Building your executive network.
In most of my roles, I’ve learned more from my peers than from my manager. Even when you get along well with your manager, your peers’ perspective will usually be closer to yours than your manager’s. Once you transition into an engineering executive role, you’ll still have peers, but they’re a different sort of peer, who will look at problems from a very different perspective than yours. If you ask the head of product for feedback, they will give it, but it’ll come from a product perspective. This will make your peer executives’ feedback valuable, but valuable in a very different way than peer engineering leader feedback you’ll have gotten in previous roles.
When I started my first engineering executive role, I spent time building a learning circle of industry peers, which was fundamental in my success. Whenever I got stuck, I was able to quickly poll their perspectives, and find new ideas to address my problem. Whether you build a learning community or rely on cold outreach, building your engineering leadership peer network is one of the most valuable steps you can take as a new engineering leader, and will significantly speed up your rate of learning.
We’ll work through using your network effectively, and how to build your network up. But first, a few words on folks looking for the networking cheat code.
What’s the cheat code?
If you write about peer networking, there are two inevitable outcomes. First, folks ask to use your network instead of building their own. I understand that perspective, but it shows a misunderstanding of how executive networking works: it should be an exchange of value. Asking to take someone’s existing network is not an exchange. Most people will ignore that kind of outreach, and over time I’ve come to ignore it as well.
Second, people will ask for a solution where they can pay to build their network. Sure, they understand that there isn’t room in the learning circle I run, but where can they buy their way into another, equally good, learning circle? Unfortunately, I don’t believe the incentives of paid networks are particularly good here. Paid networks monetize by growing their attendees, which compromises their ability to prioritize high-quality participants. It also complicates finding effective moderators, and giving participants feedback when their actions don’t contribute to the group’s success.
I highly recommend going into networking with the mindset that it’s going to take some work, and that you’re going to need to be useful to the folks who will network with you. If you go in looking for a cheat code, you’re going to waste your time and the time of the folks you reach out to.
Using the network
Whenever I run into a new problem, I try to solve it myself or work through it internally with my team and peers. If I’m still not pleased with our approach by that point, I reach out to my network. During my time at Calm, I reached out to my peers on a number of topics, but especially how to measure the engineering organization and writing Calm’s engineering strategy. In turn, my network also reached out to me asking about engineering meeting, finding their first executive job, and pretty much every topic you could think of.
My experience is that no topic is off limits, people are glad to share almost anything privately: career ladders, strategy documents, compensation bands, all of these things get shared regularly. Rather than being an issue of sensitive topics, what it really comes down to is being respectful of others’ time and social capital.
What I’ve generally seen work:
- Anything works if you’ve recently done the other person a favor
- One to three sentence questions sent via email. You can almost always get people to answer these, even if they don’t know you
- Lunch or dinner with people who enjoy spending time with you, especially if you offer to schedule a location convenient to them. You can pack quite a few questions into a meal
- Doing a shared hobby or activity together. If you’re both runners, go for a run together. If you’re both bikers, go biking one weekend. These are long, uninterrupted stretches of time that leave ample time for questions and clarification
If you’re finding that these approaches consistently don’t work for you, then get someone to review one of your requests. It’s normal for any given request to get dropped–people are busy–but it’s quite unusual to have requests consistently ignored if you follow the above approaches. The best bet is that you’re doing something wrong, or have already done enough wrong things that your network isn’t motivated to help you.
Three patterns that are particularly unlikely to work well for you are:
- Ambiguous requests, particularly for time (“could we grab some time to chat?”) make it hard for the other party to help, even if they are motivated. Be specific and concise
- Confusing requests where the recipient has to decode the message. If you’re asking for help, you should spend the time to make a clear request rather than forcing it onto the other person – you’re already asking them for something, don’t ask for two things
- Asking for introductions or connections unless there’s clear, real mutual value. Otherwise it’s burning the recipient’s capital without a return. It also makes for an overall awkward interaction, so the recipient is less likely to help you in the future
While I think of these as obviously bad patterns, I get these requests surprisingly frequently, and they’re hard to answer even when I want to help.
Building the network
That said, generally when people ask for advice about their network, they already have a specific way they want to use their network. Instead, their questions are focused on how to build a network in the first place. This is difficult, particularly as a newer executive, because you’re likely ahead of your peer group in your career. Even if you know hundreds of folks in the industry, only a few of them may have experience as an engineering executive.
Early on, my networking was very broad. I was excited to meet anyone working in the technology. Over time, I’ve gotten more focused in my expansion. At one point, working to meet infrastructure engineering leaders, particularly those who were solving the same kind of scalability issues I was, and those working at vendors that I depended on heavily. (It’s always helpful to have a friendly escalation point within a critical vendor.) Later, folks who’ve been successful in writing and speaking in the industry. These days, I’m most focused on executives operating organizations slightly more complex than I’ve worked with.
That said, much like internal communication, networking is a relatively mechanical skill. Building a large network doesn’t require genius socialization skills, it only requires ongoing focus and attention.
By far the best way to build your network is to spend time working at a large, fast growing company in a central tech hub like San Francisco, New York or London. Five years later, your colleagues will have spread across the industry. It’s a bit like meeting friends in college: it just happens without much deliberate effort.
I highly encourage folks pursuing executive roles to spend at least a year or two in this sort of company early-ish in their career. It’s not the only way to build out your network, but it is by far the most cost effective.
