The craft of online business networking

I recently had a friend text me to say she was looking for new employment, and wanted to know if I had any ideas.  I gave her my thoughts, mentioned some resources (I even dropped a name), and told her that she should network on LinkedIn and Facebook.  She told me that she was rarely, if ever, on LinkedIn, and the idea of using Facebook for professional networking had never occurred to her.

What she told me prompted me to write this article.

A couple of things that she said struck me.  First, despite the fact that she wanted to find new employment and was interested in getting connected, she almost never used LinkedIn.  Second, the idea of professional networking on Facebook never occurred to her.

I will mention that my friend in question is my age (we went to high school together) and is not as technically savvy as I am.  Although many people of my generation have largely embraced technology and social media, it’s not unusual or uncommon to find people who haven’t.  Nevertheless, in my position, I take using online communication for granted, so it surprised me that someone would not even think about using a tool such as LinkedIn or Facebook for her job search.

My thought was, Facebook is a highly popular application that connects large numbers of people.  How does someone not know to network through Facebook?  I’m not talking about how to network on Facebook, but rather just the simple fact that you can network on Facebook.

I should reiterate that I have personal experience with this; I got my current job through a Facebook contact.

I am a big believer that, in this day and age of social media, networking online is absolutely critical for surviving in today’s professional market.  A lot of business is conducted through email and text messages; indeed, applications such as Slack have become highly prevalent in business.  Even in one of my previous jobs, Skype was used extensively for work-related purposes.  I have even seen job applications that ask for your LinkedIn account, an indication that businesses take it seriously.

With the use of electronic media in business so prevalent, and with the popularity of social networks such as Facebook, it makes sense that online networking is critical for professional survival.

With that, here are some of my thoughts in regard to online networking.  This is not a comprehensive list; indeed, there may be a number of things I might be leaving out.  By all means, I encourage you to dig deeper into this (which you should be doing, anyway) and check out what others have to say about online networking.

One thing I should note: I talk mainly about LinkedIn, Facebook, and ‘blogs because those are the forums with which I am the most familiar.  This is not to discount other forms of social media (e.g. Google+, Twitter, etc.); if you use other platforms, then by all means, knock yourself out.

Online networking is still networking.  Think about what networking is.  It is a phenomenon where a person establishes a relationship — for purposes of this topic, a professional relationship — with another person.  Networking is a two-way street; the relationship is mutually beneficial to both parties.

When I was in college (which predates the internet — yes, I’m old!), we talked with people online using a system called the BITNET.  I actually made a number of friends by talking to them over BITNET; in fact, I am still friends with several of them to this day.

Networking online does not change the nature of what networking is.  Tools such as LinkedIn and Facebook are exactly that: tools.  They are used to facilitate networking, and if used properly, they can help foster and nurture those relationships.

Online networking expands your reach.  I maintain my Facebook account so I can keep family and friends in the loop as to what’s going on in my life.  Many of these people are located all around the country, and even around the world; I even have friends as far away as Sweden, Israel, and Pakistan.

I’ve written before about how involvement in local user groups is a good thing.  It is, but one limitation of it is geography; your reach goes as far as people live from the group site.  Online networking has no such limitation.  Maintaining an online presence means you can network with people anywhere.

Additionally, an online presence doesn’t just expand your network geographically; it can also expand it numerically as well.  Online networking ensures that you will be seen by more people than those with whom you would contact either face-to-face or over the phone.

Networking — whether it’s online or real life — takes time.  If you’ve been involved in some kind of relationship — whether it’s friendship, romantic, or professional — you know that it takes time to establish.

This is also the case with online (or any) networking.  Just because you’ve created a LinkedIn account and connected with, say, five different people does not mean you have an online networking presence.  Establishing a good network takes time — sometimes months, possibly even years.  If you’re looking for a job today, you can’t just start a LinkedIn account now, connect to a few people, and suddenly have an interview tomorrow.  It doesn’t work that way.  Networking is a long-term investment of time and effort.

You can join groups in Facebook and LinkedIn.  How many and what kinds of groups are you connected to on Facebook and LinkedIn?  Did it ever occur to you that those groups represent people who have similar interests to you?  This sounds familiar.  I think there’s a term for that.  I think it’s called…  let me think…  networking!

