We developers are an introverted bunch. As a rule, an ideal day would involve coming to my desk and coding. No meetings, no one popping by with a “Can I just ask you…”. Just me, my headphones, and coding. No one else.
I’m sure this unicorn concept of a day fits pretty similar to yours, and that’s great. But I’ve found that one of the most important things I can do for my career has been to flip this on its head and talk to as many people possible. The great and wonderful world of “networking”. It’s a bit of a cliche and the sort of thing to expect from a LinkedIn recruiter post, but I’ve found in my career that it genuinely is who you know, not what, that matters most.
I have found this has proven itself time and time again in my career. I’m sure you’ve seen many cases where people are in senior positions who seem less qualified or wholly unsuitable for such a position. These are people who know how to build a network and make connections and then leverage them for their own use. If you feel that your career has perhaps stalled then this is very likely a key area you need to improve.
Let me clarify one thing. Networking rarely means being in a room of random people, with a drink in one hand and lots of awkward, cold introductions. These introductions rarely lead anywhere or add any value (although the free drink is always welcome). But there are some reliable tactics I have found for finding new connections that endure and provide value to both sides.
The first and most important thing is to always try and help other people when the opportunity arises. That opportunity could be an active one, such as a department email asking for volunteers for a working group, or a passive one where you overhear another team is struggling with a piece of technology you’re experienced in. Either way, throw your hat into the ring. I’ve found that simply putting myself forward to help and do someone a favour is a great way to get myself registered in their good books and remembered for the future. Don’t be selective about your assignments either; it’s tempting to think that if a person can’t obviously benefit your career then they’re not worth the time. However I’ve seen so many times that a connection that is seemingly useless will then be able to introduce me to a useful contact, or will at some point move job to somewhere they can provide me help.
Two simple addendum to this; if you’re on email to someone that you don’t yet know answering a question of some sort, always append on the email “let me know if I can help with anything else”. Showing a simple willingness to help leaves a good impression and can lead to further discussion. Secondly, if you think the person could be a good contact then ask to go for a coffee. Everyone needs a break from work and it’s a great way to meet some new contacts.
You should always be seeking to improve your network. If your boss mentions someone in another department you don’t know, ask for an introduction. If someone in your team mentions they know a contact in another team who can help with the project, ask to be included next time they meet. You can never have too many contacts, and the most useful ones are often the ones that you least expect.
An interesting twist on this is to ask for help from new contacts. People like to be valued and to have people ask their opinion. If your colleague John knows Paul and that he’s the expert on Hazelcast and you’re looking to start learning, then go and ask Paul if he’d be willing to spend an hour to chat with you. It’s a great way to learn and make a new connection.
One thing that took me a while to get my head round made a huge difference to my networking: senior people in the organisation are just as accessible as juniors. I’ve found that unless you’re talking about the executive C level folk, most people are happy to spend the time to grab a coffee for a chat. Obviously this is even easier if you have someone that can introduce you, but even a cold email introduction will normally go far. Try and base it around a subject though; a simple “Hi I’d like to get coffee” might come across as strange, but “Hi, I was wondering if I could buy you a coffee to chat about announcement X whilst you’re in town” has always worked well for me.
It’s also important to “put yourself out there”. This is something that isn’t natural to us nerds, but seek the high profile. If there is a highly visible project then try and get on it. Create your own extra curricular projects in and out of work to try and build your reputation. These sort of things get your name in front of more eyes and increase the opportunity to meet new people.
Despite my initial disparagement, networking events can have a place in building good connections. The important thing is the format of the event. One of my favourite examples is Startup Weekend (which I’ve written about before). When you’re forming an actual team and working with a group closely for the best part of 3 days it’s a great way to make proper lasting connections. Activity based networking with team interaction (and competition) tends to lend itself better to strong connections than casual networking events.
The most important piece of advice I can offer: never ever write off a connection. Unless you really can’t stand someone, always part ways amicably with people (particularly colleagues that are leaving). The world of IT is ridiculously small and bad reputations can spread quickly. Conversely, I’ve been amazed at how some people I’ve worked with have jumped to impressive and surprising places.
This advice all sounds relatively cold and heartless — talks of connections and contacts purely for the sake of career benefit. In the real world it doesn’t end up like this though. We are naturally drawn to stay in contact with the people we meet and like and get on with, which means your network will naturally grow with people who you like and enjoy working with. The important thing to pay attention to is that you must actively seek to increase the size of your network. It will directly accelerate the speed of your career. The more people who know you (and speak highly of you) the likelier you are to be put up for promotions, for the exciting projects, and to have someone defend you when you are being bad mouthed behind your back.