Networking: A Guide For Engineers

Networking: A Guide For Engineers

Networking.

Just like Professor GEARS, I hate that term. People, especially recruiters, throw it around as the answer to everything. Need a job? Network. Looking for a contractor? Network. Interested in other fields? Network. I can’t stand how people seem to think it’s the panacea of the engineering world. The worst part is, NO ONE EVER TELLS YOU HOW TO DO IT!

Until now.

Yup, this is the engineer’s guide to networking.

What is networking?

Let’s start in the obvious place. What the hell is networking? I’m going to define it thusly:

Networking is the process of meeting people in the hopes getting something done later. This could be a new job, obtaining critical resources or even meeting (different) people.

Alright, now let’s say it in terms engineers know and want to hear:

Networking will get you a job. It will make your current job easier. Or it will introduce you to some awesome people.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far in my engineering career: You can be one of the most skilled people in the world, but unless people know about you and your skillset, you’re just going to be ignored. You’ll be at the same job, doing the same thing, every day. And that’s if you can get a job in the first place.

Yes, you’re going to have to talk to people

It’s true, some engineers aren’t great in social situations. Insert your favorite Dilbert, SMBC or XKCD comic here.

But the key fact is that you will have to go out and talk to people and get them to like you. More importantly, you have to get to know each other. Being “likable” might sound shallow, but think about it: who wants to do favors for people they don’t like? If instead you are a kind person who others enjoy being around and others believe are a worthwhile person, it’s likely they’re going to want to help when you’re in a moment of need.

What will make you likable? I don’t know, it depends on individual character traits. But I’ll say that I usually don’t dislike people that are kind, show interest in the work I’m doing and are able to carry on a conversation about the work they do (and not sports…). This person wouldn’t tell me the work I’m doing is stupid (even if it is), they wouldn’t offer suggestions about how I can make my work better (unless I indicate I’m looking for help) and they wouldn’t care about talking about non-work stuff at work (assuming we work together) and work stuff outside of work.

So if you were talking to me, that’s what I’d suggest.

But how do I meet people?

It’s all about this, right? And it’s the hardest part to figure out.

Networking Events

Let’s be honest, if you’re going to something titled a “networking event”, there’s very little likelihood you’re going to meet someone that you want to “network with”. Just like when people out of work go to events with others who are looking for employment: you don’t meet anyone that can help you, because they’d probably get themselves a job if they were capable. And people with jobs avoid these events because they’re too busy with work or don’t want to get swarmed with requests for a job from everyone there. So if not at one of these events, then where?

I would consider just about everywhere else you can meet professionals to be a networking event. Doubly so if you have the chance to actually sit down and talk (bars might work, though it’s tough getting to know people). Often you’ll find that the first thing people ask (almost without fail) is “What do you do?”. In turn, you need to try and figure out what the other is doing with their work time. Personally, any time I hear anything technical (“so I was working on my Arduino the other day”), my radar is on. Some of these places might be conferences, vendor meetings or sales meetings.  Any place a group of engineers or technically minded people hang out, you’re probably well served getting to know and keeping in touch with people.

If you’re a new grad or even just starting out, this will be a challenge. The reason older engineers (or older professors, in Cherish’s case) seem so connected is because they’ve been working for a while and have been working with others that may have left and gone to other companies. I would guess this is a large percentage of the connections people have. But even one person leaving and going to another company opens up a whole group of others at the new company. So if your friend Bob left Initec and now works at Initrode, you can probably call him up and ask a few questions. If you tell him you’re having trouble picking out the best op amp, he might know someone at his company who might be able to help you (depending on what the piece of help/advice is, of course).

Also if you’re in the “new grad” camp, don’t forget about technical groups. It’s easy to join and get involved with your local IEEE section (where you might meet some wizened engineer). Alternately, your local hackerspace will often have some of the most hands on people in your town (a completely different skillset).

Online

No, your LinkedIn profile will not cut it (though it’ll likely attract a cold calling recruiter or two). I treat online just like anywhere else. I want to try and meet people because I’m interested in what they’re doing. Who knows what kind of interesting stuff people you meet may be working on? And just like real-world networking, you shouldn’t be meeting people and jumping on them to try and get you a job. Engineers can sniff out that kind of BS in an instant. Remember, people don’t owe you anything…you just met! No, just like any other time, you should show an interest in people and keep up with them.

My communication medium of choice is Twitter, as I discuss regularly on The Amp Hour with Dave. It’s great because it’s a low effort way to keep up with the things people are working on and easily interact. Even keeping up in a casual manner is better than trying to have a deep conversation with your acquaintance or friend once every few months. You can offer help or suggestions if they’re stuck on a problem, or can point them towards someone else they know if they need to get in touch with someone. If you’re not already on there, I highly recommend using it as a professional tool.

Tricky places

I’m hardly the first to point this out, but the informational interview is a GREAT way to get introduced to new fields and people. I first learned about the concept from What Color Is Your Parachute? when I first read it a few years back. The basic idea is that you call people up (possibly setting up a time to talk by email first), show interest in their job and see if there’s anyone else you might be able to talk to about the subject. Then you try to talk to the next and the next person. Along the way, you try to connect with the person enough so they remember you and want to help you, no small feat. Again, not necessarily something that will happen immediately.

But how do you meet the first person? What happens if you’re a new grad or you’re trying to break into a field you had not previously had many contacts?

I learned from a friend about a simple way to set up informational interviews. First, you target the person or company you want to talk to. Say you’re interested in working on analog portion of a new Intel chip someday. Next, go to LinkedIn (yes, it’s good for something). If you have even a small amount of connections on there, you should be able to search for and find someone from Intel who is an analog designer on the PLL section. Now go to Google and figure out the email method for the company. So if you find other addresses on Google that look like “John.Smith@intel.com”, then if the person you’re looking for is Mark Ball, you’d use “Mark.Ball@intel.com”. Pretty simple, right? Well, that’s the easy part.

