Whether you’re just starting your IT career, perpetually stuck somewhere in the middle, or at the top of your game, networking can take you to new heights. If you’re a novice networker, don’t let it intimidate you. Communication is a key soft skill that every professional should attempt to master. If you don’t see the value in developing a professional network, don’t be so closed-minded. Lasting, personal relationships are a cornerstone of the human experience. When you spend a significant portion of your life participating in and developing your career, it’s only natural that some of these important relationships will be centered on business. But why is it important to develop a professional network?
1) Mentoring relationships: When you’re first starting out, it’s easy to be in awe of the talented techies that work above you. One day, with the right amount of effort, talent and luck, you could become one of the big wigs like they are. That’s why the mentoring relationships are so important in your early development. When you’re just starting out in tech, it’s easy to be pretty green about what it takes to make it to a senior developer, architect, manager or even CTO role. Forging a professional friendship with one or more IT professionals who have your dream job can help you set realistic expectations for your career advancement and you’ll get inside tips about which soft skills you’ll need to develop in order to get there. Similarly, once you reach that coveted senior level role, you’ll want to share your experiences. You’ll have the opportunity to become a mentor and realize it’s more than a one-way relationship. In fact, mentees often bring innovative ideas and unbridled passion that can refresh and inspire you.
2) Finding a job: Whether it means getting into a company who rarely ever hires from outside sources or simply having your resume placed at the top of the pile, networking can go a long way when you’re on the job hunt. If you have connections in IT sprinkled throughout the professional world, chances are you know someone who knows someone who’s hiring. Maybe you have a connection that wants to work with you and is willing to convince their boss to hire you! Whatever the circumstance, networking provides numerous advantages when you’re ready to make a career move.
3) Acquiring new business: Clients, customers, friends—whether you’re offering a service or a good, successful professionals in any field have to promote their work for it to get noticed. When you’re building a network, you’re building possibilities for future business. Your new connections may not need your service or product, but someone they know will. It’s important to not treat networking solely as a sales opportunity, but there are plenty of possibilities for your current network to introduce you to future clients. You may be in business for yourself and find this essential, or be a part of a large team and find the gratitude of your boss encouraging. Either way, networking comes into play when trying to acquire new business.
4) Self-promotion or skill development opportunities: Will you answer tech questions for my friend’s upcoming Re/Code article? Will you attend my presentation on a groundbreaking new technology I think you’d really love? Will you speak with me on a panel of tech experts at this conference? Whatever opportunity you’re looking for, they’re often presented through your network of connections. Either directly or indirectly, your professional friendships can inform you of opportunities for skill development or self-promotion that you wouldn’t have known about. Recommendations extend beyond new job opportunities and into other avenues like presenting at a conference or being quoted in an article that will impress your boss and pack your resume. In the same way that extracurricular activities were essential on your college applications, these extra opportunities can emphasize your tech expertise when you’re ready to advance your career. Plus, many of these engagements will serve to extend your professional network, multiplying your chances for other networking benefits as time passes.
5) Sense of community: Would it surprise you to find out that your happiness and your sense of community are intertwined? According to various happiness studies compiled by PBS, “ Belonging to a group or community gives us a sense of identity. It helps us understand who we are and feel part of something larger than ourselves. Researchers also find that people with strong social connections have less stress-related health problems, lower risk of mental illness, and faster recovery from trauma or illness.” When you spend large periods of time at work and developing your skills, your personal network of family and friends may not have a mutual understanding of the particularities of IT. This frustration can be easily addressed by developing a network of IT professionals who can relate to your workplace triumphs and woes. They will also bring a diverse set of ideas and influences that will contribute directly to your career growth.
Keep these benefits in mind and get ready to start networking! If you’re uncomfortable with the process or unfamiliar with the best ways to go about it, don’t worry. These fail-safe tips will help you effectively develop a network of IT professionals.
