Networking for Noobs

I wanted to write, “The 7 Things I Learned During 7 Months of a Job Search,” but as it turns out, I essentially learned nothing for 4 months, then I learned one Really Big Thing, and then continued to learn it over and over again until I landed my next position. That Really Big Thing was how to network to find a job.

To be honest, I’d never done it before, really. I thought that whole reason for my degrees in Business Communication Duplicate modelComputer Science and for going to U.Va., for that matter, was to not have to. In software, I could just match my skill buzzwords to a job description, and wham-0, I’d get a job offer. It actually worked that way too, for about 15 years. But somehow, during one of my last career moves, things changed. I suspect it was the sudden listing of every single tech job on the internet, but I’m not sure.

Not to get into the details of my pain and suffering, but let’s just say that the internet job boards held no love for me anymore. Not where I was looking, anyway. There were so many jobs listed on the internet, though, for which I was so qualified! I couldn’t resist the temptation to send out resume after resume after resume.

However, that’s not what the outplacement agency had told us to do. We were supposed to spend 60% of our time networking and the rest following up on the opportunities we found that way. I ignored them for many reasons, none of them good: 1) I thought I knew better, 2) this way had always worked before, 3) it looked so easy, 4) I didn’t really know how to network anyway, and 5) in tough situations, I’ll avoid anything I don’t really understand. Anyone else been there?

After I got done “knowing better” and banging my head against the wall, I called a guy I knew who had been around the tech scene in Boston. That’s kind of key – start with someone who knows two things: 1) people in your target industry, and 2) you. Sometimes it matters where your friend lives as to who he or she knows, so start with the contacts in your target location of choice. A friend of the family, another U.Va. Alum, of course, or an ex-coworker make great starting contacts. Anyway, I set up a 30-minute talk with my friend, explained my situation and spent the next 25 minutes scribbling feverishly as he listed all his juicy contacts.

“Oh you should call my recruiter friend in Boston, she knows everyone, including your old company. You know she placed Joel six months ago in Rhode Island? You should call him too. Oh yeah, and my buddy over at this biotech start-up in Cambridge. Actually, that would be a great fit…”

When I asked him to introduce me to these people over email, he would forward my contact info with some really nice intro like, “Hey, can you talk to my friend Carl, he was running a great software group at a biotech start-up that’s run its course.”

After that, I’d follow up by making an appointment to talk to each of them for 30 minutes. The trick was that I never asked them for a job. Instead I asked them about people, positions, companies and recruiters they thought I should call given what I was looking for. I’d thank them for their time and wash, rinse, repeat.

Here’s where the magic happened, though. First of all, it was not a linear experience, one person after the other. It was exponential. One person led to three people, each of which led to three more. What was the fuel for this phenomenon? Certainly, it was not my own professional reputation. Maybe that was kindling on which the fire lit, but from what I could tell, what kept the blaze going was the general desire of people to help others and the good favor that exists between professional friends and peers. I found myself surfing this wave, sometimes four recommendations out from my first connection. I was shocked that this power existed and could so easily be tapped into with a simple up-front payment of a little humility and some mutual respect.

Of course the point of all of this activity is to obtain a conversation with a hiring manager or get a phone interview, so you have to always keep that goal in sight. It does take some confidence, rehearsing your “elevator speech,” and keeping a laser focus on what you want. You can’t go wasting people’s time fumbling around on the phone and waffling about who you are. You really have to figure that one out first. However, if you’re confident in your direction or at least your options, practicing the five-minute, “so tell me a little bit about yourself” answer shouldn’t take too
much. Dogs make excellent practice audiences. When you’re ready, move on to the cat. But I digress.

Within days I had more leads than I had time to follow up on. One recruiter alone who “didn’t have anything for me” knew the CEOs of at least five tech companies. An ex-coworker friend of mine got me an interview at a cool company that launches rockets, and another guy who used to work for me put my resume in front of some VPs which led to my current position, an even better position than at my last job. And this was without sending a single resume to a job site. I stopped wasting my time with that at the four-month mark. No lie, I had two great offers two months later and started my new job a little after that.

I hope this helps if you’re in a search now or if you’ve wondered how this magic “networking” thing works. It’s one thing to hear the word thrown around, but it’s another thing entirely when you go to try to do it. It’s as true for us Generation X-ers as it is for the heavily-connected Millennials. The best jobs and the best hires come from good old-fashioned networking.

Post by Carl Meacham (SEAS ’94)


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