January 26, 2019.
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:
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.
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.
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.