The Basics of Job Shadowing

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You show up to the address that your mother’s boss’s brother provided you with over the phone. Gazing up at the foreign building, you start to think that maybe this was a big mistake. You’re going to be spending your whole day with a stranger.

Whose idea was this again?

Well, it was yours… but only because everyone says that job shadowing is such a good idea! And it makes sense. How do you know if you really want to be a real estate agent or an engineer unless you spend a day in their shoes?

Still, you can’t help but feel nervous. What if you get in the way? What if you offend them by not seeming interested in what they’re saying? What if your behavior gets your mother fired?!

If you ever shadowed a professional in high school, you may have had moments like this before.

Job shadowing can be an awkward and nerve-inducing experience. It can also be a huge waste of time for both parties if neither of you are well-prepared. If you do it right however, shadowing can be a wonderful networking and career exploration tool for people of all ages.

Shadowing isn’t just for kids in high school. On-the-job shadowing during college, over the summer, or at your internship is a great opportunity! It serves as a way to understand a company while also making connections that will last beyond the duration of your time there.

At AfterCollege, I got the opportunity to shadow two people on other teams for short periods of time during the day. I was allowed to choose whomever I wanted and whatever structure made the most sense for the parties involved. For my first session, I chose Jessica Moore, current Interaction Designer and former intern at AfterCollege. Steve Girolami, Vice President of Engineering was the second person that I shadowed.

These two experiences looked very different, but both left me with some takeaways that I feel are important to share with those of you who are thinking about shadowing. The biggest was this: shadowing is more than just sharing space with someone. There are a lot of questions you should ask and answer for yourself before jumping in. I’ve thrown together a quick guide of important steps in the shadowing process that interns and young professionals in (or entering) the workplace should take.

Guidelines for Shadowing:

  • Network.

Ah, yes! Networking. It never goes away. The rules for networking are the same as they’ve always been. Work those connections in order to find someone to shadow and shorten your search. Ask a friend, parent, sibling, or anyone that you know if they have anyone that you can reach out to for a session.

  • Be proactive.

In terms of making the magic happen, my manager Melissa, Content Marketing Manager at AfterCollege, was the one who reached out to Jess and Steve about my interest in shadowing. After that however, it was up to me to arrange all of the other logistics in terms of what, when, and where.

Being the one to vouch for yourself is an important lesson when seeking out guidance from others. Make sure that you are being responsible for your own personal growth and revel in the value of doing things on your own behalf. When arranging a job shadowing experience, it’s okay to let someone else connect you, but be the one to initiate the next steps in your process. A little proactivity goes a long way in others’ perceptions of your eagerness to learn.

  • Get a sneak preview.

Once you get connected, talk to people briefly about what they do before committing to a long session with them. In my case, I got to attend Jess’s Lunch and Learn (something that we do here at AfterCollege where someone in the office presents on their position, experience, and career journey, followed by delicious food!) before making the choice to engage with her further. Then, she was the one who highly suggested that I shadow Steve.

That first connection led to the next connection. While this all happened within our small office, you can experience the same phenomenon wherever and whenever you shadow. Make a note to ask someone if they recommend anyone else in the industry at a different company that you should connect with to round out your experience.

  • Craft an objective.

Before I shadowed Jess and Steve, Melissa shared with me why the option to shadow was part of the internship. The reason was simple: To give me the opportunity to learn more about AfterCollege from people that I don’t usually get to interact with on a daily basis.

Before you request or agree to shadow someone, make sure that it’s the right avenue for you. Again, we’re talking about people’s precious time here. Make an informed decision before asking for it. Is this something you’re really interested in learning more about?

Once you decide that shadowing has something to offer you, think about what it is that you want to get out of the experience and what the benefits are. What is the information that you’re looking to take home and how do you want to receive it?

I wanted to learn more about the decisions behind the placement of the interactive features on our website. I knew that I could easily get some insight into these things by talking with Jess. Because of this, I knew that shadowing her was the right option.

Think of yourself as a person on a mission. You’re after something, either general or specific—what’s the best way to find it?

People, especially busy and successful ones, will be more likely to offer you their time if it’s clear to both them and you what it is that you want. Physically write your mission statement down and use it to introduce yourself to people who may be willing to let you shadow them.

  • Be open to different shadowing experiences.

Now that you have a mission, you’re going to need to think about the execution. What are the actual logistics of your shadowing session? Do you wish to be a silent observer or get your hands dirty? Who’s going to be doing most of the talking? Who is responsible for scheduling the session and planning out the day?

Structure is going to make or break your experience.

When I shadowed Jess, we took a hands-on approach. We waited to book time together until she had a real-world problem that needed to be tackled. When she had something that needed solving, we worked together to brainstorm and produce solutions.

Before that, she ran me through her super-organized, checklist-like process for what she does.

It usually goes something like this:

Data is collected and analyzed. The data reveals a problem that must be identified and solved. Jess does research. Jess does more research. Jess makes sketches of proposed solutions. Jess does more research again. And then more sketching. Jess creates mock ups and shares them with engineering. Magic happens.

(At least, that’s my interpretation.)

Because I had some experience in interaction design, this kind of lab, practical-esque format was perfect. Our shadowing was an affirmation that the ideas I had about what UX/UI were all about were pretty much on point. The real gem was that Jess let me use my available, albeit limited, knowledge of the field to work with her and influence the outcome of the project.

Shadowing Steve was very different, mostly because I had no idea what Steve did. Our time together was more like an info session. He talked about his many duties and then explained two projects that he was working on. There weren’t a whole lot of questions from him or from me. It was really just a chance to absorb as much information as possible about something that I knew nothing about.

Steve and I went in with a very general idea of what we wanted to accomplish and that worked really well. However, I can’t imagine that this would have been a productive approach with Jess. Likewise, if Steve had asked me the types of questions that Jess did, I would have had nothing to offer him except big round deer eyes.

Think of your time shadowing as a cover letter. Your approach is everything. You have to customize it to fit the position that you’re applying for. The same mentality applies here! Remember that whatever structure works for one person or profession isn’t going to work for all of them.

  • Follow up.

Once my shadowing with Steve was over, I told him that what he said reminded me of work things that I’d done before. That grew into him inviting me to have another session with him so that we could talk more about a project that I may be able to share ideas for.

Unfortunately, I forgot to follow up with Steve and there isn’t time left for me to sit down with him again.

As much as that bums me out, I have to admit that it’s my own fault. The first thing that I should have done was send him an email (something that he could refer to later) that explicitly stated my interest in connecting again. Then, I should have provided a number of dates and times that worked for me while encouraging him to choose the one that worked best for him.

I didn’t do any of that. I caution you against making the mistake that I did by turning my stellar shadowing experience into a one-hit wonder type of thing.

Shadowing doesn’t have to be a one-shot deal. It could turn into a great long-term connection or a side project. You should always think about long-term value when investing your time.

Homework time! Regardless of where you are in your professional career, shadowing can be beneficial. If you are an intern, talk to your supervisor about shadowing someone in your office. If you’re still a student, set up a job shadow session with a professional in your field before committing to that career yourself.

P.S. Have you had an awesome shadowing experience? Share your story with us in the comments below!

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4 Responses to “The Basics of Job Shadowing”

  1. Wondering If Education Is the Field for You? - AfterCollege

    […] Homework time! Amanda mentions the importance of spending time in a classroom and job shadowing to learn more about careers in education. Look for opportunities to volunteer in different schools or classrooms, and try to find different people in the education field who you could job shadow. Not sure how to go about job shadowing? We explain the basics in this post. […]

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