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Get yourself connected

 For many Microsoft engineers, it’s a matter of principal. Not principle, as in belief, but principal as in that coveted career stage when they get more influence, more esteem, and more stock—as if one begot the others. That’s ridiculous and naïve. In fact, it’s influence and esteem that help you reach the principal stage, with the extra stock as a nice side benefit.

But how do the unprincipaled acquire influence? How do they receive esteem? Many engineers feel they are entitled to these gifts because they are smart and uniquely skilled. Okay, their capability and intelligence may be unique among their relatives, but not among their peers. We expect everyone we hire to be smart and skilled. So where does that leave you?

Well, you could become an organizational leader, like a lead or manager. Do those jobs well and influence and esteem are yours from those you manage. But management has its own issues and isn’t for everyone. How do you broaden your influence as an individual technical leader when being smart isn’t enough? Through your network—networking is fundamental.

It’s who you know

The cynical among you might chafe at the idea that who you know is important. After all, aren’t your ideas your true value? Yes, of course they are. Now, who are you again? What’s your idea? Why does it deserve 20 minutes of my time to understand it, relative to the ideas of the other 27,000 smart engineers at Microsoft, let alone the innumerable smart engineers across the world?

It takes time to comprehend and appreciate ideas, especially from people you don’t know because you are missing all their context. Therefore, if you want your ideas to be appreciated, you need to develop relationships with people who can appreciate them. The more people you know, the more people there are who can appreciate your ideas, the more influence you have, the more esteem you receive, the further you will go. Simple.

A strong network can also help you find new roles, get better reviews from peer feedback, and learn more about everything that is happening. Your network makes you look, act, and be smarter. When someone asks you a question, you don’t need to know the answer; you just need to forward the question to a smart friend. Even though the smart friend had the answer, the questioner still sees you as the person who got the answer.

But how do you expand the network of people you know? And once you do, how do you keep all those relationships active? Let’s face it, most engineers, myself included, are not social butterflies. We also don’t have the time or inclination to host dinner parties. Luckily, networking isn’t that difficult or imposing. It does involve a time commitment, but not as much as sales or politics.

I use habit and routine

To build a large and strong network, you must acquire certain habits:

  • Be curious all the time about everything.
  • Be appreciative of those who help you.
  • Be responsive to those who ask you for help.

These three habits are essential to building and maintaining a strong network. They aren’t complicated. They don’t take as much time as personal hygiene. But if you let them slip, your network will disintegrate quickly. So when I say “make them a habit,” what I mean is, make them a habit.

Aren’t you curious?

Most engineers are naturally inquisitive. The trick to building a network is to apply that curiosity to other people’s interests. After all, who isn’t charmed by those who show genuine interest in what they do?

When you bump into someone you know, or even someone you don’t, ask about their work. Find out as much as they are willing to tell within the time available. Make it a habit to do this all the time. You will learn a great deal, and you’ll develop a broad network.

It’s important to focus on the other person, not yourself. This isn’t about you; it’s about your acquaintance. Of course, you should answer any questions your new or old friend has about you, but don’t stray far from your friend’s interests. After all, talking about yourself gives you little value other than feeding your ego. Talking about your friend develops familiarity, and with it, trust. You’ll get to focus on your interests when you have the need later.

Eric AsideA question I received about this column was, “What if the other person is trying to build a network—doesn’t one of you need to talk about personal interests?” Yes, of course, the conversation should be balanced. I emphasized not talking about yourself because it’s so easy to get lost in your own interests and exploits.

So, next time you’re stuck on a bus to some event, stuck in line for food, or stuck waiting for a meeting or class to start, ask the person you’re stuck with about their current project. Not just the name of the project, but what it is, how it works, what’s tricky about it, what’s fun, what’s a pain, what are the people like, what is the management like, everything! This isn’t small talk—this is genuine curiosity. It’s just what you need to engage the person into a mutually beneficial relationship. It works and costs no more than the time you were stuck anyway.

