In our always-connected world, it’s sometimes easy to lose track of the value of direct human interaction. But that interaction—networking, in other words—is one of the most valuable aspects of any career, and it’s a critical soft skill to master and maintain.
Networking is the process of getting to know other people in your field. I’ll share a sad fact from recent experience: you can upload your résumé to as many online job postings as you want, and you’re likely to hear back from only a tiny fraction of them, no matter how well qualified you are. Even with the best résumé, finely tuned for the artificial intelligence algorithms that take a first pass on all applicants, the odds that a human being will ever see your information are slim. Many online job postings get thousands of applications—too many for any one to stand out easily.
In writing this book, I spoke with hundreds of people who got new tech jobs, moved up in their companies, or transferred to different teams in their companies. The majority of these people told me that they’d never have gotten the job if someone else hadn’t spoken up for them internally. If their network of colleagues hadn’t lifted their résumé out of the digital pile and called the hiring manager’s attention to it, they never would have gotten an interview. That’s “why networking.”
Over the past two decades, my network of colleagues has helped me land new customers, and get long-running magazine columns, book contracts, new jobs, and speaking engagements at conferences. Some of my projects would have been impossible to start without my network’s help, such as my book Shell of an Idea: the Untold History of PowerShell (independently published, 2020). I would not be exaggerating to say that nearly every good thing that has happened to me professionally has happened with the help of my network.
I’ve worked hard to build a professional brand (as discussed in chapter 2), and my network is the group of people who know that brand. Because I try to stay consistent with that brand, my network knows what to expect of me. They know what I’m capable of, and they have a good idea of the value I bring. I do the same for them; our relationship is very much a two-way street. I’ve been happy to help the people in my network make new connections, get more eyeballs on their projects, and even land new jobs.
But here’s the thing: networks take a long time to build and require constant engagement to maintain. You cannot decide to start networking a week before you need that network to help you. The saying “You must dig the well before you’re thirsty” is never more appropriate than when it’s applied to your professional network. To build that network, you need to
This chapter focuses on some tips and techniques for achieving those goals.
Technology professionals are obviously comfortable working with technology, right? Many of today’s biggest companies rely on technology for even the most minute day-to-day communications. We message one another in Slack or Microsoft Teams; send emails between organizations; and even communicate with friends and family through text messages, Facebook, and other digital means. With so many of us working remotely, those digital channels are crucial to our work and our lives.
But digital communications aren’t a natural way for the human brain to communicate. One of the biggest banes of remote workers, for example, is missing out on those hallway conversations and water-cooler discussions that happen constantly and organically in the office. We’re people: we bump into others as we’re walking around, we take a quick trip to someone else’s desk to discuss something, and we share information over lunch or coffee.
Digital communications often fail to make an impression. As I described in chapter 2, our brains form stronger and more lasting memories when multiple senses are engaged. When we’re reading a text message, we have at best one sense engaged: sight. Our brains aren’t getting all the sensory input from an in-person reaction, which may include sight, sound, and smells. Our brains aren’t getting the body language of the person we’re communicating with, and body language is a tremendously important part of our total communications capabilities, as well as a critical part of how our brains perceive other humans.
It is possible to do some networking online, such as through social media. Even the back-and-forth that contributors engage in on GitHub repositories is a form of networking. But that networking lacks the impact of in-person networking, so you need to engage in a lot more of it, and do so more continuously, to make the impact you want.
My point is simple: don’t rely entirely on digital communications for networking. Some of your networking needs to be done in person, or at the very least via group video calls. Networking this way will probably require an investment of your time and possibly your money, but it is essential for building a network that will be there when you need it. It’s also essential for giving you the opportunity to be there for others when they need you.
In-person networking can happen on scales both large and small. If you tend toward the introvert side of the personality spectrum, smaller events—even those you organize yourself—can be more comfortable places to start. Then you can work up to larger events. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Network within your own company. Go cross-team and find others in your role or similar roles—all the frontend web developers in the company, for example—and set up guild meetings where everyone can meet, introduce themselves, and discuss what they’re working on in an informal, after-hours setting.
