Working your network

I presented a session on freelancing at Codestock 2012 – there were actually quite a few of them (4, I think).  I’d wanted to see Michael French’s session, as he sat in on mine, gave me good feedback, and mentioned some areas of freelancing that I don’t discuss in mine (or certainly not enough) – cash flow and insurance. Alas, I didn’t get to see his, but I suspect it went well.

On to the topic of this post.  I got to recapping some of my talk to a smaller group of people in an open spaces segment, and the subject of “how do you find work” came up.  “Grow your network, work your network” was the crux of my answer, and someone rightly challenged me on what “work your network” actually *means*.  Good catch, and I wanted to outline some concrete examples of what you can do to “work your network”.

1.  Find someone in your network who’s better at X than you, and take them to lunch for a short tutorial on X to get you better.  This is one case where you’ll actually be spending time on a technical subject, but the goal is not specifically that.  Getting some one on one time with someone better than you in a tutorial/teacher scenario is generally good – you give them the ability to hone their presentation/explanation skills, and let them know you’re genuinely interested in topic X (you have to be sincere about the request and the topic).  You will learn something new, but also have deepened a connection with someone.  If/when they have a work referral, you’ll be closer to top of mind for that person.

2.  Go to user groups and actively mingle.  Invite friends to join you, or ask someone in your network what groups they go to that you don’t know about, and ask to join them during their next meeting.  Have that person introduce you to a few people there.  You’re actively growing your network, but also positioning your friend in their network as someone who is a connected person with fun/interesting/useful connections.  That means you have to be fun, interesting or useful to people at some point.  :)

3.  Take #1, but invite other people, and turn it in to a small group “lunch and learn” session.  “Lunch and learns” are often used inside companies, but doing some ad-hoc ones among small groups of people will associate you with that group as someone who makes things happen and brings people together.

4. Related to number 3, but don’t bother with having someone make a technical presentation – just invite a small group of people who you know but that you know don’t know each other directly.  Go to lunch – have a good time.  Again, your reputation in this group will become one of someone who knows people, has connections, and can mix with people of multiple backgrounds.

In any of these above, asking people to bring others you don’t know is probably a good idea, but you may want to hold off on that from day 1 if you’re on the shy/introverted side.  You can build up to that, and practice these skills with colleagues/friends first.

All of these sound like I’m trying to make you in to a socialite vs a technical worker, and … in some ways that’s true.  I have to assume that you already have some technical chops to be working as a freelancer already, or that you can get those chops quickly.  The problem many have, especially when first starting out, is finding projects. The primary way to get around that is to have a network of people who feel comfortable calling on you when they have work.  They’ll feel more comfortable knowing that you’re someone who will not embarrass them when they introduce you to people on their team or in their network.  That is probably the most key aspect that tech people sometimes forget or ignore.  Most people really really really don’t care if you have the best technical chops – in some cases they don’t really even want to be outshone, but they do need someone who can get the work done without causing them embarrassment.  Helping them meet their goals of work done while making them look good is paramount.

How many projects have you been on that failed because you didn’t know how to write to a file, talk to a database, send output to a browser or take input from a form?  I bet that number is 0.  Projects fail because of communication between client and dev, or amongst the team.  Likewise, people don’t necessarily hire you just because of your skill.  Indeed, they may keep someone on a project *despite* the person’s skills, because they have no choice in the short term.  In the long term, they’ll get rid of that person if they’re poisonous to the project/team, even if the replacement is less skilled.

In short, “working your network” involves being social with other people.  That may be a stretch outside your comfort zone – many developers like working with computers vs people.  However, the technical skills you have now with PHP, C#, Java, Ruby, Python, Perl, whatever… – those may change, or become irrelevant if you change industries.  Being comfortable talking to people in social situations is a skill that will never go out of fashion, and you can learn and practice this skill in controlled situations by creating social settings with your current network, and at the same time grow that network with new and interesting people.

I hope this helps give you some ideas about how to manage and grow your network.  Are you in violent disagreement with that I wrote above?  Let me know :)

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