In the earliest bits of my career, I spent a lot of time worrying that my lack of pedigree was holding me back. How much easier things would have be for me, I imagined, if only I’d attended a feeder school like Stanford or started out at a prestigious company like Google.
Memories of those worries bubbled up when I was chatting with someone at a recent conference, and they asked how I knew so many of the people nearby. My first reaction was that I didn’t know very many of the folks, but it’s also the case that I know meaningfully more people in my industry today than I did just a few years ago, and that change isn’t entirely accidental.
About two years ago, I realized I was encountering more and more problems where I didn’t know many folks who could provide advice, and at that point I started to get more intentional at building out my network. I didn’t start out with a structured approach, but over time it got clearer what was and what wasn’t working.
What I’ve done is pretty straightforward, and as best I can tell is identical to what other folks do to build their networks:
- Connect with new folks that you don’t already know.
- Engage with folks you already know, to keep your relationship strong.
- Compound your network over time through small, ongoing efforts.
The overall approach is fairly simple, I imagine you’re already doing something along these lines. Hopefully some of the details of what has worked for me will be useful.
Making initial connections
There are so many ways to meet folks professionally! Some are very effective, but don’t scale, like coffee chats. Others are extremely scalable, but only infrequently lead to a strong relationship, like cold sourcing. Ten different folks can try the same approach with ten distinct results, so success stems from figuring out what works well for you personally.
I’ve experimented with a number of approaches, and here is what I’ve found most effective for me:
Meeting people at work is by far the most effective way to build a large network. This is one of the easy to miss reasons why it’s so valuable to work at a couple of very large or rapidly growing companies. I’ve personally found rapidly growing companies to be the best environments to meet folks at work, as you and everyone else will be in rapidly evolving roles, and lots of new folks are always starting.
Big companies can often provide a huge base of folks to meet, but it really depends on whether they have ongoing programs to create community across the company. When I worked at Yahoo, it had reached such a large size that many folks didn’t interact across teams, which meant that I ended up not meeting too many folks there despite being a company of thirteen thousand.
Your role certainly matters a great deal, with more outwardly facing roles like developer relations making it easier to meet folks even at smaller companies.
Personal outreach doesn’t scale, but it’s the most effective way to meet and develop relationships with folks. It’s easiest to get an introduction from someone I know, but even without, a short friendly email that asks a concise, interesting and relevant question almost always leads to a friendly new acquaintance. Sometimes this doesn’t work and you get ignored, which is totally fine. A big part of networking is getting comfortable with the fact that other folks are living their own lives, and sometimes are too busy to even respond to your note. It’s never personal.
Hiring and interviewing is highly underrated as a way to meet fascinating people that you can learn from. Particularly when interviewing at a fast-growing company, I’ve first met a staggering number of amazing folks by interviewing them. Cold sourcing is another aspect of recruiting that has helped me met many folks.
Blogging on this blog, Irrational Exuberance, is where I’ve channeled by far the most effort. In a perfect world, I’d be able to report that it’s been my leading source of connections, but so far that definitively untrue. Anecdotally, I feel like this might be on the cusp of changing if I continue writing at high-volume, but even then it would only be becoming true after a decade of writing.
Social media is the most active mechanism I use for meeting folks, typically paired with using it as a distribution channel for my writing. The only novel observation I have to share here is that I think every social network works well in different ways, e.g. I personally am loathe to share stuff to Facebook, but I’ve seen others use it to great effect (especially private groups). On the other hand, most folks are skeptical of LinkedIn as a platform, but for me it generate a great deal of engagement, and second only to Twitter.
Speaking at conferences has worked well for me lately, although it took me almost a decade of my career before I felt I had enough interesting things to say, the public speaking experience to say them well, and was in the right sort of professional role where investing energy into conference speaking was aligned with the needs of the business. That said, I’ve always met a bunch of fascinating folks when I speak, and I’ve found it quite effective. It’s particularly effective in contrast with attending conferences, which I’ve personally found rather ineffective for building relationships. (Although I’ll readily admit that this is in large part a function of how I work best, and they seem to work very well for some others.)
Writing a book is my most focused attempt at reaching a wider audience than my work or my blog. It’s far too early to imagine how this will work out, but I’m cautiously optimistic, and will write more as things unwind.
Speaking on podcasts is something I experimented with last year, and I think they’re an effective way to reach new audiences of folks, some of whom will pop up for a discussion with you later. The ones I’ve done so far haven’t generated too many connections, but they tend to be a small commitment of time (for the guest speaker, not the producer!), which makes them effective.
Meetups are difficult for me personally, as I’m introverted enough that by the end of the day I want to go home and recharge. However, I’ve met other folks who find them quite effective. Along the same lines as attending conferences, I’ve felt more comfortable attending as a speaker, where folks engage with you directly, than as an attendee.
My college network has not been very effective for me, as I attended a small college in Kentucky. However, I know that for some folks their college network is extremely impactful, especially for folks from various feeding schools like Stanford, MIT or CMU.
I’m very certain that you’ll find that this ordering doesn’t hold true for you. Give the different approaches a try, and find your own ranking!
When it’s ignored, your professional network decays gradually over time, so it’s important to continue to keep in touch with folks, not assuming that you can pop up for a favor years later.
Fortunately, most of the activities that are good for making initial connections also work well for staying engaged. For me personally, I’ve found that blogging, engaging on social media, and conference speaking have been quite effective at both. I also know that others find meetups to work well.
Many of the folks who’ve mastered networking at scale, like patio11 and Andrew Chen, are very focused on weekly newsletters, to the extent that I recently decided to try creating one myself. It’s important to recognize though, what I’ve done is put up a mailing list that reads off this blog’s RSS feed. What those two have done is build high quality products that happen to masquerade as mailing lists, and I suspect that success with this approach requires a great deal of focused intention.
That said, the most reliable ways to stay in touch with folks are the most obvious: send them a thoughtful note, or meet them a couple times a year for coffee. I’ve not used one myself, but I’ve heard folks mention that they’ve set up a personal CRM to help them manage reengagement.
When identifying an approach that will work well for you, the most important criteria is that it’s something you’re able to continue doing over the long run. It’s easy to overcommit, starting strong but quitting early, and this is an area where small continual investments trump the occasional frantic outreach.
Like most important endeavours, building a good relationship with a large number of folks requires years of ongoing effort. In the beginning, it’ll feel ineffective, and it will only slowly change to feeling easier. For me, it still doesn’t feel easy, although I remain hopeful that it’ll continue to get easier.
What works for me is to set very achievable goals for myself that ensure I remain engaged over time. For 2018, I set two goals: (1) write a blog post at least once a month, and (2) meet at least one new infrastructure engineering leader each quarter. In my current role and with my writing habit, these were easy goals to hit, and that was the point. The slow continued build is what’s important.
It’s also true that the occasional spike of activity is useful to accelerate this process, as long as you don’t overdo it so much that you subsequently have no energy for maintenance. For me, that spike has been writing my book and doing a bit more public speaking, but I expect both to slow down soon, and don’t imagine either to be major, sustainable parts of how I meet and stay engaged with folks.
The lesson to walk away with is that building relationships is something that happens over years of intentional efforts. Don’t get discouraged if you feel invisible in your industry, almost everyone feels this way. Instead find a way that’s authentic and rewarding for you to slowly swell, expanding and maintaining the group of folks you can learn with along the way.