Most of us have a hard enough time saying 'Hello' to the person coming down the hallway during a trip to the vending machine. The thought of actively pursing communication with other warm blooded mammals, besides our pets and family, is downright intimidating. (Pets are, typically, one-way interactions and family communication also has issues, but let's save that analysis for another publication.)
So why willingly put yourself through this torture?
You might think networking is for people in sales, marketing and the suits in the executive suite, but not for true, blue IT folk. Think again. Networking is not all about sales, however, it is about selling. Selling yourself, that is.
The time to network is not when you are under the gun to find a new job; it has to be an ongoing part of how you manage your career.
Making contact with other IT professionals also opens up a network of resources for problem solving. When you come across a challenging system architecture problem or want feedback on the latest development methodology, you can tap into your network for their collective wisdom or individual experience.
Networking is, in fact, a fantastic way of finding a mentor. Work on building the confidence to introduce yourself to those you respect who are in positions you aspire to reach, be it tech gurus or executives.
Granted, sales is a popular reason for networking. But just because you aren't in sales, that doesn't mean you cannot, in the process of networking, find customers or partners for the company you work for. Whether you are compensated directly is not the point. You are strengthening your employer's financial stability, making yourself look good to management and, by default, making more networking contacts that you can use for your own future benefit.
Now that I have undoubtedly convinced you of the importance of networking, let's discuss how to do it.
Although it is logical to associate networking with events outside of work, the easiest place to start is actually inside your current company. Start by identifying three co-workers you have a high opinion of and make a conscious effort to strike up a conversation. If this seems insincere, then think of it this way... Besides potentially advancing your career, you could eventually benefit THEIR career or simply make a new friend.
Time for the hard part -- networking outside of work.
Make it easy on yourself. You do not have to only network with potential employers. Instead, focus on networking with like-minded people. Find seminars or groups that meet to discuss topics of interest to you, whether it is a hobby, like model trains, or a local users group for the enterprise software your company implemented. Volunteer to represent your company at true networking groups for the industry you work in or community networking groups, such as chambers of commerce or local technology councils.
Other ideas are to join an alumni association that has a local chapter or find a happy hour where IT people hang out. If you work in a highly concentrated technology corridor, it is easy to find these informal events. If not, subscribe to the local technology or business journal to keep tabs on event announcements.
Don't feel like you must become best friends with everyone you meet. Just exchange cards or at least collect a name and email address. Then drop them an email the next day stating what a pleasure it was to meet them, and if possible, provide them with some tidbit that is useful to them. If they manage quality assurance projects, recommend an article link about new QA techniques. If they mentioned they like Italian food, recommend your favorite local pasta palace.
The point is to make a lasting impression, so it will be easier to approach this person again in the future.
And being that we are all working in technology, let's not forget the Web for networking opportunities. Becoming more popular are the social networking sites like Friendster with 9 million active members and LinkedIn where 5 million searches are conducted on average every month. It isn't enough to just join one of these sites. You have to actively maintain your personal profile, invite others to join your network and use the site to search for jobs, partners, etc. These sites also are a great repository for all the personal contacts you make and make it easier for others to find you when looking for someone with your expertise. If you are an ultra-introvert, these sites at least provide you with another networking option.
I'm not going to pretend networking is easy. But if you put yourself out there and make a conscious effort to attend events, many opportunities will present themselves.
Case in point, I recently attended a CIO panel discussion sponsored by a local university. Even though this event was open to the public (and offered a free buffet), the auditorium wasn't even half full. I found myself with easy access to talk with each CIO afterwards. I also made good contacts with people in the audience.
Although you can't expect CIO access at every event (or for that matter, free food), I can guarantee that with every business card collected you are doing more than the average person in IT -- who would prefer to keep his head buried in the latest book on wireless networking. Just be sure to remember the golden rule -- networking is a two-way street. Make sure you do your best to help those you meet.
The more doors you help open for others, the more incentive others will have to help you when you need it most.