Next, you have to draft an email that makes someone want to talk to you. It doesn’t need to be anything more than honest. You’re looking to be an analog designer someday and would really love to hear about some of their experiences at Intel or otherwise. I’ve had some luck in this manner, because just like in real life, people enjoy talking about what they do. If you get a chance to talk with them, be prepared. Research the field, write down some questions and be engaging in the conversation. Afterward, thank them profusely and ask if they know anyone else you might be able to talk to. If they say “No”, don’t worry about it. Just try the method above again. It’s a long process, but a cool way to try and get talking to people about your field of interest.

Yes, you’re going to have to help others as well

As I alluded to above, networking is not just about meeting people. It’s not just about others helping you. It’s about helping others as well. And in reality, it’s something you should focus on. If you’re constantly trying to match friends up with jobs they might like, or helping them with a problem they’re having, those people are going to think of you later on.  It’s weird to explain though, because it shouldn’t be a quid pro quo situation. Instead, do it because it feels good to help others, and it allows you to get to know them better. The side result is that you’ll hear about more projects and have more opportunities open up to you.

What comes next?

If you’re interested in getting to know more people in the immediate future, you’re going to have to do some work. You’ll have to join Twitter, get involved at a hackerspace, join IEEE or start cold calling (effectively) using the LinkedIn method I outline above. I would assume people very much interested in “networking” would be those looking for work currently. Some of these things will help, but just like Fluxor explains in his post about finding a new job, it’s best to try all available avenues.

If you’re a little more laid back, you’re likely in a job or looking towards the possibility of hopping in the future.

If you’re a consultant or a contractor, you’d best be networking RIGHT NOW, because you never know when your next great opportunity will come from. However, I’m not that worried, since contractors and consultants are probably the best at networking of all engineers. In fact, if you’re looking to learn more, you might want to ask one of them (psst, use LinkedIn or Google).

In summary

  • Meet people (however you can)
  • Help people (as much as possible)
  • Get helped (eventually)

Please leave any tips you might have in the comments.

9 comments

Social skills seem really hard to be taught, or teach. This is probably the best way to learn them, by doing. Treat it as such, and you won’t get caught up with the “score.” Which some people seem to get bogged down by, how much help they get, vs haven got, or successful attempts at creating social ties with other people. Just keep at it, and you’ll get better, you’re name will get out there, and before you know it, you’ve created a network of people. Seems a lot of unlikable people are simply that, because they complain about the “score” or think everyone should want to be their best bud, or always need to prove they are the best, instead of not worrying about it, rolling with the punches and moving on. Your attitude towards it can be your worst enemy. I wouldn’t think of this as shallow either, its not like you’re claiming they are all your best friends, its a loose knit group of people interested in the same things you are, it is what it is. I think you also got to keep the right mind set about it, cause yeah, the marketing speak life coach self help spin thats been put on it, makes it sound really annoying, when it can actually be a fun activity. Its what I do to make it more entertaining, make it about the skill set, and who knows, you might just find your next good friend doing it.

Ok, I’ll put on my serious face (and swallow my apprehension of using the word networking).

If you’re in grad school, a really good place to network is at conferences. When you’re there try to get your colleagues to introduce you to everyone that they know. If you’re good in your field and the conference committee accepts it, try to get on the planning committee. You’ll definitely meet people that way.

Doing something like that not only means you’ll meet new people but you’ll also see a different side of things like professional society politics, cliques among professional society members, and some gossip. Plus, it will help you switch from thinking like an engineer to thinking like a manager.

I did that during the first year of my PhD work and it was great and I’ve been doing it ever since then. Even if you don’t have anything to present at the conference and your university won’t pay, pay for it yourself. If you maintain a constant presence and make yourself known, people will remember you.

Ok, snarky face back on…

I remember spending a few days working a state fair booth for First Lego League some years back. It was pretty cool as we generated a lot of interest amongst the youngsters who stopped by. It was likewise really cool, in that during the down times, multi-disciplinary tech talk cranked up to the max. The info and contacts gathered during those 4 hour shifts shed some new light, and helped solve a production problem I’d been struggling with for months.

Volunteering created an opportunity for multi-cross-pollination that would have been impossible during the normal course of business, especially since we didnt have any chem-E’s on staff. Likewise, had it not been for the IEEE, the probability of FLL involvement, much less state fair duty would have been about nil.

Chris,
You are correct that no one ever tells you how to do it, including Mr. Bolles in What Color Is Your Parachute. He devotes less than 5 pages of type to this critical career subject, whereas I have an entire chapter (the largest in my book) that is more than 30 pages. I lay out a detailed/integraged strategy because, like your readers, I come from an engineering “problem solving” background. The book title is Fast Track Your Job Search (and Career!) and your readers can check it out at http://www.fasttrackyourjobsearch.com. If you would like a complimentary copy to see what I am saying is true, email me your snail mail address to executiveimpact@gmail.com and I will send you a free copy.
Best wishes and keep up the good work!
Richard Kirby, CMC, CPC (and former P.E.)
Executive Career Consultant
http://www.executive-impact.com
6678-547-0072

It’s true nobody teaches you how to network, and just like you said, “engineers aren’t great in social situations.” It’s about time somebody laid it all out there. I have found this to be the most difficult about becoming an engineer. However, I found it to be more of getting out of your comfort zone and trying to be a little bit more out going. It’s like any other social situation you got to break the ice, once you do it becomes easier and easier.

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