Online groups are not that different from physical user groups (okay, maybe you have to get your own coffee and snacks).  If you’re involved with an online group, you are already connected to a bunch of people who have the same interests that you do!

Network with people you know.  I get plenty of connect requests from people I don’t know.  Some of them are spam recruiters.  I make it clear on my LinkedIn summary that I only connect with people I know, and if they tell me how we’re connected or where we’ve met, then I’d be more likely to connect.  But if someone just sends me a request to connect, and I have no clue as to whom (s)he is, the request will likely end up in the trash.

Case in point: not long ago, someone who I didn’t know asked to connect.  However, he also included a note that he was the editor for the podcast I did a while back.  Ah, okay!  We have a connection!  I was happy to connect with him.

Remember, networking is a two-way street.  If someone connecting with you is looking to get something from you but is not willing to do anything in return, that is not networking; that is someone taking advantage of you.  If you don’t trust the other person, don’t connect with him or her.

Keep your information up-to-date.  You can pretty much keep your entire resume on LinkedIn (and Facebook as well, although it isn’t really used for that purpose).  I find it much easier to maintain my information and accomplishments on LinkedIn than I do constantly having to update my resume.  Additionally, when I do need to update my resume, I can use my LinkedIn information as a reference.

However, it’s not just a matter of your resume information.  It makes a good resource for my next point, which is…

What you know matters.  There is a reason why I maintain this ‘blog and include links to it on both my Facebook and LinkedIn.  I’m letting people know about what I think, what I’m learning, what I’m working on, and so on.  This is all stuff that (hopefully) is valuable to other people, not to mention that it looks good on a resume.

People can look at your LinkedIn profile and get an idea of what you know.  How often have recruiters found you by looking at your profile?  If you post what you know, it can help with connecting to other professionals.

Post about your accomplishments!  You just got a promotion because you figured out a complex problem!  You just got a full ride to Harvard!  You won your robotics competition!  Congratulations!  These are accomplishments that people like to hear about, and it’s possible that they might help land your next big thing.  Go ahead and post about them on LinkedIn, Facebook, or your ‘blog.  Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn!

The hive mind is a useful thing.  How many times have you posted on Facebook, “hey hive mind, I need your help on…”?  Did it ever occur to you that the same problem-solving tactic can be used professionally as well?  Your network is a source of knowledge.  It’s entirely possible that someone, somewhere, might have an answer to your problem.

How many times have to posted to a forum such as SQLServerCentral, 4GuysFromRolla, or StackOverflow looking for an answer to a problem?  You’re posting your issue to a wife audience, hoping that someone will have an answer.  An online network is useful in serving that purpose.

Above all, be yourself.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I shouldn’t try to be someone I’m not.  I’ve written before about how difficult it is to keep up with current trends.  Maybe it’s time to reinvent yourself.  Figure out who you are and stick with it.  Don’t waste your time trying to build up your online persona into someone you’re not.

Even online, etiquette matters.  People are more likely to networking with people they like.  Maintaining good etiquette goes a long way in accomplishing that.

There are some things you shouldn’t post online.  Do you really want the entire world, much less, professional contacts, to know all about the multi-keg drunk fest you had with your buddies?  What about the sordid details of the night that you had with the girl or guy you picked up the other night?  Granted, these are extreme examples, but nevertheless, there are some things I wouldn’t even want to share with my best friends, much less, business contacts.  This should be common sense, but it’s amazing (and not in a good way) how many people don’t think about this.

As I stated before, it’s entirely possible that your next manager or business contact could be one of your Facebook friends.  While it’s probably safe to post pictures of your vacation, your kids, or your cats, there are some things that you just shouldn’t post online.

While we’re on the subject of inappropriate things online…

There are pitfalls.  As much as I extol the virtues of online networking, it is not perfect, either.  Data security can be an issue.  There are spammers looking to scam you or make a fast buck.  People establish fake accounts for questionable purposes.  In this day and age of “fake” news, misinformation can spread like wildfire.

Despite the pitfalls that can come with online networking, they should not discourage you from establishing an online presence.  Used wisely and intelligently, online networking can enhance your career.