Look for local user groups that are related to your field. It can be tough to take even more time after work to do business, but commit to it. Make sure that the meetings don’t consist of everyone sitting and listening to a lecture; you want time to meet and talk with the other group members.
Consider regional conference-style events. The Microsoft SQL Server community, for example, has a robust schedule of SQL Saturday events. These events are often inexpensive and one day long. They’re a great place to network.
Attend small and medium-size conferences. Medium-size conferences—often produced by a staff of volunteers or by media companies—offer a less-expensive and less-intimidating alternative to the 20,000-person trade shows put on by major technology vendors. Smaller conferences tend to offer more, and more approachable, networking opportunities as well. Community-run events (typically produced by a staff of volunteers) often have a friendly group of returning attendees, who can make the event more approachable for newcomers.
Remember that you can take the reins by helping to schedule small local events yourself. Is there no user group in your area? Start one! Local libraries may offer free meeting space, or local technology training companies may offer their classrooms free of charge when classes are over for the day. Advertise on Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media. You may have only a handful of people to begin with, but if you stick with it, you can help create something powerful and helpful—a pretty great impression to make on those people!
As I stated previously in this chapter, online networking is valid and necessary, but it’s harder and requires more continual effort than in-person networking. I try to practice both types because they tend to attract different people, which adds diversity to the network of people I know.
Online events seek to reproduce the conditions and impact of in-person events:
Online (or virtual) user group meetings often feature a guest presenter and are a great way to learn something new in an hour or so. Not all virtual user groups focus on networking, however. Try to find one that offers opportunities for people to break out into smaller groups, chat for a bit, and get to know one another. Or work with a virtual user group that is willing to add breakout opportunities. Online meeting services such as Zoom often offer virtual breakout rooms for this purpose, and can even assign attendees to a room randomly, which is a great way to reconnect with old friends and make new ones at the same time.
Online conferences are great learning opportunities, but like virtual user groups, they often focus more on delivering information and less on networking. Look for ones that offer some kind of networking opportunities where you can meet new people.
Websites like Meetup.com, which is heavily used by tech groups, can be a great way to discover both in-person and online events that might be of interest. I will note that I don’t consider venues such as LinkedIn and Faceplace to be great networking opportunities. They’re good for communicating with an audience, but you can’t “network” in 250 characters while the whole world is watching. Networking isn’t done in bulk, and it isn’t done in snippets. Social media can be great for helping to build and maintain a brand (as discussed in chapter 2), but it isn’t a way to form strong professional connections.
Events aren’t the only way to network online, though, and they’re not even the widest-reach way you can network without leaving home. Here are some more ideas:
Commit yourself to a question-and-answer website that serves your field. This site might be a general tech site like StackOverflow.com or something more topic-specific that’s run by a volunteer group. Become known as someone who provides friendly, helpful, accurate answers; never tell people, “You can Google that.” Check the site daily so that you can respond in a timely manner. Sometimes, even if a question has been answered, you can provide additional context or explanation, alternative solutions, or background information to help people.
Become a contributor to an open source software project that’s meaningful to you. If you use an open source framework, why not offer to help do code reviews, proofread or expand documentation, or make some other contribution? You don’t necessarily have to invent new code to become a helpful part of that software’s community.
Follow key hashtags on social media. I follow #PowerShell, for example. Following hashtags is a great way to find people who need help and to become known for the help you provide.
Start a blog. Blogging is a well-known way to contribute to a technical community, but you need to be able to commit to blogging consistently. I aim to blog once a week and sometimes take a day to sit down and write an entire month’s worth of articles. Just because someone else has already blogged on a topic you’d like to write about doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Your unique perspective is likely to help people whom other authors weren’t able to reach. Publicize your blog posts on social media (most good blogging platforms, such as WordPress.com and Medium.com, can automate this for you) to start gaining a readership. Just note that blogging is a one-way thing: you’re not truly networking. You’re developing an audience of people who know you, though, and who see your brand, so it’s still a valuable part of an overall networking strategy.
Be seen as yourself online It’s important for your online presence to include your real photo and your real name as much as possible. Otherwise, you’re not truly networking because people aren’t getting to know you. That’s Branding 101, as discussed in chapter 2.
