Yunkai Zhou Co-founder & CTO, Leap.ai
Published on October 19, 2017
Power of Quality Referrals
The lesser known facts behind internal referrals
MY OWN STORY
The year was 2003. I had just graduated from Drexel University with a PhD in Computer Networking. I had a decent list of academic publications, but no industry experience. I didn’t know anyone at any of the top tech companies. I submitted my resume to many places, but got no responses. I was jobless for 3 months, before I finally got an interview with Microsoft. Fortunately, I was able to land that job in Seattle.
Fast forward 3 years. Due to family reasons, I needed to move from Seattle to Pittsburgh, and heard that Google was about to open an office there. So I reached out to some of my friends who had moved from Microsoft to Google and asked them to send in my resume. I got a call from Google the following week. A few months later, I became one of the first members of Google Pittsburgh.
Another 10 years passed and with several machine learning projects under my belt, I was still happily working at Google. Someone close to the executive team gave my name to Sumo Logic, a late-stage startup, and they approached me. A few weeks later, I joined them as their Head of Machine Learning.
At first glance, my journey might lead some to conclude that having more relevant experience helps a person land a job. This is true, but for someone who’s currently looking for a job without relevant experience, this doesn’t seem to be actionable. “You are telling me more relevant experience will help, but I can’t increase the amount of experience I have any time soon, so this advice doesn’t really help me that much.” We’ve all heard of this catch-22 from frustrated job-seekers before, being either a fresh grad, or an experienced professional who wants to try something different.
So, let’s take a deeper look. Are there any ACTIONABLE insights we can find here?
Yes. The hidden knowledge here is the POWER of QUALITY REFERRALS. And that is actionable.
WHY DO REFERRALS MATTER?
Google gets more than 1 million resumes every year. There is simply no way for all of these resumes to be reviewed by humans. Most resumes are simply parsed, stored in a database, and never looked at again - only few will ever get discovered.
What referrals do is increase your discoverability.
Imagine this. At an airport check-in,
  • Line A has 1000 people waiting, and 5 security personnels.
  • Line B has 50 people waiting and 20 security personnels.
Which line do you prefer?
In the example above, Line A represents all candidates who self-apply to a company while Line B represents all candidates from referrals. You might ask, why do companies have more recruiters at Line B? If Line B is shorter, wouldn’t it make sense to move some recruiters to Line A?
That answer lies in organizational efficiency.
For this particular company, let’s say that the demand is to hire 100 people this year. This is an optimization problem, and the goal here is to minimize the resources/effort needed to achieve the hiring needs. As for any optimization problem, the solution always lies in placing more effort into the more efficient parts of the system. In this recruiting system, referrals are more efficient simply because candidates will have had some initial vetting by existing employees, and therefore, on average, they will have lower verification costs than online self-submissions.
As a result, it’s widely known that 50% of Google hires come from referrals, and similar numbers are observed at many other companies.
ARE ALL REFERRALS EQUAL?
You might say, “Okay, got it. I’ll find someone in that company to put my name in.” But, wait, there’s one more important topic to discuss. NOT all referrals are created equal.
Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many recruiters and hiring managers. From my experiences, one common theme arises: referrals come in tiers.
Tier #1: A Senior Referrer Who Knows You Well
The strongest referral is done by a senior member at a company who knows you well enough to put in a good word for you.
For example, if a director puts in a referral for you, and says, “Very strong engineer. I’d be happy to hire this person to my team,” this puts you first in line for an interview, and subsequently, carries a lot of weight in the final hiring decision.
Tier #2: A Junior Referrer Who Knows You Well
Not everyone knows of a senior person at a company, so it can be difficult to get a first-tier referral. Short of that, you should look for someone who is less senior but still knows you well enough.
For example, if a junior member at a company puts in a referral for you, and says “I worked with this person for 2 years and can vouch for his/her execution speed and quality,” you’ll likely get a call quickly.
Tier #3: A Senior Referrer Who Doesn’t Know You Well
If no one knows you well enough at that company, but you can manage to find a social acquaintance that holds a senior position, you can still have some leverage in getting a phone interview. This is because the recruiting team will likely respect the judgment of a senior person, even if the senior person has only had a limited interaction with you and simply says, “Don’t know this person that much; only had a casual 15-minute conversation”.
Tier #4: A Junior Referrer Who Doesn’t Know You Well
If you’re unable to find someone to refer you from the above tiers, a junior referrer at a company who doesn’t know you well might still provide some value, although your chances here won’t be very high. Don’t be too surprised if such referrals get ignored by the recruiting team.
YOUR FIRST REFERRAL MATTERS
Now you might say, “Well I don’t have any Tier #1 referrals at the moment, but I have a Tier #4. There’s no harm for me to put in my Tier #4 referrer now, and if I find a Tier #1 later, I can ask again.”
Actually, not really.
The fact is, your first referral matters. Often times, someone approaches me asking for a referral. I agree and put in that person’s name and resume. Then a recruiter sends me an email saying “This person has been referred by many other junior members before, and has been rejected.” At this point, I have no way to counter that.
But if I were the person’s first referrer and the recruiter had some doubts, I could say, “Doing a phone screen might still be worthwhile to better assess,” and that just might lead to a phone call.
Notice here that an earlier, ineffective referral could potentially undermine a future effective referral. So try to make your first referral count.
MY STORY, REVISITED
Now let’s go back to my own journey at the beginning of this article and apply what we know about referrals.
When I first graduated, I had no referrals, and it was a huge struggle to land any interview or offer. A lot of luck was involved for me to land that first job at Microsoft.
When I moved from Microsoft to Google, I got a Tier #3 referral. A Staff Engineer at Google referred me, even though he only knew me socially. That landed me a quick first phone call.
When I moved from Google to Sumo Logic, I got a Tier #1 referral. Someone very senior put in a good word about me to the executive team. I was fast tracked the entire way, and got the offer in one week.
INTRODUCING LEAP ENDORSED REFERRALS
At Leap, we feel our users’ pain about applying without any responses. We’ve been there too, and we want to do something about it.
Our partners trust us and we strive to deliver Tier #1 referrals when we send applications to our partners. We have already helped users successfully land jobs in many fast-growing companies including Uber, Dropbox, Upstart, etc.
We believe that Leap Endorsed Referrals should be your top choice, if you don’t have an existing strong connection at a company.
Happy referring!

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Yunkai Zhou - Co-founder & CTO, Leap.ai
Yunkai is a technical executive and entrepreneur. He has worked in companies from technical giants like Microsoft and Google to late stage startups like Sumo Logic, as well as an early stage startup he helped found. In Google, he spent nearly 10 years in Search Ads / AdWords, and has led projects across infrastructure, machine learning, and UI. Yunkai’s passion for using technology to solve real business problems led him to co-found Leap.ai.