Put yourself out there: The first step of any kind of networking is to put yourself out there. When people don’t know that you exist, you can’t build relationships with them. For the best results, blend your networking across multiple platforms. Attending a handful of networking events with your coworkers is a good start, but it only addresses one of the potential areas of networking that you should be participating in. According to Business Network International’s Misner, participating in a networking group breaks down into four types.
- Casual contact networks (networking events or industry mixers)
- Knowledge networks (professional associations)
- Strong contact networks (groups that meet frequently specifically to build professional relationships)
- Online networks (professional social media services, such as LinkedIn)
Using this blended approach will help you develop the kind of comprehensive network that benefits your career across all of the above avenues. Need help finding some of these groups? Meetup is a great resource for finding groups that meet frequently and LinkedIn has a variety of technical groups where you can mingle with IT professionals and make meaningful connections.
Ask questions, listen & say their name: A smile goes a long way when you’re networking in person but, with the variety of online avenues for IT professionals to connect, there are a few steadfast rules you can use to make a positive first impressions. Remember, these first impressions provide the bedrock that your lasting connections will be built on.
- Ask Questions: Instead of barging into a conversation with an opinion, make your entrance with a question. This is a less awkward, more engaging way of staring a conversation with people you’ve never met before. Continue to emphasize questions throughout your initial meeting. You’ll learn more about each contact early on and it will be easier to carry on an engaging conversation.
- Listen: Asking questions, no matter how brilliant they may be, will prove useless if you aren’t willing to listen to responses with sincere interest. Listening to people’s experiences and opinions will lead to great conversations and develop a more valuable communication that leads to valuable connections.
- Say his or her name: Ever since Dale Carnegie pointed out the importance of saying someone’s name during a conversation in the bestselling book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, it’s been a cornerstone of networking. Obviously, you have to say more than that person’s name to create meaningful communication, but sprinkling someone’s name into your conversation will help strangers and acquaintances feel more comfortable, like you already know them and they already know you.
Aim for trusting, solid, mutually beneficial relationships: Flimsy networks won’t benefit your career. Starting each relationship with a foundation of trust is essential if you want to establish meaningful connections with your contacts that result in the benefits listed earlier. An important element of trust is disclosure: explain who you are, what you do and what you’re passionate about. It’s easier for someone to trust you if they know whom you are, what you do and how well you do it. Similarly, trusting business contacts are easier to cultivate when you establish a mutually beneficial relationship. These can be created by discussing mutual areas of interest and by identifying what you can bring to the connection. Instead of focusing on what each relationship could do for you, find out what opportunities or knowledge you can contribute to the lives of each individual in your network and give generously. Even flattery or providing an attentive, inquisitive audience to someone else’s depth of knowledge is a form of generosity. As with all good relationships, there needs to be a balance of give and take in order for the connection to remain solid and mutually beneficial.
Stay in touch: With technology on your side there is no excuse not to stay in touch. A neglected network is effectively rendered useless. If you only reach out when you’re asking for a favor, it will completely undermine the solid, mutually beneficial relationship you previously established. It’s exceedingly easy to send a quick email, a thank-you note, share your contact’s article, comment on their LinkedIn posts or message them to arrange a meet up. These efforts only take small amounts of time but they’ll help maintain your network. If you’re only focusing on reaching out to new people, you’ll never establish meaningful connections. The time-honored adage of “quality over quantity” applies perfectly to your IT network!
In case you lose touch with a valued contact, never call them randomly and ask for a favor. Instead, after long periods lacking communication, reach out via email to rekindle the relationship. Once your lines of communication are back in tact, make sure to maintain them. Losing contact after a long period of time is repairable—though still detrimental—unless it becomes a pattern. Your contact may lose the feelings of trust and reliability and simply stop responding to your emails all together if you only reach out occasionally, especially if it’s only to ask for a favor.
If you take the time to network the right way, you’ll quickly see the positive changes it brings to your IT career. With potential to elevate your career or completely change its trajectory, networking is a powerful tool that should not be ignored, so don’t shy away from it! Getting used to approaching strangers takes some practice, but the benefits far outweigh the potential foibles. Give it a go and you’ll see what we mean!