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I have to be completely honest with you.
I really HATE the word networking. I detest it.
The reason why is simple: most people do it in completely the wrong way.
When most programmers ask me about networking, what they are really asking about is how they can use people to get what they want.
I’m not about that at all—in fact, my personal philosophy—and the one I firmly believe you have to have for true success—is to figure out how you can give as many people as possible what they want… or even better, what they need.
Still, networking can be extremely valuable and essential to advancing your career if you do it correctly.
That’s what we are going to talk about in this post: networking. Doing it both the wrong way and the right way. And one of the best ways to network as a software developer is by joining software development groups.
The WRONG Way To Network
I’ve already alluded to this, but let’s start our talk about networking by talking about the wrong way to network.
You see, most software developers only start worrying about networking or trying to network at all when they need something—usually a new job. But that is the absolute worst time and wrong way to build a network. Building a network takes time.
Trying to rush the process and do it quickly results in you reeking of desperation and coming off as a sleazy moocher, trying to be nice to people so that you can extract something from them.
You have to invest in your network before you can take any value from your network.
That is why networking takes time and can’t be rushed.
If you are looking for a new job because you just lost your old one, and think, “Wow, this is a great time to network. I better network so I can get a new job,” you are doing it wrong.
Everyone you meet and try to network with will immediately smell a rat.
They’ll rightly guess that you aren’t really interested in them and meeting or helping them, but that you are trying to get something from them.
This will have the opposite effect of what you are trying to accomplish.
It’s not just the time component, though, that leads many software developers down the wrong path of networking; it’s also the approach.
That scattershot approach will build extremely shallow relationships which won’t amount to much.
Networking is also not a time where you tell as many people as you can your entire life story and how great you are.
But if these are all the wrong ways to network, what are the right ways, you might ask?
The RIGHT Way To Network
Networking is about something that is a recurring theme in my posts - that’s right, creating value for others.
The right approach to building a network is building relationships.
And just like romantic relationships, real business and professional relationships can’t be rushed. That’s why networking takes time and you can’t just do it quickly when you need a job.
Imagine if you met a person you’d like to pursue a romantic relationship with and on the first date, you asked them to marry you. That probably wouldn’t go over too well, yet many software developers want to approach networking in exactly that manner.
Instead, think about the long game. Think about networking as planting a large number of little seeds that you are going to water and nurture until they grow into large plants that eventually produce fruit. You can’t rush that process, and you have to be deliberate.
The best way to plant and nurture these seeds is to give first. You have to invest in your network and the people in your network. When you meet someone at a conference or a group, don’t think about what they can do for you—even if you really, really need a job right now. Instead, focus the entire conversation on what you can do for them.
Try to be as helpful as possible. Listen carefully, using active listening skills to figure out if there is some way you can help this person directly, or if there is someone else you know that you could introduce them to which would benefit them.
You give, give, give value and that’s how you build a network. You become the kind of person who people want to be around and want to know because of the value you create for them.
You can create this value in many ways. It could just be your super positive attitude. It could be the connections you have, which helps them grow their network. It could be your skills, or even just your ability to listen and really hear them. In order to truly give value, you are going to need to go deep. Don’t be one of those guys handing everyone you see a business card and chatting with them for three seconds.
Instead, take the time to really talk to the people you come in contact with, whether it be at a party, conference, meetup, or some other event.
Sure, you’ll meet fewer people in total, but you’ll actually be planting the seeds of relationships and growing a well-rooted network, not a phony, I’ve-met-all-these-people-but-I’ve-only-talked-to-them-for-two-seconds one.
Oh, and if you are having trouble knowing what to say when you meet people, or how to talk to them, there’s a simple tactic: ask them questions about themselves.
There is one subject everyone loves to talk about: themselves.
Too many people make the mistake of trying to network by trying to get random people to listen to stories about who they are and what they do, instead of talking about what those other people care about, which is…
Say it with me…
So, just ask questions that let the other person talk about… themselves… and you’ll be good to go.
There is an excellent example of this in Dale Carnegie's classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, where he does just that and is lauded as an excellent conversationalist.
Oh, and read that book if you haven’t already. In fact, read it more than once.
Where to Network
Ok, so you are a master networker. You are a combination of the pied piper and a snake charmer all rolled into one. You can “work a room” like no one’s business. The only problem is, you don’t have a room.
Where do you actually go to network?
The short answer is: everywhere. You should always be networking. Always start conversations with people and build relationships. Say “hi” to everyone you meet, whether you are in an elevator or sitting at the bar on a business trip, or just standing in line at Starbucks. You never know who you’ll meet and what they might have to offer to your growing network.
