrate that you value their experience and input, and that you’re willing to listen to them, should they decide to help you out. It’s pretty insulting to provide hard-earned advice, or agree to be someone’s mentor, only to be endlessly argued with or have your advice ignored. Plus, if they make the intros, and you make a bad impression, it reflects poorly on them, too.

The tech biz is too small to survive many of those mistakes. Know what you don’t know.

If you’re looking for ongoing mentorship, you can phrase the request a bit differently to make it clear that you’re looking for a relationship rather than just a meeting. But even a lifelong relationship has to start somewhere. It’s possible that, after meeting, you might decide it’s not the right fit, so like with any relationship, you don’t want to sound too pushy about commitment right away.

I would recommend seeking mentorship from someone with whom you’re at least already acquainted. It greases the wheels a bit, and it helps if you both have some familiarity with each other’s personalities, backgrounds, business, etc.

Sure, some people may seem like gods or rock stars, so you might assume they’re obviously the best choice to guide your development. Don’t get blinded by a desire for affiliation with their perceived status.

If you have completely incompatible personalities or the person is actually horrible – or it turns out that all they have is reputation and no substance – then you may well be wasting your time. And might damage your own reputation hitching your horse to that wagon.

Of course, no matter how perfect your pitch, they’re always within their rights to say no. It may or may not have anything to do with you. Accept that. They also don’t owe you an answer as to why they’re saying no, if they haven’t provided one.

In six months or a year, you might be able to try again. They could just be in the middle of something all-consuming right now. But who knows, maybe by then you won’t need their advice.

Regardless of the situation or outcome, it goes without saying that you will remain polite and gracious at all times. Even if they aren’t. And you’re paying for the coffee or beer. Follow up with a thank you, especially if you can tell them how their advice helped, or what you’ve achieved.

One day you, too, will be older, wiser, and more successful. Eager young things will approach you to grab coffee. Remember that you were once nervous, clueless and ambitious, and be as gentle and generous as you can.

Photo: Help by Quinn Dombrowski is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or me@melle.ca.

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.