Here’s how to take the work out of networking

For some, connecting with industry peers and thought leaders can seem like a second job. Here are six expert tips to make networking work for you

Matthew Soucoup, senior cloud advocate at Microsoft, one of WeWork’s enterprise members, is like many skilled tech professionals—smart, naturally modest, and soft-spoken. But over his 20-year career, he’s learned to step outside his comfort zone—and network. “There’s my life before networking, and my life after networking,” Soucoup recently told an assembly of technologists at Seattle’s Flatiron School (part of The We Company), where professionals learn new skills or upgrade their credentials in software engineering, computer programming, data science, and UX/UI design. “Once I began my blog and a Meetup group, things took off.”

Soucoup’s career began in the 1990s—during Dot Com 1.0—and as he gained skills alongside his peers in computer science, he started a blog to express his viewpoints. Not long after, interested in building a community of trusted peers, he launched a Meetup group for the emerging field of mobile development. Since then, he’s learned how to spot the best people to approach at conferences or casual Meetups, and where and how it makes sense to use social media.

At “Microsoft & Flatiron Talk Networking,” part of Microsoft and Flatiron School’s monthly “Fireside Chat,” Soucoup acknowledged that networking doesn’t come easily to many of us—especially software coders and engineers, whose characteristic humility may make icebreaking and connecting challenging. But he focused on the argument that there is safety in numbers. 

“Remember that everyone is intimidated,” he said. “And that the person sitting next to you wants to talk as much as you do.” 

Research has shown that working with people from many different backgrounds, as well as training in writing and communicating, will be some of the most highly valued workplace skills for the future. That’s why it’s important for anyone, in any line of work, to find ways to connect with others—even if that starts with having small conversations in open kitchens, lounges, and staircases.

“Growing your real-life community and network is one of the most effective ways to achieve development goals or grow a business,” says David Siegel, CEO of Meetup, also part of The We Company. “Every week Meetup offers thousands of networking events across all industries, from informal social events to more structured workshops and seminars, where members with similar interests and objectives can connect.”

Here’s Soucoup’s best advice for making networking painless—and productive. 

1. Let your words precede you

One of the best ways to start building a network doesn’t even require approaching strangers in person. Instead, rely on writing. If you’re an emerging software developer, coder, or designer, writing about your perspectives on the field, the programs you work with, or others’ work you admire can all help you introduce yourself to the world. Reading your words on a portfolio web site, blog, or within an industry publication can give strangers in your industry a sense of who you are as a professional—and open up useful dialogues with future collaborators or teammates.

2. Make the most of small conversations

Soucoup finds Meetup groups incredibly useful. While many Meetup events are centered on a featured speaker, he says, “the presentations are secondary. It’s the side chats you’ll have with other attendees that are important.” Discuss the speaker with others in the audience, and learn who shares your interests and perspectives.

3. Work the lunch room

When it comes to lecture-heavy trade conferences, Soucoup notes, “there’s always lunch.” His pro tip: Look for a table with at least two people who aren’t deep in conversation. That way, you have more than one person to engage in discussion. “Keep it upbeat,” he advises. In other words, instead of asking your lunch peers what they dislike about the conference or a speaker, ask what they came to learn or which session was most helpful to them. 

4. Maintain a digital footprint

If you’re actively communicating and connecting with others in your field, Soucoup explains, you’ll begin to build a broad network of contacts who can get to know you over time through your links, remarks, hash tags, and emoticons.

He advised using LinkedIn for professional networking, and Twitter for quick-response or casual communication among techies. If you’re blogging, a publishing platform like Medium or aggregator like Dev To is a good place to post your work—and once it’s posted, you can promote it via Twitter or on LinkedIn.

5. Participate in the online conversation

When it comes to social media, Soucoup suggests remarking on any and all posts that speak to you—either with a “like” or a re-post, with or without your own commentary. People can’t see you if you’re not out there participating in the community, he said. Join industry and alumni groups where you’re likely to meet people who share your interests or have common ground, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or for help—or to answer others’ questions or requests for assistance. 

6. Give as much as (or more than) you get

“Networking is not transactional,” Soucoup notes. To build rapport and trust, he explains, you need to “give… and eventually get.” Offering help, advice, recommendations, and network introductions are all important ways to build your reputation as a trustworthy person who is willing to share their skills and resources in low-key ways. 

Build these relationships so that when you do need help—which is of course the point of networking—you’ve earned the goodwill that will help you get it. Just make sure to ask for what you need, he reminded the audience. “If you never ask, the answer is always no,” he says.  

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