But let’s get specific because if you are trying to grow a specific kind of network, you need to meet specific kinds of people.
The easiest and best thing to do in this case is to find groups of people who are interested in what you are interested in.
I’d highly suggest using the site Meetup.com to find local groups on just about any kind of topic you can think of. Use Meetup to find software development groups in your area, and then attend those groups and you’ll have plenty of networking opportunities.
Just make sure you don’t show up at one meeting and expect to build your network because now you are looking for a job. Attend whatever groups you are interested in regularly, and you will definitely grow a network.
Be willing to put in the time.
Another great place to network is conferences and code camps.
Code camps are almost always free and are usually local, yearly events that attract a large crowd of software developers, college students, and recruiters.
Software development conferences, although sometimes expensive, are also great places to meet new people and pick up some training as well—although I only go for the networking opportunities.
When you are at a conference or code camp, walk around and talk to people, attend different sessions, and talk to the speakers.
I almost always go up to the speaker of any session I attend afterward or later when I see them and thank them for their presentation and give them a few good compliments about it.
Being a frequent speaker myself, I know how nice it can be to have someone tell you that you did a good job, so I try to think about how I could talk to a speaker in a way that would make me feel good if I were in their position.
Speakers at these kinds of events are often great people to have in your network. Many people are intimidated to talk to them, so this is an excellent opportunity if you are willing to take advantage of it.
Also, consider what is known as the “hallway track” as another great way to network at these kinds of events.
I often skip sessions altogether and just hang out in the hallways at conferences and talk to the other people hanging out in the hallways. Sometimes all I do is go to a conference to do just that.
You should also try to attend as many social events as possible, especially at conferences or code camps.
Go to the after party or the dinners. These are great chances to meet people when there is less of a crowd and you’re in a more social atmosphere.
Also, consider hackathons and other events which might be hosted in your area.
Hackathons are marathon-like coding events where teams come together to “hack out” a complete prototype product in 24-to-48 hours, or sometimes longer.
Because of the close working conditions and reliance on teamwork, these are really good opportunities to meet other programmers, designers, and entrepreneurs, plus they are a lot of fun!
Hosting and Creating Groups
Do you really want to take your networking mojo to the next level?
Want to get your black belt in networking?
Consider being the host of a group or starting your own event.
By far the best networker I know is a buddy of mine by the name of Dan Martell.
He’s a serial startup founder most famous for creating Clarity.fm, which billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban invested in.
Dan knows everyone.
When I meet new people, I almost always eventually ask them if they know Dan Martell and the answer is almost always “yes.”
It’s crazy. So how does he do it?
Well, one of the tactics I’ve seen him execute the most is something he calls “founder’s dinners.”
Every time he travels to a city, he puts together a dinner event and invites all the most prestigious people in the area whom he would like to meet.
At first, this might seem silly, why would they go to his dinner?
But all those people are usually also interested in networking, and so if someone is hosting a dinner with all the most prestigious people in an area, all of those people are going to be interested in attending to meet the other prestigious people.
Think about it.
And if the host can show pictures from past events and talk about the kind of people who attended them, they’ve got a pretty compelling offer.
The beauty of Dan’s founder’s dinners is that since he’s the one hosting the event, he gets to meet everyone and they are all appreciative of him for putting on the event.
He’s created value for them.
Now, you don’t have to do exactly what Dan does, but there is no reason why you can’t organize your own event or group in your area.
Just model what you are doing after other successful groups or events.
Sure, maybe no one will come, or it might take time to build a group of any size, but if you really want to up your networking game, I can’t think of a better way, so you might as well give it a shot.
And if you aren’t quite ready to host your own event or start your own group, consider volunteering for an event or group that someone else has created.
I know that organizers are always looking for volunteers, especially at large, free events like code camps. Go ahead and volunteer, and you’ll get exclusive access to the organizers of the events or groups and probably many of the high profile attendees.
You’ll also learn the ropes if you want to create your own group or event in the future.
Networking Isn’t Difficult
It just takes time and patience, and you have to shift the focus from you to the people you are networking with.
It takes time to build up a large network.
It doesn’t happen overnight. You shouldn’t just start when you need a job.
Having a large and valuable network is a fantastic asset for advancing your career—and your life in general.
I’ve heard it said that your network is your net worth, and I’ve found that statement to be truer than most people would imagine.
This post is a chapter from my book, The Complete Software Developer's Career Guide.