Your network increases optionality

This is a guest post from Karl Hughes. Enjoy.

Dear new developer,

I was in your shoes in 2011. I was finishing up a degree in mechanical engineering that I would never use and looking for a way to join a startup as a software developer.

Maybe it was the entrepreneur in me, and maybe it was just naivety, but instead of applying for jobs, I decided to start emailing interesting companies instead. I made a list of technology startups in the education industry and emailed each of them my pitch.

Two of them got back to me and one (Uloop) had an office three hours away in Nashville. I drove to meet their CEO and after a few conversations, they brought me on as a freelancer. When I graduated a few months later, they offered me a full-time role managing their blog and writing custom WordPress plugins.

Since then, I’ve worked at three different edtech startups and never once had a formal “job interview.” Every company I’ve worked for has hired me because I met someone there and stayed in touch for months. When a job opened up, they reached out to me to see if I was interested.

My first job hunt showed me that your strength as a software developer is not in your resume, your knowledge of algorithms, your ability to keep up with the hottest frameworks, or even your problem-solving skills. The most powerful tool you have is your network.

The Employer’s Perspective

As a job-seeker, you know that looking for a job is scary, but from an employer’s perspective, hiring is scary too.

After sitting in the hiring manager’s seat several times in the past few years, I can tell you that I’m as scared of hiring the wrong person as you are of screwing up the job interview. If I make a bad hire, I look bad to my boss, and my team’s productivity will suffer. Having to fire someone kills morale and hurts the manager’s reputation, so nobody wants to do it.

This fear is why managers look for people in their networks or work with recruiters. The very last place employers look for applicants is the cold resume bin.

How I Built My Network

If you want to avoid the black hole of submitting your resume online, you need to build a network. I don’t know you well enough to give you a perfect formula for your situation, so I’ll just tell you how I built my network. I hope some of these ideas resonate.

First, I started as a freelancer before I ever had a “real” job as a programmer. Most people don’t recommend this approach for new developers, but it forced me to learn to “sell” myself really well. When I started with Uloop, I often had no idea how to accomplish a task, but I bet that I could learn it before they discovered I was making it up.

After getting that first job, I started attending meetups and conferences regularly. Uloop was a small company, so there wasn’t much opportunity to network within the organization, but I had moved to Chicago, where there were plenty of programming meetups and tech events to attend.

I tried meeting people at these events, but it was hard. I’m not that outgoing, so instead, I would email the event’s speaker or organizer afterward and invite them to a one-on-one coffee or lunch. Some of the people I met like this are among my closest mentors and friends today.

As I attended more meetups and got to know speakers and leaders, people started inviting me to give back. I was little more than a junior developer at the time, but I was asked to speak at bootcamps, meetups, and even a couple of small conferences because of my network.

Naturally, I was nervous the first few times I got up in front of a group to share my experience. I knew there were people in the crowd with decades of experience on me, and I expected them to stand up and call me out if I made any mistakes. I found that practice and gradually increasing the stakes helped me. By trying a talk out at a local meetup and slowly working up to larger audiences at a conference, I gained confidence over time.

Giving a talk at a meetup or conference is a lot of work, and you don’t typically get paid for it. That said, I knew how helpful it was hearing developers who were more experienced than me back when I was first learning to code, so I have always enjoyed the opportunity to give back.

One side effect of speaking is that you get even more opportunities to increase your network. At some point, I switched from being the one asking speakers to meet with me to the one that attendees were asking to speak with. I always enjoy these interactions with new developers, and the opportunity to encourage or help others is my primary motivation for speaking and writing this letter.

Keeping in Touch

Everyone who talks about networking tells you to go out and meet more people, but that’s worthless if you don’t keep in touch with anyone. As I started to meet more people in Chicago, I realized that I needed to come up with a way to have more encounters with each of them.

“It takes on average about 3 encounters — and by that I mean intentional rather than passing interactions where you’ve gotten together primarily to just hang out — to really see if there’s potential for a relationship with someone.” – Brett McKay

The first step was to start a spreadsheet of people I wanted to keep up with. Most of them were more experienced than me, but many were peers or newer developers I “clicked” with or found interesting.

Next, I made a reminder to reach out to 1-2 people on the list every week. I’d ask how they were doing and see if they wanted to get lunch or coffee sometime. I tried to find organic reasons to connect (birthdays, an article related to their industry, etc.) and ask them questions about their lives. One of the easiest ways to make someone like you is to get them talking about something they like. People love talking about themselves.

While this sounds calculated, I do genuinely enjoy these conversations. We’re all busy, but having a system like this ensures that I don’t forget to maintain my network. If I ever feel like I’m no longer getting along with someone, I remove them from my list and no harm is done.

The reason most people don’t do this is that it takes a lot of time. I still spend 4-6 hours per week keeping in touch with or expanding my network. It may seem like a lot, but the investment has paid dividends and afforded me many interesting conversations and relationships along the way. This strategy of intentionally staying in touch with people has led to friendships, co-workers, job offers, and clients.

Make It Yours

No career advice will work for everyone.

I didn’t write this letter to give you a formula for networking, but rather to let you know that unconventional approaches can work. My network has been an invaluable asset, but luck and privilege played a huge part too.

If I hadn’t been able to drive three hours to take a meeting with my future boss, would he have hired me? If I needed to be home after work to help care for a family member, would I have been able to network at Meetups? If I weren’t a white male in an industry dominated by white males, would people have taken the time to meet with me?

I don’t know.

I have no idea what your career path will look like, but I hope my story gives you the courage to build a path that works for you.

Signed,
Karl

Karl is a former CTO and freelance writer. He’s currently the founder of Draft.dev where he helps companies create content that reaches software developers.

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