Note: I wrote this article a few years ago pre-COVID, so it focuses on in-person events. Don't worry though! All of the philosophies and tactics still apply to online events, you just might to modify them a bit.
Look, I get it. A bunch of web developers, recruiters, and vendors standing around in a room eating pizza or drinking beer and making small talk might sound like complete and utter death for you. There may be a million things you'd rather be doing. "Uhh, don't I have a dentist appointment that day? At least then I won't have to talk."
I get it.
I'm an introvert, too. I get drained by being around people and often need what my own mother called "cave time." Fortunately for me, I was forced to develop some networking skills and get very good at faking being an extrovert. Before I was a developer, when I was dirt broke, I got myself a job selling life insurance. The goal was to become a fee only financial planner, but I had to start at the bottom, and that meant sales. I had zero sales experience, and honestly had no idea how much I was going to be shoved out of my comfort zone.
I had no choice, though. If I stayed comfortable, I didn't eat or pay rent.
Lucky for you, you don't have to do that. If you're looking for a better job, though, it's a great idea to head to some tech events in your town or travel to conferences in order to build relationships with potential future employers. Sometimes great companies will contact you out of the blue, especially if you've become a high profile developer through an open source project or previous job. But when you're looking for your first or second or third job, you may not have that luxury - you may only be contacted by recruiters for jobs that aren't your first choice (to put it kindly). Most developers hate this side of things, and would rather do anything than interact with someone in real life in order to try to find work. It feels manipulative or scammy to them.
Here's the truth: you can get what you need from these events without being awkward or creepy. Whether that's job leads or important connections, there is a well-defined, time-tested way to accomplish this. It will push your limits, but it won't leave you feeling gross inside. And the more you do it, the better you'll get at it.
Our chief goal with networking events and conferences is simple: begin to build relationships with influencers at our dream companies. Who are influencers?
- Senior engineers
- Developer evangelists/community relations
- Hiring managers
We want to meet these people in a way that is authentic and natural, and then follow up with them. Read that sentence again, because each piece is crucial - you are not trying to ask for a job at the event! You are starting to get to know someone and see if you're a good fit, then over time ask for their help.
Okay, but I'm terrible at this. How do I change that?
Any type of change consists of two components:
- Your personal psychology
- Your skill set
The former is the hard part. Your previous experiences of awkwardness or embarrassment (or maybe even downright humiliation) have pounded in your head phrases like:
- "I am just no good at social interaction."
- "I just don't have confidence."
- "I am soooo socially awkward."
See how much "I" shows up in those? See how we identify with our experiences of pain or perceived failure? The major hurdle is overcoming those psychological barriers so you can start to perceive yourself as someone who is confident and in control of social situations. You may never enjoy them - and that is completely, 100% okay - but you will at least feel like you are competent. It's kind of like my relationship with jQuery. I've used it a lot and am in competent in it, but I will never love writing a bunch of
$ statements and manipulating my DOM with it.
So how do we actually change the psychology? We do it with actions that produce quick wins as you are building your skill set. The truth is, social skills (sometimes called "soft skills") are just that: skills. And what are skills? A set of strategies, tactics, and processes you just learn, practice, and eventually master.
Think of Social Skills as a new programming language. There are a few core concepts to this language that may be new to you, but luckily, the syntax is actually way simpler than you might realize. The reason this subject seems so scary and overwhelming is that no one has taught you how to do it yet -- it has nothing to do with your intrinsic value as a person. And let me tell you a secret: sometimes the people who feel the least competent turn out to be the absolute best in this area.
Here are 3 core philosophies and 5 key tactics to becoming awesome at networking events.
Core Philosophy 1: Make Other People Feel Welcome and Accepted
People are honestly not that complicated. When you go to an event or a meetup, do you find yourself awkwardly standing around, compulsively looking at your phone? Do you feel alone or uncomfortable? The truth is, nearly everyone else is feeling the same way. When it comes down to it, people want to feel welcomed and accepted. Why else do people gravitate towards the people they already know at these events? Few people really relish being awkward at these things.
Here's the fun part: you can change that for someone else. Shift your thinking from how you are feeling to how others are feeling. How nice would it be if someone came up to you and just gave you a warm smile, said hello, and asked you a genuine question about yourself? You can be that person for someone!