Whenever and wherever you’re networking, the people you’re engaging with become part of the audience for your professional brand. You obviously want them to have a positive experience when they engage with you. Here are some tips for keeping your interactions brand-positive.
In-person networking can be one of the most impactful forms of networking you engage in because it employs all of our human behaviors, including body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Meeting someone in person creates a far stronger mental impact than meeting them online, even in a video chat, so it’s important to make a great first impression.
Pay attention to your physical appearance, and make sure that it’s fully appropriate for whatever activity you’re participating in. At a formal business mixer, professional attire and a neat, well-groomed look might be best. For an informal meetup of geeks who jog on weekends, you’re going to be wearing running gear. Whatever the occasion, make sure that you’re focusing on the expectations of the situation.
Even professional attire will differ based on when and where you live and work. Where I live (US West Coast), business-lunch attire for a software engineer at a large corporation might include khakis and a golf shirt. But that same person, if they worked for a large East Coast bank, might expect to wear a business suit. At Microsoft’s famously informal campus in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve had business lunches with people in T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, and that attire was totally fine with everyone. Take the time to look around and see what other folks in your area, and in your line of business, are wearing; that’s the best way to understand the social norms of your situation.
Focus on your body language, and practice it with family and friends. Greet people with a smile and (if appropriate) a firm handshake. Stand with your arms at your side, not in your pockets or crossed in front of you. Maintain eye contact with whomever you’re speaking to, and if you’re in a small group, rotate eye contact among people. Keep your posture upright when you’re standing, without seeming stiff. All these little gestures and postures add up to an impression that you are engaged and paying attention.
Icebreakers, or how to start a conversation
Selecting appropriate topics of conversation at an in-person networking opportunity can be incredibly important. I like to avoid telling jokes, in large part because I’m terrible at them, and there’s a real risk of offending someone. Also, most of the jokes I know are . . . let’s just say less appropriate for a professional crowd.
But you still need icebreakers, or ways to bring yourself into a small group conversation. One of my icebreakers is to tell a short anecdote about an incident I had at work that others in the group might relate to. I prepare these anecdotes and even practice them, telling them to my friends. I try to have a few stories about a time when I failed at something, and I make sure to include what I learned from the situation. When others have shared these kinds of fails with me in conversation, those stories humanized them for me, and I wanted to try doing the same for myself. A while back, I worked in database administration, and if I found myself in a crowd of fellow database admins, I might have brought up a story like this:
So you mentioned optimizing. I was working with a real estate firm for a while, and we had this enormous database with all of our property listings. We’re talking millions of properties across the world, including every property we’d ever listed. As we were designing the tables, we decided to fully normalize. But it turns out addresses are really complex, right? You’ve got the street number and name, but you’ve also got a prename direction, like North or South; potentially a postname direction; the road designation, like “Road” or “Avenue” or something. And all that. It turned out to be 11 fields! [People’s eyes got a bit wide as they anticipated where this story was going.] So yeah, every address lookup had to join nine tables, because we normalized the compass directions, the list of “Street” and “A avenue” designations, and everything else. Performance was terrible. That’s where I learned about denormalization. [I tried to look sheepish.]
If you’re getting started with in-person networking, it’s fine to be a little quieter in conversations if being quieter suits your personality. But spend that time studying what other people do to connect. Observing them helps you figure out what’s appropriate for the setting and lets you prepare to be more actively engaged at the next gathering.
If appropriate for the situation, exchange business cards as part of your introductions. But don’t hand out cards to everyone you see, whether you speak with them or not. That kind of canvassing feels more like marketing than networking. If someone tells you something you want to follow up on, ask whether it’s okay to jot a note on the back of their card. That way, you’re seen as taking an active interest in remembering what they told you, and you’re not seen as carelessly defacing their card.
LinkedIn is probably the top social media platform for businesspeople, which is why I’m emphasizing it here over Facebook and Twitter, but these tips apply pretty well to any social media platform:
I try not to accept connections from anyone I’m not willing to engage in a direct chat. That’s kind of like saying, “Hey, you’re welcome to step into my office, but I’m going to ignore you the whole time,” and that’s not the impression I want to offer as part of my professional brand. If someone turns out to be a spammer, I can simply reply, “This isn’t how I use LinkedIn, and while I appreciate your time, I’d like to stop this.” Then I can unconnect or take other appropriate actions. But in accepting a connection, I try to assume positive intent and always reply to direct messages.
