The Social Side of IT: Why You Should Network, and How to Find Events

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Part of every IT professional’s job is finding answers. Not knowing answers – finding answers! There is a huge difference between the two, in that:

  • Knowing an answer is great for exams, job interviews, and Jeopardy!
  • Finding an answer is more important, because you need to find the answer before you can know it.

Here is the dirty little secret:

It is harder work to find the right answers than it is to know the right answers!!!

Now let us look at the traditional methods for finding answers in the IT profession:

  • Books – You can never read enough books! But the problem with most technology books is that the information is out of date long before the book is published. That is why I read technology books that focus on the fundamentals (TCP/IP, DNS, time-proven coding practices, etc.) instead of highly specific technology books (the latest release of a Linux distro, WordPress version “X”, etc.). It is unlikely for the fundamentals of a technology to change very much by the time a book is published as opposed to all of the little fringe settings that change rapidly. So books on fundamentals will help you a great deal, but for an immediate answer to the current problem that you face books probably are not a great choice. There are better alternatives in those types of situations.
  • Training – Good people combined with good training results in people who have the rights answers, but unfortunately this requires resources in the form of time and money that may not be readily available. Take every class that you can, but most of the time training is just not an option at the vey moment that you need it most.
  • The Internet – This seems to be the most popular option for finding answers, and obviously for good reasons! You probably have nearly the entire sum of human knowledge at your disposal thanks to the Internet. The problem is that you need to know how to search for the right information, and even if you have great search engine skills you might still get information that is wrong. See you not only have access to nearly the entire sum of human knowledge, but you also have to filter out nearly the entire sum of human misunderstandings and false conclusions as well. Now the potential gains of an Internet search far outweigh the risks, but for some situations there is an even better option.
  • Your Professional Network – This is the best option for your most difficult problems. You might not have time to read the book, but a phone call to the right person could result in an instant answer. You might end up trying several different solutions from an Internet search and still not resolve the issue, but an email to the leading expert on the matter could provide you with the best solution. There are no guarantees in life, but would you read a book about cardiology if you thought that you were having a heart attack? Or how about browsing various web sites for information on heart attack symptoms? If your answer is “Yes.” to either of those questions I hope that you have your last will and testament in order! Your best bet would be to get in front of a doctor immediately so that an expert gets involved. The same thing is true with difficult problems in IT – nothing is better than a qualified expert’s skills and experience.

Obviously you do not turn to the expert for every little issue. That would be akin to bothering a world class surgeon every time that you needed a band-aid. Yet having the ear of an expert to bounce ideas off of is a great resource to have. To use the heart attack example again, what would happen if you were able to meet periodically with a great cardiologist long before you had a heart attack? Perhaps he or she could help you avoid that heart attack completely with snippets of advice and an exam as needed.

What if you knew a SQL expert to ask for the occasional database configuration tip?

What if you knew a security expert who routinely shared with you the newest emerging threats?

What if you knew a storage expert who could advise you what your next solution should include, or better yet what technology to avoid?

If you had all of those resources and they were merely a quick text message away you would be a better IT professional. Why? Because you would be a resource that extends beyond just yourself. You would be a resource that provides access to an entire network of resources.

This requires that you learn how to network, and that is a very difficult (but fun) skill to master itself. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • First get some business cards. Not your company’s business card with your name on it, but YOUR OWN business cards. Your name, a personal phone number (preferably one that will always follow you like a Google Voice number), and an email address on your own domain (you do have your own domain and web site, don’t you?). Carry your cards with you at all times. Give out your company’s business card when you are doing work for your company, your personal business card when you are on your own time, and both if your company does not object to the practice (some do, and in that case consider getting another job). Tip: Invest $10 in a decent business card holder/wallet. You do not have to spend any more than that to get a good one and it is a great networking tool to have in your pocket at all times.
  • Once you have your business cards with all of your information HAND THEM OUT! Do not be one of those people who does not hand out their card because they are “running low.” Do not run low to begin with! Always keep yourself well stocked with your own business card (I keep a second box in my car just in case). Seriously, give your personal business card to everyone that you meet who is willing to take them from you. Give them to your friends, family, and associates too. Sure they already know you, but who do they know that you do not? If they have your business card and your blessing to to hand it out on your behalf you will have just increased how far your network extends. The beauty of that trick is that it is itself an act of networking!
  • Make sure that when you give your card to someone that you always tell them your area of expertise, that you invite them to contact you if they should ever need a person of your expertise, and conclude by asking for one of their business cards. Treat their business card with respect, and place it in your business card holder/wallet (mine has more than one section so I can separate my business cards from others). Let the other person see you treating their card as something special, BECAUSE IT IS SOMETHING SPECIAL! Their card is an invitation to contact them. It is permission to request their expertise if you should ever need it. I would rather have the business cards of 100 experts from various fields than a $100 dollar bill. Money is easy to make, but contacts are something to be cherished.

Pretty easy, right? The above is a great practice for networking well beyond your profession and industry. But what if you want to focus on finding other IT professionals? Here are some tips for finding IT related events where you can meet other IT professionals:

  • Your Current Co-workers – Let your current co-workers know that you are interested in networking events. They may not be interested themselves, but whether they are or not they might pass along to you information about upcoming events. Be sure to let invite your co-workers to the networking events that you will be attending.
  • Sales People – Sales people are a great source to learn of upcoming networking events from, because nothing sells to prospective customers better than the testimonials of happy current customers. Sales people will also gladly arrange for you to meet with other IT professionals who have done work similar to the projects that you might be considering. Just ask if they will arrange an introduction, and they probably will do so gladly! You just got access to someone who can prepare you for all of the hurdles and unexpected gotcha’s that your next project may face.
  • Charitable Events – Go to any local charity event and ask “Who is in charge of the web site?” or “Who setup the computers?” and you will probably be introduced to a volunteer who also happens to be an IT professional. Do the right thing in this situation and offer to help first, then ask to exchange business cards. Charities need good IT people just like any business does, and the reward is usually better than money.
  • Websites – No need to explain this one! The Internet is one of the best ways to spread the word for social events, product demonstrations, or other special events. I like to check Eventbrite for upcoming events (I am in no way associated with Eventbrite). Do a search on the web for IT events in your area and see what comes up.
  • Local Clubs & Organizations – Check out your local Linux User Group. Find out if there are any professional associations for IT professionals in your area. Call the Computer Science department for the local college and ask if they host any events. These are all great resources that you probably are not accessing, but if you did what could it lead to?

I hope that this article has convinced you to start networking if you do not do so already, and that my tips for finding other IT professionals helps you to expand your personal network. Remember that networking is not just about accessing other people’s knowledge and expertise, but it is also about contributing your own knowledge and expertise to help out others. One helpful tweet, blog article, phone call, or in person visit pays for itself as others recognize your skills and develop an admiration for your willingness to help people with their own IT problems.

Let me put it like this: If you develop a strong network and contribute to it, who do you think will be extended job offers from the members of that same network? You, of course! People do not have a position become available and think “Hmm, Bob has always been really helpful whenever I have needed help with our web site. I think that I’ll just ignore that and post this new Web Designer role straight to Monster and hope that I get lucky!”

No, we turn to the qualified people that we know personally first when there is a good opportunity at our own company.

So become someone whom others will think of first when a new opportunity presents itself. Start networking today!

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