Core Philosophy 2: Give First, then Give Some More
That leads us to the second core philosophy: come to these events with an attitude of giving. Instead of thinking (at worst) "Oh no, I hate these things" or (at best) "What can I get out of this?", think instead: "What can I give? Who can I help?" A weird thing happens when you start thinking this way - things go really well.
Back when I was new to financial sales, I had a very simple strategy for feeling less awkward. I'd scan the room to find someone who looked alone and uncomfortable (like me), and smile and introduce myself. Then I'd start asking them questions about their business. I'd make a mental note of this and repeat. When I came across someone who would be a good connection for anyone I had previously met, I would introduce them. It was as easy as this:
"Oh, you're a commercial real estate attorney? Have you met Jane? She's a commercial realtor new to the area. Let me introduce you."
If these are indeed genuine, valuable connections, both people will be really grateful. You can do the same in tech, whether by connecting contractors and team leaders, or just helping people make friends:
"Oh, you like hiking too? Ashley over there does too! You should totally be friends. Hey Ashley, this is Stephanie. You both like hiking, discuss!"
See how natural that was? Not weird, not creepy. Just fun - which leads us to core philosophy 3.
Core Philosophy 3: Don't Overthink - Be Genuine & Have Fun
If you're an intelligent introvert, you may have a tendency to overthink...just a bit (cough me cough). "What if I say the wrong thing? What if I look stupid? What if when I open my mouth I just start quoting Harry Potter?" You can relax. When it comes to social interactions, your tone and your body language matter way more than what exactly you say.
If you come across as fun, confident, and (this is important) authentic, most people will be glad to talk to you. Folks can spot being fake or scummy from a mile away, but that's most likely not your problem. We gradually want to build your confidence, but even your shyness can be an asset - many people will find this endearing, especially if you're just looking for friends.
The point with this one is to just do it. Overthinking will keep you from practicing, and practicing is what will make this easier for you and build your confidence.
Now let me tell you the surefire easiest trick to get started.
Tactic 1: Smile and Say Hi
Yes, it's really that easy. This has been my go-to opener for years with people. I walk up to someone, give them a warm smile, offer my hand out, and just say, "Hi, I'm Sam! What's your name?" If they've got a name tag, I'll ask something innocuous like, "What brings you here?" Like I said above, people love to feel welcomed and accepted.
Tactic 2: Ask Questions (How to Approach a Group)
Asking questions is also a great way to meet people. In Tactic 1 I suggested asking "What brings you here?" With both individuals and groups, you can also ask something totally inconsequential. The point of any opener, whether with an individual or group, is to simply break the silence and get the conversation rolling. Aside from something inflammatory or offensive (which honestly can be brilliant if done in the right way with a little humor), it almost makes zero difference what your opener is.
Let's look at an example. Let's say there's a group I want to approach - maybe there's a speaker with a few people gathered around that I'd really like to meet. Instead of awkwardly standing to the side of the speaker and eventually thrusting my hand in his or her face, I'd walk up to the group, stand for about 30 seconds to catch wind of the conversation, and then ask a question - either to the group or to whomever was the last person to speak.
Walking up to a group.
Person A: "Ugh I dunno, the build process you mentioned in your talk has given me so much trouble."
Speaker: Really? How so?
Person A: I just had so much trouble getting my scripts to minify.
Me: Oh yeah, me too! What do you think about Magic Plugin X? I tried to so hard to make that thing work and it just made me even more frustrated!
Person A: Haha, oh yeah, totally. I thought Magic Plugin X was okay, but Super Plugin Y was much easier.
When the conversation comes to a natural pause, I can then interject, "By the way, I'm Sam everyone. Oh, and Speaker, I really dug your talk. Thanks so much for that."
Note what I did not do: I did not shut down the conversation by trying to prove a point ("Actually that build process is completely superior due to the following technical reasons.") I also did not start a war ("THAT PROCESS SUCKS!"). Being contrarian can be useful, but only when done with humor. Starting arguments without smiling, laughing, and being playful will just isolate you. Would you rather a) be right or b) make friends and connections? (Hint: pick b.)