I use both Twitter and LinkedIn to promote the things I’m doing and seeing in my communities: new books, blog posts, podcast episodes, conferences I find interesting, code projects I’ve been using, and so on. This approach lets me promote not only my own work, but also the work of others, because I want amplifying others to be part of my professional brand. I tend to shy away from personal stuff, as I’ve mentioned before, and to keep my posts focused on my business.
When I reach out to someone else, unless they’re an existing colleague or co-worker, I include a small note letting them know why I sent the connection request. The note could be as simple as “I’ve been reading your blog, and I’d really like to maintain a professional connection with you,” but it helps communicate my intentions.
My rule for commenting on other people’s posts: if you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing unless they’ve explicitly asked you for complete feedback. There are more than enough people willing to tear others down, and I’ve felt no need to help out in that regard.
Remember that everything you do on the public internet becomes part of your professional brand. You can delete stuff later, but it’s safe to assume that someone else has already picked it up and archived it. Whatever happens online stays online, forever.
When you’ve found your networking group or event and are in a small group, either online or in person, what do you do or say? Making conversation with strangers does not come naturally to everyone. Here are some tips for being a more confident and effective networker:
Make sure that you understand what your brand is and that you represent that brand during every one of your interactions. If people see you in one context as being a helpful, engaged member of a technology community and in another context as being a gossip who speaks poorly of other people, they’re not going to form a good impression of you, and they won’t want to be part of your network.
Develop a concise introduction for yourself. Be able to accurately describe who you are and what you do in a couple of sentences. If you’re actively seeking new work, make sure that you can succinctly describe what you’re looking for.
Get comfortable walking up to strangers—say, at a conference or user group meeting—and introducing yourself. Being confident enough to say something like “Hi! I’m Don, and I do a lot of work with PowerShell. What do you do?” is a simple way to start a conversation.
If you are an introvert, you may have to force yourself to do in-person networking. Try to show up at networking opportunities with a good amount of energy, and expect to feel drained afterward. The effort is worth it.
Ask questions. Humans tend to engage more rapidly and deeply with people who aren’t talking just about themselves, but who show interest in other people and organizations. Networking is a great way to gain information by asking questions like these:
When someone introduces themselves to you, repeat their name (“Nice to meet you, Jason!”). Focus on that repetition; don’t let it become a habitual thing you do. The idea is to make your brain pay attention to the person’s name and face, and start making a connection. Then use that person’s name a few times in immediate conversation (“Jason, tell me a bit about what you do”) to cement the name in your brain even more. This tip helps you remember people’s names—something that always makes a good impression.
Concern yourself more with collecting business cards than distributing them. After you speak with someone, make a few notes on the back of the card about what you talked about. After the event, write a short personal email to each person you met, thank them for the conversation, and let them know that you look forward to meeting them again.
Offer to help. The best way to make someone feel positive about you is to help them. If they have a technical problem, offer to meet online later to work on it with them, or offer to pull out a laptop right then and take a look. If they’re job-hunting, offer to go through job postings together. Find ways to help others, and they’ll almost always be willing to help you later.
Finally—and this is the big thing—make sure that you have plans to stay in touch. If you meet new people in your specific field, why not try to put together a monthly user group call, on which everyone can discuss what they’re up to, share problems, and offer solutions? Create opportunities to reconnect in a meaningful and helpful way. Join open source projects that your contacts contribute to, and start making your own contributions; even code reviews and documentation proofreads are helpful.
For this chapter, I’d like you to work on a networking plan:
Start by setting some monthly networking goals for yourself, such as “Get to know three new people each month” or “Attend an in-person event and develop five new high-quality connections.” Emphasize quality over quantity! Don’t forget to include goals for maintaining and connecting with your existing network.
Evaluate any networking activities you already engage in. How did you start them, and how are they performing for you in relation to your goals? How might you continue them in the same way or alter what you’re doing?
Identify some new networking activities that you might try, with an eye toward meeting your networking goals. You’ll need to give most new activities three to six months before you can really evaluate their effectiveness.