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Johanna and Andy share their networking secrets.

Andy: This month we’re talking about business networking. It’s one of those things that we tend to shy away from because it sounds sleazy, but really it’s not. At least not if you’re not doing it sleazily!

Johanna: To me, building a network is a critical part of being able to hire and be hired. It was a huge part of my success as a hiring manager, and now as a consultant, it’s a major part of my success. I don’t have to cold call, because my people know me. So networking is something I’ve done all of my professional life. But I don’t believe in “working a room” or being sleazy about it. How about you?

Andy: One of the things I see online and when I talk to people at conferences is that they don’t know what “networking” means. People read articles that talk about how important it is to build a professional network, but they don’t learn what it means to build it or, when you do build it, what you do with it.

Johanna: Ah, so maybe the first thing we can do is help people with that. To me, building a professional network is creating a community of like-minded people that I can help. It’s not about just professional help, although that’s part of it. I’m happy to help them in other ways. Do they need a good recommendation for a good book to read about parenting? Back when I had small kids, I was happy to suggest that. I’m sure I’m out of date on that now.:-)

Andy: To me, “networking” just means “talking to other people and getting to know them, and letting them know you.” It’s mostly a social thing. It doesn’t mean going up to complete strangers and saying “Hi, I’m Dave Jones, and I’m looking for a job.” It does mean meeting people and then remembering them.

Johanna: Yes. And, creating a warm relationship.

Andy: Some networking is pretty obvious. You and I, for instance, have collaborated on articles and I’ve reviewed a couple of your books. In the meantime, you know about me, and I know about you. The excellent thing about that is now I have someone that I can talk to about getting a job.

Johanna: If you go to user group meetings, you learn what’s going on for the other person and you empathize with their problems.

Andy: If I got fired tomorrow (and, dear reader, YOU can get fired tomorrow: There is NO job security in the world), you would be one of the first people I’d talk to.

Johanna: And I would be happy to be that person.

Andy: I’d say “Johanna, I just got laid off. Can you give me ideas of people who might be able to find my next job?” I wouldn’t say “Johanna, I need a job, hire me,” but I know that that’s what many people think networking is. I’d ask for your help, but not a handout.

Johanna: That’s because we’ve built a relationship over time. We’ve empathized with each other. We’ve listened to each other. I might suggest three or four people you could talk to. I might suggest some recruiters you could talk to, also, because I happen to know recruiters, but the most valuable piece of networking is those three or four people you could talk to, to see who they know.

Andy: And when I talk to those recruiters, I would tell them that you referred me to them. Because you have a relationship with those people and your name means something. “Oh, Johanna referred you? What can I do for you?”

Johanna: And that increases my value to those recruiters. Just today, I was looking for a post in another blog, and I emailed the blog owner. His blog had moved, and there was no forwarding address. He realized I was in Chicago, and asked if I was available. I had to tell him I was home already! But now that I know he’s there, I can introduce the two of you, since you live in the Chicago area. That’s nice to know.

Andy: Chances are that people who are reading this article are involved in open source, and that’s fantastic as far as networking. Open source is inherently social and networked, and that networking is a great way to make your experience in open source pay off in another way. If you’ve worked on a project with someone, that’s a contact. You know her skills, she knows yours, and that’s an important connection.

Johanna: Right, and the vouching for each other is such an important thing. I may not have worked with you on a software project, but working with you on columns means I know something about how you work. I can be some kind of a reference. That says a lot.

Andy: I think people get nervous about the idea of going to other people about jobs or business, too. I think it adds a bit of stress to the proceedings, and it doesn’t need to.

Johanna: Since you’re not asking for a job right away, I hope it eases the nervousness or the stress. Especially since you want to offer something. Even if you just offer a, “Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” and a smile and a handshake. When I was in Chicago this past week at a conference, I was in a blogger’s lounge. I was supposed to meet people and network. So that’s what I did. I wrote for a while, and every hour or so, I made it my business to stand up and meet people I hadn’t met yet.

Andy: The other day after I picked you up at that conference and we were looking for some place to eat, that was a great example of networking. I’m from the Chicago area, but I didn’t know the north side very well. So we’re driving up Lake Shore Drive, and I think “Oh, I know someone up on the north side, I’ll ask her where to have dinner.” So I call her up, and say “Hey, what’s good on the north side near the lake?” and she says “What are you in the mood for” and I say “BBQ or steak,” and she sends us off to a great BBQ place.

Johanna: It was great! We had a great meal. That’s one of the benefits of networking.

Andy: Networking about jobs is the same thing, just on a different topic. I didn’t ask Melissa to buy me dinner. I just asked for her advice, and she was more than happy to give it to me. We talked about what we were looking for and she gave us a couple of different options. It’s the same as if I came to you and said I was looking for a job, and you said “Well, are you looking for sysadmin work, or DBA, or...” and you could provide different options.

There’s nothing scummy or salesmany about calling up a friend and saying “Hey, what’s good for dinner in this neighborhood,” and so too it is with networking in the business world.

