Build a reliable and effective professional network

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If you lost your job tomorrow, could your professional network get you back on your feet in a week?Looking around, it seems as though the information technology field attracts a great many loners. For whatever reason, lone wolf types are as common in IT circles as ants at a picnic. Even if you are a code monkey, however, chained to a keyboard and subsisting on Twinkies and Mountain Dew, or a network engineer poking around under a data center floor late at night, there will come a time that you will need a network of other skilled IT professionals.

It would be nice if certifications came with ready-made networks of friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, networks aren’t born, they’re built — and the only one who can do that building is you. Career networks are crucial. Knowing how to build and effectively use a network can make a huge difference in how your career progresses — or doesn’t progress. Here are a few pointers to help you get started building bridges with other IT pros:

Know thyself

There is a great deal of truth in that ancient Greek aphorism. Without knowing yourself, it’s going to be difficult to build a network of people who understand and appreciate you, along with all of your endearing little quirks. Start by taking a personality quiz or skills assessment to help identify your interests and personality traits.

If you’re one of those lucky few with a real understanding of what you enjoy and a firm grasp of your limitations, then great. The important thing is to know yourself — because once you do, you can start getting out of your comfort zone.

Ask yourself some questions and then answer them truthfully. I know, the truth can be painful, but it’s necessary that we face our weaknesses before we can make them strengths. An honest reflection on your skills, your abilities, and your likes and dislikes is needed for you to take the next step.

Improve your skills

With a little effort and stick-to-it-iveness, you can improve anything. If you know that you are uncomfortable speaking to strangers, sign up for a class on socializing to improve your ability.

This principle applies to every weakness: Weak writing skills? Hit the keyboard and bang out an op-ed or two for a blog (there are millions of blogs begging for free content — and some even have editors that can make your stuff palatable). Not feeling athletic? Work out, or sign up for a beginners-level sports team.

Whatever your challenge, face it. Google some classes or groups that interest you and get going. You will be pleasantly surprised at how soon those things that were once difficult become easy to accomplish.

Ways to network

Once you are comfortable with yourself and what you can offer others, start networking. There are more ways to network than you can shake a stick at, and many of them are excitingly creative and wonderfully rewarding.

I personally prefer LinkedIn, local meet-ups, lunch dates, speaking engagements and mentoring willing employees and coworkers. Others prefer volunteering or writing and sharing articles. Just choose your method and get started.

I like to use a method I call, “Building, Growing, and Showing.”

Building

LinkedIn is one of the best methods for building your network. You can specifically target the people or places you want to meet by sending them anything from a simple “friend request,” to a letter asking for a lunch date. Being purchased by Microsoft, incidentally, has given the LinkedIn a dose of much-needed change.

I think their upcoming integration into Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM will make this one of the best sales and networking tools, rather than a spam generator. I like to network with individuals who possess job titles that I’m interested in, and start with a simple invite. After that, the sky is the limit. Just know when to back off and never — ever — spam anyone.

Growing

Once you have successfully built a network, look for regular opportunities to grow it. For example, I’ve found that local meet-ups are a fantastic way to grow my network. I personally attend PMI’s local chapter, where I associate with like-minded people doing the same things I’m doing, wanting the same things I want, and understanding the same professional challenges I experience.

Local get-togethers are an easy and straightforward way to make friends and connect with business associates. Attending these events and being recognized by others is a wonderful way to grow the network. Don’t hesitate to volunteer at these events, help pick up after it’s over, and really get to know others in attendance.

I also have never met anyone who would pass on a free meal. Networking over a meal that you pay for can make a difference. Whether you are just wanting to hang out and talk shop, or let your connection know you are looking for new opportunities, it can be time well spent. The ROI on that meal could be life-changing.

Look for opportunities to contribute at any local meet-ups. Maybe they need a lunchtime speaker or a volunteer for a membership drive. It doesn’t matter, just get involved. Getting speaking opportunities at these events is easy: Ask … you never know when they will need someone to speak on an interesting topic.

Showing

This is also called mentoring. I say “showing” because you are showing people how to behave. This is something all seasoned IT pros know how to do. We’ve all made mistakes and missed opportunities, and others can benefit from our experience. If you see a need, step up and offer to be a guiding light. Most people are willing to accept help if they feel it will be useful.

“Mentoring” will result in you knowing more people and building more bridges. It’s been said that a person will know 2,000 people by first name by the time they are 30. If that’s true, take the time and interest to mentor one of them and you may be surprised at the long-term friendships you develop.

The long-term benefits

As important as it is to have a target with which to network, it’s just as important to understand and focus on your objectives for networking. What do you want to do for or with the people in your network? I suggest you focus on the “for others” part of the relationship — your psyche can be well fed mentoring others.

Be a Big Brother or Sister, or teach a kid how to program. Maybe you could go and serve meals or help at a local adoption center. One of the biggest benefits of networking is being able to reach out to others and help; doing so actually helps you.

The job hunt comes to us all, no matter why, it is usually a necessity at some point. Networking with a targeted group of executives allows you to call upon them in your time of need. People who know you already and are aware or your demonstrated skills and personality are far more likely to give you a positon, or introduce you to someone who can.

Get the executive, get the job. The ease of your job hunt is directly proportional to the size and scope of your professional network. The more people you can call friend, or at least call by their first name, the better off you will be. On the opposite side of the same coin, your professional network can be used to find others a job. I have reached out to my network on behalf of friends many times, with great success.

Another big benefit of networking is community. Being a contributing member of a community is one of the best feelings an individual can have, and networking with others who want that can be one of the most rewarding things to do.

Figure out where you can volunteer in your community, at a garden, a clothing exchange, or a Goodwill Industries. Trust me, as someone who actively pursues this avenue, it will change your perspective and your life.

Networking Tips

If you lost your job tomorrow, could your professional network get you back on your feet in a week?Some things to keep in mind when networking;

● Don’t spam people. No one likes extra e-mail, especially if they are about you and your situation. In the beginning, have a verbal conversation and ask permission to reach out later.

● Invite network members to lunch. People are busy and getting your face associated with the break in their day can result in positive feelings towards you.

● Mix up and cross-function contacts. When you are out in the community, helping with a blood drive (for example), ask people what they do. Utilizing your social skills may lead to new contacts for you to help and to be helped by. This is especially useful when job searching.

● No matter what you do, never let them forget you. “That was that guy who always,” or “I really wish I could do what he does with,” or even “I really dislike that guy,” all have something in common. The person saying those things remembers you. Over time and on average, helping and being nice will get you a sizable personal network.

How to utilize that personal network to help yourself and others will be your challenge. I wish you the best of luck. Thanks for reading and feel free to link up with me online.

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Nathan Kimpel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive with a diverse background in all areas of company functionality, and a keen focus on all aspects of IT operations and security. Over his 20 years in the industry, he has held every job in IT and currently serves as a Project Manager in the St. Louis (Missouri) area, overseeing 50-plus projects. He has years of success driving multi-million dollar improvements in technology, products and teams. His wide range of skills include finance, ERP and CRM systems. Certifications include PMP, CISSP, CEH, ITIL and Microsoft.

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