I owe all of my success in the tech industry to my professional network.
Sounds obvious, right?
But how do you actually build that network in the first place?
When you're new to the field and/or transitioning from an unrelated industry, it can feel like you don't belong.
Maybe you feel like you don't have anything to contribute.
Especially if you've taken an unconventional path to get here - people will be that much more excited to get to know you.
(Who am I? Just a thirty-something dude who got burned out with his career in trades and decided to change course to web development. I started learning in September 2020, and in January 2021 I began freelancing as a developer and technical writer.)
It's worth noting that I live in the Bay Area, CA, about an hour south of Silicon Valley. It’s kind of impossible to avoid the tech industry here, so basically everyone who I know personally also knows somebody in tech.
That said, I haven't lived here long, and I honestly don’t know very many people outside of the non-tech industry I’ve been working in (landscaping) up to this point.
My connections have mainly come from two places: personal connections and Twitter.
In both cases, the most effective way to start conversations is to be vocal about who you are and what you do! The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
LinkedIn is a distant third in my overall strategy, and mostly only serves (for me) to reinforce the connections made IRL and on Twitter. But I have had some luck cold-messaging folks on LinkedIn and asking for a coffee chat. Your mileage may vary.
When it comes to personal connections, I just try to be upfront with everyone I know about what I’m up to with my new career in tech. Friends and acquaintances will often offer to connect me with someone they know in the industry without me asking for it, but if they don’t then I will directly ask.
These kinds of networking connections seem to go most smoothly when there’s a middle-person (your mutual acquaintance) to make the introduction, typically via email or group text. This is the only avenue that has so far led to a 100% success rate for me in terms of making meaningful connections with individuals in the industry, so these are by far the most valuable intros to seek.
We schedule a time to talk via phone or Zoom, and the conversations usually last about 30 minutes. Most people are curious about what I’m up to, what I’m aiming for, where I’m at in terms of skills, and how they might be able to help me out with info, resources, or career advice.
Some of my favorite questions to ask are:
- “How did you land your first job?”
- “What’s your current company like, and what’s your role there?”
- “How will I know when I’m ready to start looking for a job?”
- “After hearing about what I'm up to, do you know anybody who you think I should meet?”
I’ve talked to senior full-stack devs, CTOs, data scientists, geotech engineers, roboticists, and freelancers of all stripes.
(FYI: Nearly all of them were self-taught to begin, and broke into the industry because they were passionate and dedicated. Tangential but worth mentioning.)
Having these conversations with strangers feels super awkward — believe me, I get it! I’m pretty introverted and mostly keep to myself, pandemic or not. (It's not for nothing that I live alone in an off-grid cabin in the woods!)
But people in the tech industry know how the game is played, and they expect to make these kinds of connections regularly. Many use scheduling apps to streamline the process and will simply direct you to a signup page where you can pick a time on their calendar.
People will appreciate that you are taking the initiative to network with them.
Every time, without fail, these individuals have stressed that they would be willing to go out of their way to help me out in any way possible.
Several people have told me:
“I was able to get my foot in the door thanks to a handful of kind individuals who went out of their way for me. So it’s important to me to pay that forward to others.”
I bring this up not to toot my own horn, but to stress that people in this industry want to help you succeed.
I’ve worked in several other industries in the past and have never witnessed this kind of ethos before.
It’s really remarkable.
This culture is also apparent on Twitter, where I’ve tapped into the incredibly supportive tech community there.
Almost as soon as I joined and started sharing what I was doing, people started reaching out to me via DMs to offer resources, support, encouragement, and career advice.
And that’s to say nothing of the hundreds of others who’ve helpfully chimed in to reply to my tweets. It's as though I've curated an audience of mentors looking over my shoulder and offering guidance.
This is going to sound a little obvious, but the best way I've found to develop meaningful connections on Twitter is to engage with other peoples' posts. Be excited and enthusiastic about what others are up to! Make a thoughtful contribution to a conversation. Offer some resources that you think would be helpful. People will want to support you if you go out of your way to support them.
One of the most effective ways to build a strong professional network is to act as a go-between: be the person who introduces people to one another. Easier said than done, of course, but this is a surefire way to multiply your impact and grow your influence.
Now that I have a decent follower count, one of my favorite things to do is respond to a tweet — especially a newbie question — from someone with fewer followers than me, even if I don’t know the answer.
This way my reply will show up in the feed of my more knowledgeable followers, who will proceed to hop over to the original post and help out. Everybody wins!
Over the last few months, I've been diligent about establishing a reputation for myself as a freelance web developer an technical writer. This has led to several contract proposals and a few really cool long-term working relationships - purely because I post frequently about what I can do.
Painting in broad strokes, the only advice I feel confident giving is, BE YOURSELF!!
Listen: I’m a weird dude.
Don’t even get me started.
But the people I make the most meaningful connections with are the people who think my particular flavor of weirdness is extra-cool.
If I wasn’t open and authentic about the kind of person I am, I would never be able to forge more than superficial connections.
I hope this helps! No magic formulas, just some things I’ve learned on this journey so far. Best of luck to y’all.