Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Can Your Network Do This?

A couple of months ago, my wife and I took a road trip from Cleveland to Pittsburgh.  Stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, the woman behind me suddenly lept from her car, ran up behind my car, and took a picture of my license plate.  She hollered something like "I love SQL!" and disappeared back into traffic.

It took three days for a friend to send this back to me in a tweet:

Aside from the cosmic coolness of having attractive, nerd-appreciating women accosting me in traffic, it occurred to me that this was an indication of a pretty good professional network.  Can your network do this?  How many degrees of Kevin Bacon are you from a random stranger on the freeway?

One of my personal and professional goals this year was to do more networking.  I don't suppose I'm alone in the tech world in putting "networking" right up there with "root canal" in the list of things I'd rather not be doing or having done to me. Images come to mind of schmoozing and making uncomfortable small talk, and telling people we should do lunch, or take lunch, or whatever verb it is people do to lunch while networking.

As it turns out, networking can largely be whatever you want it to be, so long as you're connecting to other people.  Yes, I've "done" a couple of really uncomfortable lunches with people trying to sell me something, or see if I could sell something for them.  But I've also been writing this blog, tweeting, drinking beer with other SQL geeks, and attending some interesting (for me) conferences.  Yes, it's still an effort-- I'm an introvert, and as much fun as I have hanging out with SQL people, I'd often much rather just be at home with my wife and cats.  But really, it hasn't been a chore-- just a conscious effort to get more involved in the SQL community.

And you can do it, even if you have major social anxiety.

Here's some things that I've found good luck with:

  • Find a PASS chapter.  There are groups in most major cities, and if there isn't one near you, there are virtual chapters. It's a chance to hang out with other SQL people, learn some things, and just get a feel for what's going on in the SQL world, both at large and in your town.
  • Get involved with SQL Saturday, SQL Rally, or SQL Summit events.  Some of these are run on shoestring budgets and eager for any help you can give.  Even if your job is just handing out flyers or stuffing bags, being a volunteer gets you backstage access to presenters, MVPs, and others in the community. If you can't volunteer, at least try to attend.  
  • Blog something.  I should spend more time on this, and web presence in general, but having a blog is an opportunity to share your knowledge and get your name out there a little bit.  
  • Read other people's blogs.  SQL BitsSQL Server Cental (particularly their Stairway series), and SQL Server Team Blogs are all great places to find some great SQL blogs to start.
  • Tweet something.  The SQL community is hugely involved in Twitter, and that includes the guys and gals who write SQL Server.  I once tweeted "Thanks, Microsoft!" about some SQL feature that I really liked, and a few minutes later, the developer who wrote that feature tweeted back, "Glad you like it!".  How cool is that?  Follow #sqlserver and #sqlhelp to start, and read Brent Ozar's great introduction to Twitter for SQL folks.
  • Of course, get yourself LinkedIn.  It's not like Facebook, honest-- it's just a good way to keep in contact with people you've worked with.
Notice that some of these don't even require you to leave the living room.  Of course, you'll make more meaningful connections if you actually get out and talk to people.  You might even-- gasp-- make a friend or two.  But at a minimum, the goal is to stay connected to the community.  

One big epiphany I had this year was gleaned from the classic What Color Is Your Parachute: a big goal of networking is to increase the number of people you can call (or email) to get introduced to someone who can help you.  That's it.  These people don't have to be able to vouch for your work personally (although that helps), they just have to be able to introduce you.  

So, for example, I volunteered to help organize SQL Saturday with my local PASS chapter, which introduced me to dozen or so SQL people here in Cleveland.   Now, aside from my ability to order great sandwiches, they don't know much about my SQL skills.  But collectively they probably know someone in every SQL shop in town, or they know someone who does.  So now I not only have some cool SQL friends, but I have a little network of people, and when I find myself asking, "I wonder who I can talk to at XYZ Corp," chances are one of these people can hook me up with a name and an introduction.

Further out at the edges of my network are the presenters I've met and watched at SQL Saturday, bloggers I've read, and the aforementioned SQL developers who tweet or lurk on the same hash tags as I do.  I don't expect Tim Ford or Jeremiah Peschka or Brent Ozar know who I am... but I know them.  (And I know people who know them, bwuahaha.)  More importantly, I know they're the experts in their areas, and that they have a wealth of knowledge and materials that they generously share in talks and blogs.  They're also active twitterers (tweeters?).  If I had some question about DMO's, window functions in Denali, or how SANs work, I know where to go.  

As you're making your New Year's resolutions next year, think about what you can do to increase the size of your SQL network.  Also, think about becoming a nicer driver-- the person behind you might be closer than you think!

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