Tactic 3: Give Genuine Gratitude
I've had the opportunity to meet plenty of "tech famous" people: authors, teachers, core team members, and Googlers. This is the main way I introduce myself to all of them. The key here is always to be genuine. Take, for example, a "tech famous" core team contributor of your favorite framework. That person gets bombarded daily with mostly criticism and sometimes abject flattery. Any time I meet someone whose software I use or whose book I loved, I simply smile, shake their hand, and say:
"Hi, I'm Sam. I just wanted to take a moment to thank you in person for the work you're doing. It really makes my life easier every day."
Most of the time, especially in the tech world I've found, I can visually see their guard come down. They are used to either being yelled at for weird technical minutia (developers can be really awkward) or dealing with fans trying to take selfies with them. Just being authentic and showing gratitude can go a really long way.
You shouldn't have any trouble giving gratitude if this is somewhere you want to work someday. Outside of simply fame and fortune, you're probably interested in the company or the person because they've helped you in some way, either by making a tool or framework you use or because you just admire the brilliance of their engineering. Or, you may share a common social mission if it's a non-profit. Say something about that.
Tactic 4: Find Common Ground
Once you've expressed genuine appreciation, you need to master the art of finding common ground. Your best go-tos are always:
- Hobbies (think board games or knitting)
- Location (from the same small town in Ohio?)
- School (same high school, same college, rival college)
- Entertainment (here's your chance to talk about Harry Potter, or sports, or TV shows)
"Wait a second, Sam. This sounds like small talk. I hate small talk."
Well, okay, you caught me. This is small talk. But it's small talk with a purpose. You're trying to build a relationship with this person. You don't build a relationship immediately with BIG SCARY TOPICS like relationships or politics or religion. You have to get to know someone first.
Here are some examples (and remember: the goal here is to be authentic).
[after expressing gratitude]
Me: "I was just talking to someone over there about that new board game Scythe. Ever played?" CTO: "Oh no I haven't. I love tabletop games." Me: "Oh yeah? Any favorites?" CTO: "I'm a huge Netrunner dork." Me: [proceeds to joke about how complicated Netrunner is]
Boom. Easy. What if that person wasn't into games? Here's what I'd do:
Me: "I was just talking to someone over there about that new board game Scythe. Ever played?" CTO: "Oh no I haven't. I hate those kinds of games." Me: "Oh yeah? More of a real-life-games kinda person?" CTO: "Yeah, I'm a big disc golf fan." Me: [proceeds to joke about how terrible at disc golf I am]
Notice how I handled that. I very subtly pivoted the conversation by asking a very specific alternative question. I didn't just say, "Uhh, okay, what do you like to do for fun?" People don't like such broad questions because it leads to dead time in the conversation where they have to think. You always want to ask easy questions first to get them engaged, then follow up with jokes or questions asking for elaboration.
Also, notice that in both scenarios, I didn't just blindly agree with this person. I don't have to say anything like "OH I LOVE NETRUNNER!" or "DISC GOLF IS MY FAVORITE!" if it's not true. I can make a joke and laugh about it. You're just making conversation here with the intent of finding more out about the person, which you can use to follow up with them later. Humor and grace are very disarming to people, and can help make connections with just about anyone.
Tactic 5: End Gracefully
Never spend more than a few minutes in these interactions. You're not trying to figure out someone's entire life story, and you're not trying to get them to offer you a job. Sometimes things happen naturally - you might find yourself an unintentional BFF and end up going for drinks if it turns out you're from the same tiny town in rural America - but that is usually 1 out of a 100.
The key to ending a conversation gracefully is to have a natural out. You also want to be the one to end the conversation if possible. If this person is in high demand, don't be that person who holds onto them for an awkward amount of time. I have seen this a lot at tech conferences, and it's just plain awkward for everyone. Usually the in-demand person is trying as hard as possible to be polite, and their captor is totally oblivious to how much time they're hogging. Don't do it. Take a few minutes to get to know the person, and then say something like this:
"Hey, it was really great talking to you for a minute. I've got a few other people I want to be sure to catch before I take off. I'd love to keep in touch, though - do you have a card?"
