On Networking

People talk about networking as an important career activity or skill. But they don’t usually define what it is, or tell you how to do it. Many people dread the idea, and/or fear that they’re being left behind. Do you have to pretend to like people? Do social extroverts reap all the benefits? Is it even moral/fair?

What’s the point?

When people talk about networking in a career context, they’re usually talking about jobs: getting to know people who can help you get a new job someday, or who you might want to hire onto your own team someday. Or sponsorship/visibility: having people out there who know you and will pass valuable opportunities to you. But it’s useful for much more than finding new jobs. It’s not just being known, it’s about knowing who can help you get things done, and feeling comfortable working with them. When you can go directly to the right person – the one whose job it is to help with your task – and ask them for something without a lot of context-setting, and they’ll do it without a lot of drama – you become very effective at getting things done. Likewise, when people know they can come to you in order to get their own work done, you also become known as someone who makes the team better.

For example: always get to know your team’s admin (administrative assistant). If they ever come asking you for things, do what they need as helpfully as you can. If you ever go asking them for things, make sure they know how grateful you are. Because someday you are going to need their help solving a problem in a hurry, and you want to know and understand each other beforehand, to smooth the process when things are on fire.

Another illustration: as you progress through your career, you will continue to be given work you don’t know how to do. When you are a beginner, your teammates help you through those first tasks. As you become more senior, you’re expected to build a network of people you can reach out to when you need help. When you are tasked with something unfamiliar, you can of course ask your boss and your teammates if they know who to talk to, but you will be quicker if you already know the answer. And you’ll work more efficiently with those other people if you already know each other. Likewise there will be other people who’ll need to come asking for your help. This, to me, is the most important use of a network. We’re part of a community and we help each other.

Networking is:

  • Making connections with other people
  • Maintaining those connections over time

What’s a connection? I’d like to say it’s something very logical, like a mutual understanding of each other’s context, priorities, strengths and weaknesses. But we humans are messy, and a lot of the time it looks more like “remembering each other” and “liking each other” with a side of “respecting each other.”

This isn’t exactly being likeable and becoming best friends with everyone. It takes actual listening skills and empathy: learning what matters to other people, the context and priorities of their world, and how they prefer to communicate. It’s a bonus if you like each other – it makes your relationship more comfortable and the work more enjoyable, and probably makes you more memorable to each other, too – but it’s not a requirement. You can know that other person and work effectively with them without enjoying the time together. Shifting into maximum cynicism: you just need to know “the best way to use other people” and let them know “the best way to use you.” In real life, though, likeability does make a difference. If I know two people who can help me accomplish my task, I’m more likely to go to the one I enjoy working with. If I haven’t talked to someone in years, but I like them, I’m more comfortable reaching out to them again after all that time.

I happen to be lucky – I genuinely like almost anyone I meet. I prize that connection and hold onto it. That’s what made me write about My Twinkling Stars. I think we all crave some amount of connection, though some of us need more than others. It makes networking easier if you enjoy getting to know other people, and letting them know you.

A network is not a binary thing – people are not simply “in” or “out of” your network. Everyone you’ve ever met is on a spectrum of weak vs. strong connections. The better you know someone else’s current context, or the better relationship you have to smooth things over whenever that knowledge is out-of-date, the stronger your connection with that person at this moment in time. The connection weakens over time as context changes and as you forget things.

As I’ve already mentioned, networking is a two-way street. You’re not just figuring out who you can lean on in the future. You’re also letting people know when they can lean on you – and how best to do it. The better job you do of being clear about what you are responsible for, and how you prefer to work with others, the more valuable your interactions are going to be when they need your help. Fewer annoying people knocking on your door asking poorly phrased and poorly researched questions.

OK, but what do you DO?

I think some people believe that networking is that thing you do while you mingle around awkwardly at a work party with a drink in your hand. It can be, but that’s not necessary OR sufficient for building your network. Meetings are networking. Talking to your co-worker in the office kitchen is networking. Eating lunch with the team is networking. Working together on a project is networking. Mentoring is networking. Grabbing coffee with an old friend is networking. Saying hi as you walk past a former co-worker is networking, and even better if you stop to talk for a minute. Even email / chat / Twitter is networking. Some of the Microsoft folks I know, I met first on Twitter.

In other words, you are networking all the time. It happens whether you’re trying to, or not. But you can influence how much value you get from it:

  • By making connections happen. Either by reaching out to someone you’ve never met, or going back to someone you haven’t talked to in a while.
  • By making connections more meaningful. Both by asking deeper questions, and by sharing more information about yourself.

You can be intentional about this. Take that extra moment by the coffee machine, and turn the conversation from shallow small-talk to a more meaningful conversation about what they are working on at the moment. Listen and care about the answer. Think about how that other person’s work relates to yours and to the big picture of your products and business. You can actually learn quite a lot from quick moments with other people. And don’t forget to share your own state – give them back the same gift.