You have our gratitude

Another subtle yet effective way to draw people into your network is to owe them a favor. I learned this reading about Abraham Lincoln, who borrowed books from neighbors who often lived miles away. In addition to getting access to books that were scarce, Lincoln found that asking for a small favor, such as borrowing a book, created a strong bond between him and the lender. The lender would find Lincoln to be trustworthy and appreciative. In addition, Lincoln would be in the lender’s debt—a situation advantageous to the lender and one that made a continuing relationship desirable.

So, say you are looking for an opportunity to draw a specialist in media codecs into your network. You know the person’s address, but they don’t know you. Graciously asking that person for help with a codec issue would be an ideal way to start a relationship, assuming you follow certain guidelines:

  • Use a real issue that requires the help of a specialist. Anything less will waste the specialist’s time and be met with disdain.
  • Be clear and concise in your question, and provide a time frame. Again, this demonstrates that you value the specialist’s time. As I’ve written before, this is important in all communication. (See You talking to me?)
  • Thank the specialist generously; detail the value you received from their help. You want the entire experience to be positive for the person helping you, making them feel valued for their expertise.

You might say, “But why not do the specialist a favor? Isn’t asking the other person for a favor completely twisted?” When you do a favor for someone else, particularly unasked, that person now owes you. The relationship with you is tainted with guilt and associated with burden. But when the specialist does you a favor that you truly appreciate, there is no burden or guilt. Instead, your new friend only experiences feelings of advantage and being valued.

I’ll get back to you

Naturally, favors work both ways. That’s how networks function. People provide service to you. You provide service to them. If you want to keep these relationships working, you must be responsive.

What does “responsive” mean? Well, how long does it take you to think someone doesn’t care enough to respond to your mail? One day, perhaps two? You must respond to mail from your network within roughly 24 hours. Period.

Your response could be, “I’m sorry, I can’t get you an answer right now. Can I get back to you in a week?” That response is far better than none at all. No answer means you don’t care, whereas the “I’m busy right now” answer means you care, but you’re busy.

You might say, “You’ve got to be kidding! I’ve got too much e-mail as it is. Now, I’ve got to answer every stupid question that comes to me within a day?” First of all, maintaining a network is an investment that pays large dividends. Nothing comes for free. Second, answers often come cheap. Forwarding a question onto someone else is just as good as answering it yourself. Why? Because people only care about getting an answer. They write to you and they get answers; that’s all that matters. Just remember to appreciate those who answer the questions for you.

Eric AsideI provide many tricks to managing your mail efficiently in Time enough.

Welcome to the world

Where do you find people to be in your network? Everywhere. In lines, meetings, and classes; on discussion aliases; in collaboration spaces like CodeBox and Toolbox; from web queries; and everywhere else you go at Microsoft. Outside Microsoft, you can find people at conferences, on blogs and forums, you name it. Finding people is easy. Getting them into your network and keeping them is the trick.

When you find people, keep track of them. I keep great e-mails and papers that I read, so I can contact the author(s) at a later date, when there is an opportunity to draw them into my network.

Eric AsideThere are a bunch of personal networking sites now on the web. While they are very clever and useful, be aware that Brad Pitt isn’t likely to make you a personal friend, and neither is the Angelina Jolie of your field. These sites are a great place to get started but not the complete solution.

Once you get someone into your network, stay in touch. There’s no need to be artificial about it. Building and maintaining networks is highly opportunistic. The key is to take advantage of opportunities. When you bump into someone you haven’t heard from in a while, stop and talk even if it’s just for a few minutes. Ask them about what they are doing now. Be curious. Draw them back in.

Remember, networking doesn’t have to be a great deal of work, but it is a commitment. The payback is expanding your mind and your reach. You will learn more about what’s going on and where opportunities are. More people will know and respect you and your talents. Your ideas will be more easily accepted. All that leads to greater influence and esteem. You’ll even make some close friends along the way. That’s a principal worth pursuing.

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