The Art of Cold Calling (Updated)

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

This is an update to an earlier post about how to approach potential bootcamp hosts.

Newly-trained instructors have asked how we go about approaching potential workshop hosts. The short answer is, however we can. The longer answer is, we collect names from journal articles, our Twitter followers, people we bump into at conference, or (increasingly) people who've been through bootcamps, then send emails like the one below. But there's an art to it:

  1. I always open by apologizing for adding to their inbox. (It's a Canadian thing...)
  2. Always establish a point of connection: "I was speaking to X" or "You attended bootcamp Y". This must be specific: spammers and headhunters have trained us all to ignore anything that starts, "I recently read a paper of yours".
  3. Explain how we're going to help make their lives better (e.g., "Your graduate students will be able to push your project XYZ ahead much faster if you let us help them").
  4. Be specific (e.g., "Our usual two-day curriculum includes...") so that they can figure out right away whether this is worth pursuing.
  5. Cite our backers (the Sloan Foundation and Mozilla), as this makes us more credible.
  6. Tell them that we're a volunteer organization, so that all they'll have to pay for is instructors' travel and accommodation, along with a contribution toward central costs (currently around $1500 per bootcamp).
  7. Above all, keep it short. The message below takes 30 seconds or less to scan; add another few seconds for them to check the Cc: list (where possible, approach people in groups), and either they're hooked enough to hit 'reply' or they're not.

It's worked pretty well for us:

  • About half of emails are answered.
  • Over half of those answers are, "Sure, let's talk more."
  • About half of those discussions lead to workshops, which means that about 15% of emails turn into workshops. This is a lot more impressive than it might sound—most people in sales figure that 2-5% conversion on cold calls is outstanding.

If you'd like to give this a try (i.e., email someone on behalf of Software Carpentry to try to start setting something up for 2014), we'd be happy to proofread your mail before it goes out. Here's a template:


I hope you don't mind mail out of the blue, but I saw your recent paper on building a computational materials repository, and was wondering if you'd be interested having us run a Software Carpentry workshop for your intended users. We're scheduling workshops for the coming year right now, and it might be a way to help your community get more out of what you're doing.

Software Carpentry's aim is to teach researchers (usually graduate students) basic computing concepts and skills so that they can get more done in less time and with less pain. Our usual two-day curriculum includes:

  • the Unix shell (but we're really teaching them how to automate repetitive tasks);
  • Git and GitHub (but we're really teaching them how to use version control to track and share their work);
  • Python or R (but we're really teaching them how to grow a program in a structured, modular, testable, reusable way); and
  • databases (but we're really teaching them the difference between structured and unstructured data).

We're funded by the Sloan Foundation and Mozilla, and our instructors are volunteers, so the only cost to host sites is their travel and accommodation plus a $1500 contribution toward central costs (such as instructor training and curriculum development). We aim for 40 people per workshop, and look for 2-3 local helpers to assist during practicals; we can handle registration through EventBrite, or leave it in hosts' hands. Two independent assessments have confirmed that what we're doing actually helps, so if this sounds interesting, we'd welcome a chance to chat at greater length.

Thanks for your time --- we look forward to hearing from you.
Dr. Greg Wilson

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