I once heard a senior leader talking about networking – she said she keeps a list of a few dozen people whose connections she wants to keep warm, some of them friends and others occasional collaborators. She schedules 2-3 meetings per week with people from her list in order to keep those connections fresh. The introverts in the room gasped at that thought. I don’t personally find it daunting, but I’m not nearly that regimented about things. I prefer to go through life in a bit more ad-hoc fashion. But I do love stopping for a few minutes to catch up with an old friend or co-worker I haven’t seen in a while.

However you make things work for yourself – be genuine. Don’t pretend to like people, don’t force yourself or them into social exhaustion from meetings if you don’t like meetings. Don’t put yourself into social environments you detest. Find ways to connect over work. Make chats short and to the point, if that’s what works best for you.

Remembering everyone can be one of the hardest tasks. I sometimes write lists of the people that I’ve worked with on a team as I move from one to the next – to help my memory years later, when I’m trying to think who to recruit to an open position on my team. Though the truth is I’m bad at that, too. I usually don’t do that until years later when I realize I’ve forgotten too many names for my comfort.

During remote work

A reduction in networking opportunities is probably one of the biggest impacts of working remotely. No random bumps in the hallway, kitchen, cafeteria. No chit-chat while you’re waiting for the meeting room to open up, or in the hallway after the meeting. No lunch/coffee together. No team parties. The only tips I have are: take good advantage of every opportunity you have. And make appointments to talk if that’s what it takes. If you join a new team, ask other people to talk, so you get to know each other. If someone seems to be in a position to help you, ask if you can meet to ask questions about their area of ownership. Nobody’s going to be mad at you for asking. As long as you are clear about what you’re after, and ask useful questions, you’re not wasting their time. They probably want to talk to you, too.

About job changes

OK, so I’ve been talking a lot about how much more there is to networking, than just finding new jobs or recruiting other people to work on your team. But let’s talk about jobs for a minute. First off, networking has a HUGE impact on your job changes. I have stayed within Microsoft for my whole 21-year career, but changed teams a number of times inside Microsoft. Every single one of those changes involved someone else who already knew me. Even when I still had to go through interviews, someone else helped me get my foot in the door. Opportunities to leave the company also came when previous co-workers suggested my name to their recruiters.

If your primary interest in networking is for optimizing your future job opportunities, and especially if you rather dislike the idea of networking, know this: all connections are not created equal. Some people are NEVER going to link you to jobs you want. Some people are going to have a disproportionate chance of making those links for you. So if you dislike maintaining connections, sniff out who are the optimal people to make connections with.

Let me share an extreme example. In 2014, Microsoft held a layoff as it re-structured engineering processes away from having dedicated test staff in favor of basing more off telemetry and developer-driven testing. At that time, I happened to be on a team that was still hiring. Our leader, Laura Butler, became a “superconnector,” if you will. People knew that she had open positions, and started reaching out to her. But here’s the interesting thing: since not everyone was a good fit on our team, she also started helping to re-direct people into open positions on other teams. She did this because she genuinely cared about doing the best we could for those people. As managers with open positions heard that she was doing this, they started informing her of their open positions. She became almost a clearing-house, pointing available people at open positions all around her… And of course, skimming all the best people off the top for open positions on her own team in the process. Of course, that was a short-lived event and a rare occurrence – probably the most extreme example of a “superconnector” I’ll ever see.

But it is still true that there are folks out there who “feel” more likely to help – probably because they care more about you and about helping you get what you need. I absolutely do my best to help any friend or acquaintance who asks me if I know of good matches for them. Having been a manager, I also know how hard it is to fill open positions sometimes – so whenever my boss or nearby teams are trying to fill a position, I also put some time and energy into thinking of people who’d make good matches. I recently was approached by someone looking to recruit me to their team; I declined, but I spent some time thinking who might like that position, and forwarded it on to 3 other people with an offer to make the connection if they wanted. So, if you want to optimize job-changes without a lot of work on networking, keep an eye out for people like me: folks who like helping people and who have the energy to sit and think through their past and present connections to come up with possible candidates or jobs. I don’t promise I can help you find a job or a candidate, but I do promise I will give it a real try.

Privilege and fairness

And now let’s talk about how all of this, this whole system of networking, is not entirely fair. It’s not. Especially when talking about job changes. If I’m trying to think of people who might make a good fit for an open position, I have to be very careful about that. Just because of how the human brain works, a quick answer is a biased answer. So I have to take some time and think through not just skills but traits (e.g. do they enjoy similar challenges) that make a good candidate, and challenge myself to come up with a diverse slate of answers. I have to think not just of folks in recent history but people from my past. This is another reason I save notes with lists of people I’ve worked with: so I can do a better job of giving everyone some consideration.

And it should go without saying – never take the easy answer. Always advertise your open position so everyone has a chance at it, instead of just bringing in your old friends. Always put your old friends through the same interviews everyone else has to go through. Always consider a diverse group of candidates before making a decision.

In summary

I hope I’ve helped define what networking is and what value it brings. Hopefully I’ve made the idea less anxiety-inducing. And I hope I’ve given you a bit of encouragement to keep getting to know those around you, and letting them know you. We’re all a big team, and we have to know each other in order to know how to help each other!

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