Disciplined physical training is necessary to achieve peak results for competitive athletes, but it is not sufficient: top athletes need to follow the right diet too. Likewise, leading your teams is not enough to achieve peak results for managers. To boost your leadership results you need to cultivate a strong professional network. In this post, I'll discuss why networking makes sense for highly technical managers and how to get started if you need a few ideas.
I'm a habitual introvert. For years, this skewed my outlook on social activities like networking. I didn't understand the value of actively meeting new people to make small talk. It all seemed too superficial. All along I had the wrong perspective of networking and I didn't know I was missing out. I worked hard and progressed through the ranks, but now I see that I could have gone further with less effort had I networked earlier.
Technical managers and individual contributors are all knowledge workers. Your value stems from how much you know and can deliver. Thus, you must keep learning. Networking accelerates your ability to learn. You learn through others' experiences. You learn how others think and approach problems.
I view networking as a valuable collection of authentic relationships to those who are in similar professional situations. We routinely meet. There is a strong exchange of value: we give, we get. We all learn and grow more quickly than if we didn't know and support each other.
Here is how I handle my networking:
- I Hold Monthly Coffee Roundtables: (Terrible and forgettable name? Yes. As you can tell, I'm not in Marketing.) This is an invite-only group of local, senior technical executives. We all share our work-related challenges and offer solutions or resources to help each other through the slog. Typically, a subset of us will have solved the same problem in different ways. (It's all just ETL.) This group has grown to be pretty tight. We help each other constantly. In addition, because we know each other so well, we're comfortable passing along leads on new technical talent. This is valuable in our current, volatile hiring environment.
- I Run A Local Meetup: Around two years ago, I started GDG Cloud Austin to grow and develop a community of like-minded engineers building solutions on the Google Cloud Platform. Once we dialed in a few variables—like location, time, duration, etc.—we grew steadily. We now have about 1,100 registered members, of which 40-100 attend monthly. Running the meetup forced me to make new connections into unknown companies where I've met great people doing great things. Here, I've learned new concepts that I've applied directly at work.
- I Advise the University of Texas McComb's School's Masters of Science in Information Technology and Management Program: I was invited to help guide the school on how to design its Masters program to match real-world challenges (e.g. Is the curriculum sensible? Is it complete? What would make it better? What do you think of someone who would graduate with these skills? Would you hire that person?). In addition, we mentor students and have the chance to host a capstone project exposing the brilliant minds to real-world problems.
- I'm a Google Developer Expert (GDE): Being a GDE allows me to expand my network to deeply-skilled engineers internationally. This connects me with a very group of established professionals who are leaders in building technical solutions to business problems on the Google Cloud Platform. I also get early access to Google technology.
If you want to start your own efforts, I recommend starting with your own version of our Monthly Technical Roundtable. To kick it off, find a friend nearby and invite that person to coffee. Then, chat about challenges and opportunities with technology and managing. Listen and see what problems you share with your friend. Ask each other who else might be a valuable member to add and invite that person. Repeat this with the new person. Grow the group to about eight or ten. Keep it oriented toward day-today problems—no vendor pitches or salesfolks allowed.
Another alternative is starting or joining a meetup. While meetup proliferation is a thing and thus waters down the value of many, you can still find or create a great one. I bet 90% of all meetup organizers would love more help running their meetup. Find one you like and help run it. If you have problems kicking off the Roundtable conversations as mentioned above, the meetup is a nice place to meet people to invite to your monthly roundtable.
Seeing the value in networking—and because I enjoy helping others—I offer a similar networking opportunity to all of my engineering managers. We identify a seed list of potential roundtable members, kick off the introductions, and leave the rest up to them.
It took me a while to come around. I now highly value those relationships that years ago I would have viewed with cynicism. If you viewed networking like I once did, then I hope this post helped change the way you think and identify a couple ways in which you can get started today.