Professional Networking

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010 @ %I:%M %p | Technology

One of my most popular talks, and a favorite of mine to give, is “You started an open source project, now what?” It aims to give advice on how to attract developers and others to your project, and how to chase them away – a practical hints and tips session with real world examples. This morning while going through my LinkedIn inbox I realized there is a variant on this topic but then specific to professional networking.

Previously I wrote about the professional networking environment in Rochester and I’ll use some of the organizations to illustrate my points.

Whether your networking opportunity today is online (eg LinkedIn or Plaxo) or in person (eg a Digital Rochester gathering) the first step is to be prepared.

For an in-person event come with business cards an practice answers to questions you can predict: what do you do? what are you looking for?

It’s very easy and cheap these days to have cards printed. There’s really no excuse to be without. When we meet I will try to remember your name, really, I will try. Having your card makes it much, much more likely that the next day I will remember you and send you an invite to connect on LinkedIn. I will certainly not remember your email address. It also helps me network on your behalf. At a Digital Rochester gathering I spoke to a person looking for a software developer with particular skills. That same evening I run into a friend with those skills. Neither had a business card. You know, you’re making this hard for me!

At a conference last year in San Jose, CA I met up with two ex-Sun colleagues. One started a new venture, the other was still looking. She and I trying to help the person still searching:
“What are you looking for?”, we asked.
“Oh anything really,” he responded.
“Yeah, but what in particular do you what to do?”, we tried again.
“Anything. If you look at my last couple of jobs at Sun and Apple I never had a clearly described job and did whatever needed doing.”

The above conversation also happens a lot in open source software projects: “Where do you need help?” asks a newcomer, “anywhere, pick any area you like” answers the project leader. This is miscommunication. In the San Jose conversation our friend tried to be helpful to us by not bounding his interest. The result of course is the opposite: he’s not giving us anything to go on. You need to make choices.

Now, one can also be too abrupt. At an August Group event someone came up to me; we don’t know each other and almost the first question was “are you hiring?” I was not so my answer was “no” and the conversation, such as it was, ended. An opportunity lost. I may not be hiring but maybe I know who is or maybe I’ll be hiring in the future. But I don’t know who you are or what you’re looking for. First, start a conversation. Don’t throw your elevator pitch at me right away but start with a question. Once we’re talking either I will ask you what you’re looking for or there will be a natural moment to perform your 20 seconds sales pitch.

For online networking it is equally important to be prepared and to observe of some of the same points. I’ll stick with LinkedIn in my argument. Make sure there’s at least some professional background info in your profile: what have you done, where have you been? And, if you set email or phone as preferred means of contact then make sure an email address or phone number is in your profile…

LinkedIn is a fantastic tool to reconnect with old colleagues, friends from school or university as well as making new connections. When I receive an invite to connect on LinkedIn from someone I may have worked with in the past then it greatly helps if you put a little context in the message rather than LinkedIn’s default “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” If you were my boss for seven years then you don’t need to elaborate how we know each other. In all likelihood I do remember. But if we knew each other only casually or we worked on a (short) project quite a while ago then personalizing the invite and giving me some context really helps. Don’t make me hunt for it. Give me an impression that you value re-establishing our relation by investing a little more time than the three mouse clicks to send out the plain vanilla invite.

And your LinkedIn profile should have a good picture of you. When I am searching to reconnect it can help me decide your profile is the right John Smith I’m looking for. And, when we meet in person for the first time it helps us recognize each other at Starbucks, the Bagel Bin, Spin Caffe or wherever our favorite coffee spot is.

Share with me your hints and tips regarding successful networking.



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