I know, I know, we're in tech and people don't often carry cards. That's okay. The point is not the medium itself, the point is that I asked them for a means of following up. Do not just hand them a card or tell them your Twitter handle. They will never follow up with you.
In response, they'll say one of three things:
- "Sure, great meeting you too. Here it is."
- "I don't carry cards, but tweet at me sometime."
- "Uhh, you know, I never check my work email anyway." <-- This is them politely telling you to buzz off.
Their response will either be 1) positive, 2) ambivalent or just being polite (the "tweet at me" response is sometimes just that), or 3) politely or impolitely refusing depending on their own level of social skill. If it's number 3, don't take it personally. Just smile, shake their hand, and wish them well. Either your approach was a little off-putting or their personality just didn't jive with yours. Just relax and note it for the future. I've had this happen too, sometimes with the very people I thought I'd get along great with.
Numbers one and two require follow-up work, and that's our last tactic. Before we cover that, one pro tip: as soon as you can after meeting someone, write, type, or dictate basic information about that encounter. Don't overthink the method; use Google Keep, Evernote, a tape recorder - anything to remember their name, their company, and the areas of common ground you found.
Tactic 6: Follow Up (No one does this!)
Following up is the single most important tactic here, but it requires the most skill. You have to learn how to follow up without being creepy or too persistent. Luckily, this is pretty straightforward.
After a few days, but no more than a week, contact them in their preferred medium. It's this easy:
Subject: Great meeting you! [keep it simple]
Just wanted to send you a quick note to say that it was great meeting you at the Famous Tech Conference last week. I bet that Michigan weather is a tough adjustment after all that sunshine. [something personal about them]
Take care, [courteous without being creepy] Sam Julien P.S. My friends are still trying to convince me to play Scythe, but I hear it's even more complicated than Netrunner. I'm doomed. [callback to whatever common connection you made]
Notice I'm still not asking for a job or anything. I'm still building the relationship.
If they don't respond, that's fine. Not everyone has time to respond to every single email. Hopefully, they'll respond in a friendly tone with similar banter. If not, don't sweat it.
At least a week after this exchange, it's safe to make your first foray into the job-hunt with this person, though it helps to continue to build the relationship. Ideally, you want to build these connections long before you actually need a job or before the company posts a job. Sometimes you don't have that luxury, though, and you need to act quickly. If that's the case, your second email is fine for this. The key here is to keep it light and be outcome-independent. Be tactful and not over-bearing, and frame it asking for advice and help, not as demanding they give you a job.
I'm thinking of applying myself since you seem super happy there - is there anything in particular I should know about the application process or the job that's not on the posting? [use your head here, don't ask dumb questions that are answered elsewhere]
Thanks so much; hope you're doing well and not buried under all that snow! [light-hearted and friendly!]
Cheers, Sam Julien
The goal is always to have this person be your ally, and to truly want what's best for you and for them. You are not looking for them to just do you a favor, nor are you trying to look desperate. Also, and perhaps most importantly, you are not building the relationship with them to simply get a job. Think bigger than that: you may be able to help them with something down the road, or you may both end up working at a different company together later on. Also, never underestimate the positive impact simply being a friendly, positive person has. People appreciate that.
So, the key to following up is outcome independence - you're asking for some help or advice, but you're applying anyway, and the results of the job decision have no bearing on your relationship with that person.
There are many nuances to the follow-up and relationship building process. Just get started for now and refine your process over time as you get better.
We've covered a lot of ground in this guide. Here's what I want you to do this week:
- Pick out 1-2 events in your city you can go to in the next 1-2 weeks.
- Find a friend or co-worker to go with you if possible. That person doesn't necessarily need to stay by your side the whole time, it's more about having some accountability to go.
- At the event, talk to 3 people using the philosophies and tactics I describe above. Don't worry about the outcome, or even if the people work where you want to work. We're just getting you some practice. If this still freaks you out, here's a different goal: say hi and introduce yourself to just 1 person you don't know.
- Capture what you learn into Google Keep or a similar easy system.
- Within a week of that event, send friendly follow-ups to each person who showed either a neutral or positive response.
Oh, one more thing. Reach out to me and let me know how it went - what went well, what was tough - and any other topics you'd like to learn about.
Good luck - you can totally do this!
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