We need to talk about something that, let’s face it, many IT professionals are a bit uncomfortable with. While there are those of you out there who are social chameleons, able to adapt to any situation you find yourself in and thrive, there are still those of us who struggle with no small amount of social anxiety. This fact is true in any profession, so we’re not picking on IT professionals in particular, but this is an IT-centered forum, so it needs addressing in this context. Furthermore, there is a long-running joke out there that may have some underlying layer of seriousness, where IT tends to attract individuals who prefer the logic and consistency of their computers to the strange banality of other people. Whether this stereotype is true or not, the fact is that many professionals struggle with a fundamental concept that is vital to career advancement in any field: networking.
Networking is a nebulous term. For many people, it calls to mind awkward encounters at rigid business functions making stilted and awkward conversation. There are thousands of articles out there about how to successfully work a “networking event” or how to stand out at a career fair, which in many instances can amount to the same thing. Networking is often uncomfortable and people in any profession often hate to do it.
The right way to network is to do it without thinking about it as networking. To do that, you need to do your homework and overcome some mental barriers you probably have in place about the whole “networking” idea.
First of all, networking should never be aimless. If you are attending a networking event without a clear goal in mind, then you are in for an awkward time. If you send out emails to your potential mentors or contacts with the general purpose of “establishing a connection,” your efforts may be doomed to failure from the start. What does “establishing a connection” or “networking” even mean, then?
Consider this scenario: suppose you have a snarly problem you’re trying to work out in the customization settings for the accounting group in SAP. You’ve tried, but you just can’t seem to get everything working properly. Phone support hasn’t been much help, so you turn to the SAP community. You manage to find an article that alludes to your problem but doesn’t address the solution specifically.
Networking means that, rather than giving up in frustration or trying to rig your own solution, you email the author of that article and ask for some insight. And it’s just that simple. If you make contact, you’ve expanded your network. You’ve started a dialogue, and now it’s up to you to keep it going. They may or may not have the answer to your problem, but even if they don’t, you’ve taken your first step towards connecting with that person.
If this tactic sounds suspiciously non-threatening, that’s because it is. There are no tricks to networking. It’s a matter of putting yourself in touch with people who have similar goals, interests, or areas of knowledge, and communicating with them about the things you have in common. It doesn’t mean you need to make strained conversation about a sports team you have zero interest in following. That kind of attitude will get you nowhere and you’ll eventually be exposed as a phony. But if you make real connections with people that you can offer value, and who can offer value to you, then you’ve just successfully “networked.”
One mental barrier that might hold you back is the simple thought that why should anybody waste their time communicating with you? Do you really have to email the author of that article to get their help? Why would they ever respond to you? And sometimes, people won’t respond to you. You’ll attempt to make contact and the connection will fall flat. You shouldn’t allow that kind of situation to discourage you, because chances are, it has nothing to do with you. But most of the time, you will find people who are ready and willing to help you and to talk to you. And all you have to do is be willing to ask a few simple questions to get the conversation going.
*Image courtesy of rosmary via Creative Commons