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I recently had two good friends start looking for jobs, and as the tech scene here is tiny, future employers that are also friends asked me to recommend them. The thing is, I don't have any work experience with those friends and can't really comment on their technical skills. The conversations with the employers are always kinda awkward to me as I try to recall various things the friends told me about previous jobs and give examples, but I don't really want to stake my reputation if their skills aren't at the level I perceive them to be.

What can I do in a situation like this? Not talk about technical skills of friends? Talk with the friends for concrete examples of their work or suggest they put it on Github?

  • Did the friends in question also take initiative to send an application to apply for the job, or when they ask you to "recommend them" maybe what they are really asking you boils down to "Hey can I work there too, put in some word for me so I don't have to bother sending a cover letter and all that stuff!" – Brandin Mar 14 '15 at 14:20
  • @Brandin actually the employer somehow got word that they are in the market. As I said - very tight knit tech scene :) – Mikle Mar 15 '15 at 15:12
  • In your question you said they wanted you to recommend them. You putting in a character reference is one thing, but if your friends don't even make the first step of reaching out or applying... – Brandin Mar 15 '15 at 19:33
  • Like I said - people want to find the best talent, even if it didn't directly apply for the company. If this is foreign to you I'd love to know a bit about the strategies for finding talent in whatever market you are in (and see if they work here). – Mikle Mar 17 '15 at 17:18
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But you can speak to the character of the person and basic skills. Are they honest, good communicator? You can observe their work ethic doing minor non work tasks. I ski patrolled with a guy that told me he was interviewing at my company and I knew the guy he was interviewing with. I reported I don't know what Joe knows about this job but I patrol with him and he has never been late and works a mountain as good as anyone. He is fun to work with and taught me a lot about ski patrol and first aid.

But speaking to someone's character is not worth much if the person does not know you. If the person does not know you and feel you are person of good character they may not value(trust) your character reference.

You might have other friends that something as basic as making dinner plans is difficult and they are typically late. For them just say I don't know anything about your technical skills and can't be a reference.

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I have recommended friends whose work is very different from my own with no qualms. I tell the person who is asking for the recommendation how I've interacted with the friend -- we've done things together, like played in a band, or worked on a home project or just socialized.

There are things about character and personality that you can speak honestly about

  • are they always punctual (or if they're late, do they let you know)?
  • are they honest? Trustworthy? (do you let them watch your kids? Pets?)
  • are they smart? Can they communicate well?
  • have they done things in the community?

The company isn't necessarily looking for a verification of their skill set. They may be more interested to know if their new hire can be trusted with proprietary information or that they won't go home with office supplies.

  • Good answer, but what if the answer is no to one of the questions? – Mikle Mar 15 '15 at 15:14
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I would not ask for technical examples, as it will look like as if you are interviewing them (and, if they are not called to an interview, they will assume it was based in your assessment).

As you mention in the question, you could focus in the non technical aspects (soft aptitudes). They are still very important:

  • say if they are honest and dependable people
  • if your friends are easy to get along with
  • if they enjoy working in IT and learning (v.g., if they read technical books or articles or do some hobby programming in their free time).
  • etc.

Of course, you should make it clear that you are refering to what you know about them "off-work". Some people's attitude may change a lot between working for themselves and working for somewhere else.

I would add that,

  • What are 'formal people'? – jcm Mar 14 '15 at 10:34
  • @jcm maybe the translation is wrong... people who keeps their compromises, arrive at the scheduled time, etc. – SJuan76 Mar 14 '15 at 10:35
  • Maybe 'reliable' or 'dependable' is the word you're looking for. – jcm Mar 14 '15 at 10:38
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Your friend's future employer asking you for a reference is a "business transaction", and you should not mix your friendship with it. If you have been asked for your opinion on their technical skills, and you don't have enough data, then simply state that. You should not call your friend "the greatest programmer ever to walk upon this Earth" simply because he is your friend. A statement like the following should usually work:

John has been my friend since 2008, and he is a pretty nice guy. However, I haven't yet had the pleasure of working with him, so I am not in a position to comment on his technical skills. If you are interested to know about his personality, maybe I could be of help.

If I want a friend to give me a reference, then it is my responsibility to ensure that the friend has all the relevant information required to give me a good reference. It can never be the friend's responsibility to figure out what I do and how good I am at it. However, I would suggest you ask your friend to provide you the required data in case someone contacts you for reference in future.

That said, however, the future employer should probably not be asking you about your friend's technical skills in the first place, if they know that you haven't worked with him. They are much better off asking your friend's colleagues or manager.

Most companies ask the candidate for names of people who could be contacted for reference. Even if they don't, your friend could perhaps tell them that they should contact their current colleagues, and not a friend, to obtain a reference for their technical skills.

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If these qualities apply, I would suggest you mention some positive, near universal skills useful in a workplace such as as a good team player, willingness to learn, and good work ethics. Soft skills are getting more emphasis when an employer evaluates a potential hire. Technical skills and the ability to get the work done is highly important, no doubt, but so is the employee's ability to fit well into the environment and support colleagues.

As for technical skills, you can let the employer make their own judgement as to whereto the degree of technical ability qualifies the candidate for further consideration. My two other questions may help you further:

Declining to recommend a friend for a position Recommending a friend known only on a personal basis

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