So what kind of people did you meet at the bloggers’ lounge?

Johanna: I met some recruiters, and many HR people. It was at SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), the humungous HR conference. At any given time, there were about 20 to 30 people in the bloggers’ lounge. To our readers, I’m at least sort-of known. But to these people, I’m an unknown—and I knew that! So I knew I would have to put on a smile and shake hands and introduce myself. So I did.

It was hard the first few times, so I focused on the table I sat at. There were only four people there. And they were friendly. Once I got past those four people, it was easier. I’d also been following some of them on Twitter, so I knew them and told them I followed them on Twitter. That made it easier too.

Andy: Do you feel that difficulty every time?

Johanna: Yes. When I’m in a new situation, I feel uncomfortable. I hate small talk. Hate it. I’m much more comfortable in geek-land. Even though these were bloggers, these were not geeks. So, I was out of my element. I suspect many of our readers can identify with my feelings.

Andy: Absolutely. Many times I’ve given a presentation on networking and job-hunting and afterwards had someone come up to me and say “Well, I’m just not a social person,” which I understand. I’ve not always been as gregarious as I am now. However, the reality is that the person who has a good social network, and who is known by her peers, is going to have more job choices when it times to find a gig.

Johanna: I think that’s why I work so hard at building my network. If I keep building it, I don’t have to build it all at once when I need a new engagement. I have a flow of clients.

Andy: How do you maintain your network? You’re a big fan of LinkedIn, yes?

Johanna: Yes, I am. LinkedIn is the 600-pound gorilla. It allows me to “collect” everyone in one place. And, until exporting contacts broke, I could export my contacts and keep a copy on my hard drive. But I do like it. I find that it allows me to maintain relationships with people in ways I did not expect. I cannot use Facebook for professional relationships. I cannot tell what is private and what is public, and that changes capriciously. But on LinkedIn, you always know. I like it when LinkedIn tells me that someone has changed jobs and I can congratulate that person. That’s part of building a relationship.

Andy: What do you do when you see a job change? You just send the person an email saying “Hey, good job on the job?” Are you sending them email directly or through LinkedIn?

Johanna: Well, I look at what their previous job was, and what their current job is. Sometimes, they have a lateral move. But sometimes, they have a big new job, or they have a promotion or a big change, and then I send a congratulatory email. I’ve had my consulting business almost 19 years, and some of the people have turned into C-level folks. I send them emails directly. I don’t send them email through LinkedIn. Why make them go through another step?

Andy: How much of your network is geek, and how much is non-geek?

Johanna: About 80 percent of my network is geek, and about 20 percent is non-geek. I have a lot of recruiters in my network. That’s because of the hiring books.

Andy: I’ve been spending some time recently adding more of my open source contacts to my network.

Johanna: Well, it’s not the size of your network, it’s what your network can do for you. I also have an email newsletter and I actively ask people to link with me, because when they change jobs, I lose them if they don’t link. I tell people about my books on my newsletter, and workshops, and then, of course, some really great tips.

Andy: I need to actively pursue more links with people who are not geeks. Remember Melissa who we got the dinner recommendation from? She’s a VP at a big educational not-for-profit in Chicago. Earlier that day she’d been telling me about the business problems of working at a not-for-profit and working with the public school system. It was fascinating and educational to hear about entirely non-geek parts of the business world.

Even if all you go to is geek user group meetings, find out the non-geek things about what your geek brethren do. Maybe that guy that you always talk to about Linux distributions works in auto parts manufacturing, or real estate database maintenance, or city government, or health club administration. There are so many different non-geek parts of the world it’s helpful to hear about.

Johanna: People who are loose connections are more likely to help you get your next job. I have a blog post about this. It’s also helpful to prevent you from turning into a dull person!

Andy: Good point. It doesn’t help that we’re often perceived as being unable to talk about anything other than computers and Star Trek.

Johanna and Andy: Gentle readers, we invite you to network with us. As long as you tell us that you read this article, or why you want to network with us, we are happy to connect with you on LinkedIn. Here are our profiles: Andy is here and Johanna is here.

Andy: I hope this has helped some readers get over the fear of the big scary idea of networking and brought it down to size. Next month, we’ll be talking about one of my favorite topics: How do you know what to put in your resume, and what to leave out?

Johanna Rothman helps leaders solve problems and seize opportunities. She consults, speaks, and writes on managing high-technology product development. She enables managers, teams, and organizations to become more effective by applying her pragmatic approaches to the issues of project management, risk management, and people management. She writes the Pragmatic Manager email newsletter and two blogs on www.jrothman.com.

Andy Lester has developed software for more than twenty years in the business world and on the Web in the open source community. Years of sifting through resumes, interviewing unprepared candidates, and even some unwise career choices of his own spurred him to write his nontraditional book on the new guidelines for tech job hunting. Andy is an active member of the open source community, and lives in the Chicago area. He blogs at petdance.com, and can be reached by email at andy@petdance.com.

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