Networking tips for software developers
Yes, we are talking about people-to-people networking
As much as we value technical competencies as software developers, we have to acknowledge that soft skills are equally as important, if not more important. We can be stubborn enough to ignore this reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences. If we do, our career progress and satisfaction will be unnecessarily impeded.
“Reality continues to ruin my life.”
— Bill Watterson, cartoonist of Calvin and Hobbes
There is a multitude of benefits when you have healthy relationships in the industry. These include:
- more pleasant daily work
- more chance of skirting around the unnecessary corporate bureaucracy
- easier to get a new job you want, as opposed to the “apply and hope” approach
- access to information before it becomes available via official channels
- easier to get help from people even if they are not officially obligated to help you
I’m sure there is some official all-encompassing definition of the term “networking”. To me, networking means establishing and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships.
I am by no means a networking guru! In fact, I consider myself a newbie. Nevertheless, I would like to share some of the approaches that have worked for me so far.
Tip 1: Have the right intentions
The intention behind our actions will have a major impact on how we behave. This is especially true when dealing with people.
I network with people because I am interested in knowing the person as a human being. I truly believe that it is natural for human beings to form bonds.
Any benefit, if at all, is a nice side-effect, an icing on the cake. Benefits of networking aside, the act of being pleasant and positive to others is generally in itself reward enough.
We all know “that” developer. You know, that developer who goes out of his way to brown-nose managers but is a jerk to the cafeteria staff. It is blatantly obvious to everyone around him. We can smell it from a mile away if someone is patronizing us merely to make use of us in the future.
There are of course exceptions to this. Sometimes, we have to tolerate and play nice with people we dislike in order to achieve larger goals. This is different from going out to build relationships with the main goal of “leveraging” them in the future.
Tip 2: Talk about non-work stuff
One way to create rapport with the people in your network is to connect with them on a personal level. Contrary to popular belief, people working in tech do have lives outside of work. They have hobbies, interests, and passions.
I found out that sharing details from my personal life is a good way to start connecting on a personal level. Doing that will give them an indicator that you are okay with talking about non-work related topics.
You can always start by making a casual remark that is related to your personal life. See how it takes off from there. If the weather is great, you can say “Wow, I can’t wait to take my mountain bike out today for a ride”.
As with anything else, the key is to maintain a balance. You are a human, not a robot. That means it is natural to share details of your life. On the other hand, it is possible to overshare.
It might seem like common sense, but opening up over the following topics to a colleague you barely know could lead to awkwardness:
- financial views. Example: ranting about overpriced cheese
- relationship and family problems. Example: talking about your asshole brother-in-law
- health details. Example: digestive effects of eating probiotics last weekend
- politics, religion or any other polarizing topic. Example: your view on European politics
Conversations about personal topics should be a two-way affair. Ideally, both parties roughly know the same amount of personal details about each other.
Tip 3: Know that cold contacts are okay
Cold contact means contacting a person out of the blue without having prior contact with that person.
Years ago, I thought that contacting “strangers” in a professional setting was weird. Due to a slew of positive experiences, I have since changed my mind.
People will not be offended that you reached out. On the contrary, most of them will be more than happy to hear you out.
I have sent cold emails colleagues that I do not know in the following circumstances:
- when I cannot find a solution from “typical” avenues such as googling, Stack Overflow and asking colleagues that I know
- when I think there could be experts in the company that might offer a valuable perspective on an issue I am contemplating
I work in a multinational tech company with almost a 6 figure employee count. That is a treasure trove of knowledge.
This is exactly how I go about it:
- search the intranet and internal forums for potential experts on the issue I am facing
- email them with the question and a short introduction of what I am doing. I don’t beat around the bush, I am specific with the question
- if they answer, I thank them regardless if they could help me with my question
- when I could solve the problem, I send them an update of the situation
I have had positive experiences from this approach. A very small percentage of the emails do not get a reply. More often than not, the colleagues either help me out, introduce me to someone who can or apologize that they cannot be of help.
In certain cases, the relationships even organically progress further beyond the reason for the initial contact.
Tip 4: Just say hi
My mentor at work is an awesome person. It is fun to meet up for a casual exchange over lunch or coffee. He is extremely creative, both technically and from a managerial perspective.
I met my mentor by chance a couple of years back, by simply saying hi to a stranger. Back when the Apple Watch was still very new and rare, I saw him at the coffee machine queue wearing it. Without thinking much, I blurted out the words “Wow, Apple Watch!”. Somehow, the conversation spun off from there.
We keep in touch occasionally after that, by exchanging experiences about the stuff we work on. We happen to both work in the innovation space in our company. There is naturally a lot to talk about, especially over emerging tech and how they can be specifically applied to our company’s business landscape.
A few years went by. One day, I was required to specify an “official” mentor in one of the HR programmes I was participating in. I ask him if he was interested to be the mentor. He agreed.
On that day I said “Wow, Apple Watch!”, I had no clue what would ensue. I did not have any expectations, not even the expectation of a reply at that coffee corner.
We will never know how interactions will unfold. But what we can do is say a simple hi. I am glad I did.
Tip 5: Be a connector
You have probably read often that being a connector in your network is a good idea. I have found this to be a very satisfying practice. It feels good to know that I have provided value to people by expanding their networks.
I differentiate between more casual introductions and more “formal” ones.
With casual connections, I simply introduce people to one another whenever there is an opportunity. A very common scenario is when I am chatting to one person and another person happens to say hi to me.
When making more formal introductions, I make sure that both parties are interested before making the introduction. I found out that it feels awkward later if only one party is interested in keeping the interaction alive.
A couple of years back, I introduced a contact to the product manager of my old department for potential co-innovation projects. The introduction was done via email. The product manager did not react to the introduction despite being reminded a couple of times.
I felt bad about that introduction. I made it a point to ask both parties before making an introduction, particularly when it is meant to lead to concrete work collaborations.
When listening to challenges or problems faced by colleagues, make it a habit to ask yourself if there is anyone in your circle who might be in a position to help. You are doing both of them a favor, offering one person help and the other a chance to be helpful.
One nice benefit of being a connector is that you will feel less awkward when asking for introductions. If you want an introduction, ask for it.
Networking is not a new concept. We have relied on each other to thrive since the dawn of our species. Getting to know and working with others to achieve common goals is one of the most natural things we can do.
In the corporate world, especially in tech, we sometimes forget the importance of connecting with fellow humans. Contrary to what some might think, networking is not selfish. We are doing others and ourselves a favor when we polish up our networking skills.