If you want to be more effective with professional networking, especially in this electronic interconnected age, you need to be able to do it online.  Making use of social media can go a long way in extending your networking reach.

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Write it down, stupid!

Years ago, I went to visit my brother at his place in Queens.  I remember sneaking a peek into his home office.  As a reminder to himself, he’d stuck a label on his computer monitor with four words, in all caps: WRITE IT DOWN, STUPID!!!

This is pretty much my own mantra as well.  Any time I have an important task that needs to be addressed, I’ll do one of two things: either 1) do it right away, or 2) make a note to take care of it later.  I know myself well-enough that if I don’t do either, the task will either not get done or an important deadline or opportunity will be missed.

There is a reason why technical communication is such a passion of mine.  I’ve seen countless examples in the professional world where things are not documented.  I’ve heard a variety of excuses of why they’re not documented: “Oh it’s not that difficult to remember.”  “It’s intuitively obvious.”  “It cannot be missed.”  “I won’t forget that one.”  “I don’t have to bother with it now.  I’ll get to it later.”  And so on.  And so on.  And so on.

It’s not just professional communication, either.  When was the last time that you came up with a great idea that could change the world?  Did you write it down?  If you didn’t, do you even remember what it was?

I’ve long been a believer that open and honest communication is a game-changer.  Indeed, I’ve often told people that “90% of the world’s problems can be solved through communication.”  (Before you ask, no, I don’t have any hard evidence or statistics to back that up, but it is something I believe.)

Writing things down is a core part of communication.  When you write things down, you aren’t just communicating with other people; you’re communicating with yourself — your future self — as well.

A user group is a good place to start

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
— Lao Tzu

Earlier this week, a friend at my CrossFit gym (and who has become more interested SQL Saturday and my SQL user group) asked me if I thought a talk about Excel would make a good topic for SQL Saturday.  I said, why not?  If it’s a talk that data professionals would find interesting, then it would make for a good talk.  I encouraged him to attend our next user group meeting and talk to our group chair about scheduling a presentation.

I’ve written before about how local user groups are a wonderful thing.  It is a great place to network and socialize.  It is a free educational source.  And if you’re looking to get started in a public speaking forum, your local user group is a great place to start.

I attended my first SQL Saturday in 2010, and I knew from the very start that I wanted to be involved in it.  Our local SQL user group was borne from that trip (Dan Bowlin — one of our co-founders — and I met on the train going to that event).  I came up with a presentation idea that I developed and “tried out” at a user group meeting.  I submitted that presentation to a few SQL Saturdays.

That user group presentation was in 2015.  I’ve been speaking at SQL Saturdays ever since then.

If you’re interested in getting into speaking, if you want to meet new people who share your interests, or even if you just want to learn something new, go find a local user group that matches your interests and check it out.  You’ll find it to be a great place to kickstart your endeavors, and it could lead to bigger things.

A few words can make a difference

A couple of weeks ago, the Rensselaer Polytechnic (the RPI student newspaper) published a couple of op-eds in regard to the situation at RPI.  (My friend, Greg Moore, wrote a piece a while back related to this issue.)  In response to the op-eds, I decided to respond with my own letter to the editor.

This morning, a friend posted to my Facebook that my letter, to my surprise, was garnering some attention.  I won’t say that it’s gone viral, but apparently, it’s caught a number of eyes.

I should note that my donations haven’t been much.  I was only a graduate student at Rensselaer, not an undergrad, so the social impact on my life wasn’t quite the same, and other financial obligations have kept me from donating more of my money.  That said, I’ve donated in other ways; I’ve been a hockey season ticket holder for many years (going back to my days as a student), I’ve attended various events (sports, cultural, etc.) on campus, and I’ve donated some of my time to the Institute.

Although my donations have been relatively meager, more importantly, I wanted to spread the word that I was no longer supporting RPI, and exactly why I was discontinuing my support.  How much I was contributing isn’t the issue; the issue is that I am stopping contributing.  For the first time in years, I have no intention of setting foot in the Field House for a hockey game during a season.  I wanted to make clear exactly why.  A large number of alumni have announced that they were withholding donations.  I wanted to add to that chorus.  It wasn’t so much how much I was donating; rather, I wanted to add my voice, and hopefully encourage other students and alumni to take action against an administration that I deem to be oppressive.