The quickest way to build out your network is to send out quick, concise notes to folks near, but not quite in, your network. This works because people want to be helpful, as long as you make it easy. There are a few rules to doing this well:
- Keep it short, aim for two to four sentences
- Ask a specific question
- Do not directly ask for time! However, it is fine to offer time, e.g. “Also glad to grab coffee near you if that’s easier!”
- Don’t ping for follow up if you don’t get a reply. Sometimes you won’t get a response. It is fine to ask a separate question in a few months though
- If they reply, say thank you and acknowledge their specific response
- It’s fine to use the same email for a few different people
If you follow this process a few times, particularly if you start your next question with context on how the previous advice worked out, you’ll soon be communicating with an acquaintance rather than a stranger. Your network has expanded by one!
I’ve benefited a great deal from putting together and running an engineering executives learning circle. That circle built meaningful relationships across over a dozen folks, who I’m able to learn from every few weeks during our sessions, and also able to ping with questions.
What initially made this learning circle work was the willingness to pull together the initial cohort, maintain code of conduct, and run the group for several years. What’s made it continue to work is selecting a group of executives who are thoughtful, strong communicators and interested to learn from each other.
The limiting factor on these kinds of small communities is people willing to do the work to operate them. If you’re focused on the idea of joining someone else’s community (learning circle or otherwise), instead of running your own, you should have a clear point of view about why you’re a very desirable learning circle attendee. Otherwise, you’re trying to consume someone else’s community and network. This can work, but in the long run you can go so much further, with so much less competition, if you create net-new community rather than relying on consuming existing ones.
Writing and speaking
One way to build your network is by writing and speaking in public. My blog, books, and conference talks have all been extremely valuable in building out my personal network. However, I generally believe that creating content is a time-inefficient way to build your network. If you’re excited to write and speak, then absolutely do that, it will help you build your network, but if you just want to build connections, then I strongly recommend pursuing other avenues.
Content creation is simply a very time inefficient way to network. Even in the best case, in the time it takes to write a single decent blog post, you could send twenty cold reach outs and attend three community events. If you try to make writing more efficient by writing shorter pieces or editing less, that probably won’t work too well either. Content-driven networking is more about writing interesting or thought-provoking pieces than it is about writing high volume.
There are a number of very large engineering leadership communities out there, most notably the Rands Leadership Slack. These are good places to learn, and they can be a good place to meet executives to add to your network, but my experience is that they struggle in a few ways from an executive’s point of view (which is in no way to their discredit, this is not their goal):
- Too open for a genuine discussion: it would be irresponsible to have a discussion about your circumstances in a forum where members of your team could easily view that discussion. When I have particularly good discussions about an executive problem, it always involves a significant amount of detail that I absolutely cannot share in a public forum. There’s no viable way to have these conversations properly outside of a private space
- Inverse relationship between ease of access and quality of advice: there’s no provable law here, but it’s generally my experience that the people with the best advice and relevant experience are too busy doing things to be consistently hanging out in large communities. There are exceptions here–and if you hang out frequently in a public community, then I’m sure you’re one of them–but I am deeply skeptical that you get the best advice on complex issues by asking in large forums
There are always details in the margins on a subject these broad. When does a small community cross into being a large community? What if the community is heavily moderated and has confidentiality in its code of conduct? Sure, there are absolutely some communities that make these things work, but I remain surprised at the degree that things leak even from nominally very private spaces. This is even more true as an executive, which makes you a nominally interesting topic of gossip.
Other kinds of networks
In addition to building your network of engineering leaders, there are a few other networks worth investing in as well: founders, venture capitalists, and executive recruiters.
Founders are a powerful, oddly shaped resource. In their business’ area, they often have unique, deep insight into the future. They are often widely connected with other founders. They will rarely know more about engineering or management than you do, but they often bring a unique perspective, and in particular a perspective similar to the founders at your company. If you’re struggling with your own founders, other founders are particularly helpful to chat with.
The best way to meet founders is to work in fast growing, entrepreneurial companies. The second best way is angel investing. A small amount of angel investing goes a surprisingly long way, as founders tend to be well connected with other founders.
Venture capitalists are the most connected people and best pattern-matchers in the industry. While they can’t necessarily evaluate engineering leaders, they can introduce you to ten engineering leaders within their portfolio. While they can’t tell you the right compliance automation tool for your company, they can tell you what their portfolio companies use, and in particular what their best companies picked. As long as you’re asking a question that benefits from industry connections or pattern awareness, there is no one more helpful than a venture capitalist.
One of the many perks of working at larger and well-known technology companies in a high-tech center like Silicon Valley, New York or London, is that a decent number of your colleagues will drift into venture capital over time. This won’t happen overnight, but venture capital firms frequently hire experienced industry operators, and you’ll find that you know quite a few folks over the course of a decade.
If the slow approach isn’t working for you, I particularly recommend putting your CEO to work connecting you with a few venture capitalists they know, likely on your board, which will help you better understand their perspectives on your company, in addition to growing your network.
Executive recruiters are an integral part of getting a job as an engineering executive, and also tend to have a good understanding of talent migration across the industry. You’ll build an executive recruiter network over time from working on hiring loops. If you don’t know any today, reach out to your network and you can almost always get a connection. Introductions to recruiters tend to be less fraught than other introductions, because the recruiters typically actually want to be introduced.
A little goes a long way
Your network is a collection of relationships, and relationships always work best when they’re built before you need them. Set a small goal, like meeting one new person each month, and slowly build your network up over time. Don’t make it your top priority, but don’t forget it either.