The fundamental importance of professional networking for today’s career-minded tech pro has been pounded into our heads for many years now. ”It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” gets spouted by everyone who gets denied a job or interview, and there is certainly some truth in the saying. The mere thought of hobnobbing and mingling with other technologists at an event may instill terror in many (myself included sometimes), and most in the industry yearn to be evaluated purely on their ability to code and not their ability to shake hands and make good eye contact. If you are repulsed by the concept that your elbow-rubbing skill may be integral to career success, or are perhaps uncomfortable in traditional networking situations, please continue reading – it’s less necessary today than most think.
When visualizing networking, most in the industry probably picture a room with a number of people separated into small groups of varying size having discussions. (Googling “professional networking” confirms my suspicion) It could be an industry conference, meetup, or even a more social event such at a bar or restaurant. The images will be appealing to no one but salespeople, and even many of them may shudder.
As communication and professional relationship building have shifted from the physical world into the electronic and virtual, who you know and who knows you have taken on new definitions. People develop what they consider deep romantic relationships from thousands of miles away without ever meeting (sometimes without speaking), so why would anyone think the professional world would be any different?
What is the purpose and goal of networking?
Simply speaking, the purpose of networking is to develop relationships with others in order to hopefully produce mutual professional benefits. Those mutual benefits are (for us) increased access to job opportunities, with the belief that someone’s positive impression of you will translate into a foot in the door or a preferable consideration for employment.
The most important aspect of the relationship isn’t the depth (how well the person knows you) so much as it is their perception of you. A contact may be more willing to help if they truly know you well, but the minimum goal is to get someone willing to say something nice about you that they would not be able to say about a stranger.
Soft and Hard Vouch
Saying something nice is a form of vouching, defined as a personal assurance on someone or something. You may be willing to give what I call a soft vouch to someone you’ve never even met. If you have exchanged several emails and chatted online with someone and read their blogs, and have at least some understanding of that person’s professional reputation, you are probably comfortable saying that person seems personable and/or qualified. You wouldn’t stake your reputation on it, but you’d give at least that soft vouch.
A hard vouch is when you use your goodwill by recommending someone for hire or consideration. This may be a person that you have worked with extensively in the past or have known well for many years. However, tech pros today are increasingly willing to give this hard vouch to people they have never met, due to the nature of online relationships and the wealth of electronic information available that forms a reputation. If you’ve collaborated with someone on an open source project for a period of time, know their coding ability, and he/she seems nice on Twitter and Facebook, a hard vouch is not much of a stretch.
Second-hand vouching and influencers
Vouching gets more interesting when members of a community give added weight to recommendations by one respected member (the influencer), and it reaches the point that community members are willing to make a recommendation purely on that influencer’s vouch. As a real-world example, suppose someone that knows you and your business fairly well refers a candidate to you, saying that the candidate was interviewed and was not a good fit for their organization but is likely an excellent fit for yours. Would you even need to see the résumé before agreeing to interview? Would you be willing to bypass the phone screen? And if you weren’t hiring, would you pass that recommendation along to another contact?
These second-hand vouches happen every day within more established networks, which were not always established in the traditional way. I can point to at least a dozen or so respected people in my network where their recommendation alone would give me no pause in also recommending that person to clients. In other words, I’ll give a fairly hard vouch for someone I’ve never previously heard of under certain circumstances. This can have risk, but I’ve found it very low. Of course, making a profound negative impression on one of these influencers can almost serve as being blacklisted within a community as well.
How can the goals of networking be achieved in other ways beyond the traditional?
Technologists that spend many hours suffering through events in the name of networking may want to reconsider the value. This is particularly true for those that don’t find the personal interaction as natural, as they may actually do more harm than good by appearing. All we want is someone to vouch for us professionally. Instead of trying to alter your personality to become a better networker, focus on two things:
Building reputation – It is much easier and (in my opinion) more valuable to develop a reputation within a community than it is to develop meaningful individual relationships with many members. Reputation is best achieved with a multi-platform approach.
The quickest way in our industry might be to collaborate on large projects where many people can see your work, but most don’t have this luxury. Blogging can be powerful and less time-consuming, while the simple act of sharing thought-provoking and relevant articles with your connections on social networks is at least somewhat effective. I can immediately think of people I don’t know at all that post really interesting things on Google+ and Twitter, and their activity and curation alone scores at least some points.
Answering questions (or asking thoughtful ones) in forums will get name recognition as being both knowledgable and helpful, whether or not the forums keep score (like Stack Overflow or Quora). I’ve seen this first hand on sites that I frequent, where my services have been recommended to others just based on my writing. If public speaking is within your comfort zone, that is another option.
Even investing 15 minutes a day into some of these activities can reap fairly quick benefits.
Getting on the radar of influencers – The influencers can make a huge impact on your future job prospects. The first challenge may be to identify who these influencers are. Often, they may be the most visible members of the community and in some position of leadership, which could be within a company or within a community organization (Meetups, conferences, etc.). One quick and dirty way to gauge influence is through social network subscribers and connections, which is far from foolproof but at least some indicator. For our purposes, we are probably going to place more value on GitHub followers over Facebook friends. Start with small communities focused on specific technologies or a shared location to see how easy it is to identify influencers.
Once you’ve identified these influencers, how do you get their attention? In an ideal world it happens naturally, simply because your reputation caught their eye. If not, try to direct their attention to something that should interest them, or just write up a short note to introduce yourself. Networking with an influencer with a wide audience is the way to go if you do choose to spend time meeting people.
At the end of the day a strong reputation will open doors without a need for much traditional networking, but all the open doors in the world won’t make up for an undesirable skill set or low levels of ability. The need for technologists to network becomes much less important as the ability to display work is increased. Your reputation, and in some cases just your code, can open doors as well.