One of RPI’s marketing catchphrases is, “why not change the world?”  It looks like I’m doing exactly that with my letter.  Don’t underestimate the power of words.  Indeed, with just a few words, you can change the world.

SQL Saturday #797 — I’m coming to Boston

Happy Monday, all!  </sarcasm>

This is a reminder that I am speaking at SQL Saturday #797, Boston (actually, Burlington, MA) this coming Saturday, Sept. 22!

I will be doing my (still relatively new) presentation about networking, entitled “Networking 101: Building professional relationships” (or, the presentation previously known as “Networking: it isn’t just for breakfast anymore”).  We will discuss why networking is critical for your career, how to go about doing it, and some resources to check out.  You will even have an opportunity to do some networking within the confines of our room.  You might even leave this session with new networking contacts you didn’t previously have!

I’ll see you in Burlington this Saturday!

Comment your damn code!!!

“Any fool can write code that a computer can understand. Good programmers write code that humans can understand.”
— Martin Fowler

When I was a computer science major in college, I had professors who used to dock points if my code wasn’t documented.  It didn’t matter how well-written my code was, and it didn’t matter how well my code worked.  If I didn’t include comments to describe my code, what my variables were, why I used certain functions and coding techniques, a project that could’ve gotten an A grade instead got a B.

That memory came back to me this evening at our SQL user group meeting this evening.  Our guest speaker was Jen McCown, who gave a presentation called “T-SQL’s Hidden Support Feature.”  (A description of her sessions can be found here, and I found a SQL Saturday link to it here.)  Her presentation talked about a feature included with T-SQL (and just about every language imaginable).  It is guaranteed to improve how people handle, develop, and maintain code, and it costs nearly nothing to implement.

What is this miracle feature, you ask?

Code comments.

Simply commenting code can save developers lots of headaches and development time.  It can provide an explanation of how and why code snippets were used.  It can describe variables, what they’re for, and how they’re utilized.  It can describe program structures that help in debugging and maintenance.  I even remember a comment to a SSC forum post by Jeff Moden who mentioned the return on investment of commenting code.  It also reminded me of Steve Jones’ article about how important it is to comment code.  I believe Jen’s presentation should be required for anyone who writes code.  The benefits for commenting code are endless.

Commenting code is probably one of the simplest and most useful, yet most underutilized, methods of documentation.  I’ve mentioned time and again about how documentation gets no respect in technology, and yet too many developers still refuse to do it.  Jen’s presentation was a reminder of how important it is to document code; in fact, she also mentioned some points that didn’t occur to me.  For example, documents such as Word, Wikis, or Confluence can get lost, misplaced, or buried.  Code comments, however, stay with the code; it cannot get lost or separated from the code.  (There were several other points she mentioned as well, but it’s her presentation, not mine, so I don’t want to take away from it.)

When I was in school, I was docked points when I didn’t comment my code.  Sometimes, I think developers should be docked pay if they don’t do so.  Commenting code is the simplest, yet most effective tools around.  So you want to be a better developer?  Then comment your damn code!

Speaking near Beantown

sqlsaturday-logo

I got an email last night announcing that SQL Saturday #813 Boston — BI Edition has been scheduled for March 30, 2019.  I went ahead and submitted my presentations.

Because the Boston Microsoft office (despite the name, it’s actually in Burlington, MA, about twelve miles northwest of Boston) is a smaller facility, events such as SQL Saturday tend to be smaller; it’s more difficult to be accepted as a speaker, and a wait list for attendees is not uncommon.  Nevertheless, if I am accepted to speak at SQL Saturday #813 (far from a sure thing), that is potentially three trips I’ll make to Burlington within a span of seven months.  I am already scheduled to speak at SQL Saturday #797 on September 22 (a week from this Saturday as I write this) and at a New England SQL User Group meeting on February 13.  SQL Saturday #813 would make it trip #3.

Despite the fact that the Boston area tends to be hostile territory for a Yankee fan like me, I look forward to my upcoming trips.  I’m hoping to make it three trips in seven months.

Hope to see you there!