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IT Pro Panel: The secret art of networking

It’s an inextricable part of modern business, but making connections can be a complex affair

IT Pro Panel: The secret art of networking

More than anything else, business is about connections. As the old adage goes, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and while this is a somewhat cynical outlook, the value of forming wide and well-rounded professional networks is hard to overstate.

These networks can be invaluable for sharing knowledge and expertise, finding new jobs, filling key vacancies or even just sharing a joke or two over the idiosyncrasies of a particular industry. But networking can sometimes be a tricky prospect - especially in a world where live events aren’t as much of a regular occurrence as they once were.

This month, we spoke to some of our expert panellists to learn more about their approaches to forming connections, the qualities they look for in their own networks, and their top strategies for navigating in-person events.

Share and share alike

Networking is a vital part of many executives’ toolkits, and there are a number of practical benefits that it can deliver. For Tempcover’s chief data officer Graeme McDermott, for example, having a community of fellow data professionals has been invaluable for providing domain-specific assistance over the years - particularly during periods where data and analytics divisions fell under leaders with less firm knowledge of the area.

“I think I realised I needed to do more networking when I stopped working for people who knew more about my role than me, and were too generalist,” he says. “So when I needed guidance on choosing tools, building teams, et cetera, I went to my network rather than my boss.”

Another push for McDermott to engage more with peers outside of his then-current company came when someone accused him of being “institutionalised”, and said he “had spent too long in one company to understand the outside world”. According to Tempcover’s chief technical officer Marc Pell, this illustrates one of the biggest advantages of cultivating a wide network.

“To Graeme’s point around being institutionalised, I’d say that the most important aspect of networking for me is perspective,” Pell says. “Listening to the experiences of others is invaluable in forming your own strategies to problem-solving.” 

“I like to share issues and hear about solutions from people who have really implemented them in practice, so I know they work,” adds former SmartDebit CIO Gavin Scruby. “You can also get inside knowledge about how a platform or package works in the field before you buy it, rather than the sales spiel.”

“It’s not about finding a perfect solution,” Pell says, “but instead finding the inspiration to form that solution to your own problem, using the experiences of others as a tool alongside your own knowledge. I had a great virtual catch-up with Roderick Simons, the (now former) CTO of Yolt, who I met on a previous IT Pro Panel! We discussed DevOps and it helped form the migration plan that we are working towards at Tempcover.”

Live and kicking

When it comes to the tools and platforms of professional networking, LinkedIn is the undisputed champion, and is near ubiquitous within the business world. However, while all of our panellists use LinkedIn - and McDermott notes that it has been particularly useful for maintaining connections during lockdown - many found their experiences on the platform to be hit and miss. 

The most common complaint is that, as business and IT decision makers, our panellists receive a large number of unsolicited connection requests from company representatives trying to sniff out new customers. For this reason, McDermott says, he turns away roughly 80% of the connection requests he receives.

“I rejected one just yesterday who started with ‘Hello Mr Pal’,” he says, “and was selling me personalisation AI software. I politely suggested it needed work, and he just didn't see why I would not want to proceed with a conversation.”

“I agree with Graeme about LinkedIn invites,” says Liam Quinn, director of IT for Richmond Events. “If there’s no personal message, I won't accept. If you try and sell to me immediately, then I remove the connection.”

Thanks to his PhD in AI and machine learning, Scruby is entitled to use the title of Dr, and he uses this on LinkedIn in order to weed out those who are using automated mailmerge systems to send out requests.

“I don't find virtual networking very helpful, other than to make a connection that can later be followed up,” he adds. “Physical networking events generate far more conversations and insight with spontaneous back and forth discussions. There's a lot to be said for being able to see responses and non-verbal communication.”

This informality remains one of the most attractive aspects of in-person events, according to our panellists. Physical events allow for much more organic meetings, as well as the ability to take things at your own pace, whereas virtual events can occasionally have a somewhat forced air.

“The issue I find with virtual sessions is that there’s no real ebb and flow of communication. You can't wander off for a drink or canape, pop to the loo politely or take a break. It feels counter-intuitive, but virtual sessions seem more intense in that way,” Scruby says. “If your networking is more an information gathering exercise for, say, looking at the best system to get, virtual events are far more efficient though.”

“I've had quite a few inject some fun like cocktail making or gin tasting,” says McDermott, “but as Gavin says, it’s not the same. Some have used Zoom rooms to break larger groups to smaller groups, so it’s more like moving around a room.” 

Having run countless live events (as well as a number of virtual events over the course of the pandemic), Quinn is intimately familiar with the pros and cons of both formats, but says that he finds the former most rewarding. He also notes that since restarting its live events last September, the company has seen “an amazing pickup”.

“I'm biased,” jokes Quinn, “but I would say a good physical event is the best when it's well run, and you put the effort in. For me, that's stepping out of my comfort zone and talking to people I don't know. It's amazing what you can learn from the person sat next to you!” 

This was also echoed by McDermott, who highlights a practice followed by one of the networks he belongs to, whereby places at dinners are allocated specifically to facilitate productive conversations between participants.

“I did my first physical event for two years last month and there was a frenzy of people catching up and meeting new people,” he says. “It was like speed dating - or so I hear!”

Knights of the round table

However, while networking can be a social and enjoyable experience, it’s worth noting that not everyone takes to it naturally. Leaving aside the stereotypical image of the withdrawn, socially awkward IT professional, proactively introducing yourself to people can be a little intimidating for some, which can make networking a challenge.

This is partly why Quinn finds participating in roundtables to be the easiest way of networking, as it introduces a number of different people who all have at least one shared area of interest. Scruby agrees, noting that “you end up afterwards being recognised by all the people in the room, so it's easier to strike up a conversation on something you both know”.

“I like events where networking isn't the stated aim. That feels too pressured. I prefer things where connections happen more organically: expert panels at conferences, trade exhibitions, even awards ceremonies where you end up as a guest on someone else's table. Thinking about it, anything where food is involved works for me…”

“Gavin just said exactly what I was thinking - perhaps with a drink or two to help people relax,” McDermott says. “I know Marc will laugh, but as a data professional I am naturally quiet and introverted. I therefore found physical events terrifying until you build up that network that you know someone in the room.”

One oft-overlooked element of roundtables from a collaboration perspective, McDermott points out, is the tables themselves, noting that a circular table is much better than a rectangular table for mingling with the maximum number of participants. 

“The only two places I've seen real round tables recently,” jokes Scruby, “are at my kids' primary school and at a speed-awareness course!”

Scruby notes he also struggles with networking, albeit for different reasons. He classes himself as “pretty sociable”, but admits that being dismissive of efforts to sell him things and a lack of time to attend live events have made for a poor combination in this regard.

“We sold our company recently, so I'm taking a little break,” he explains. “With that and COVID-19, I’ve done no large group events for quite a while. I think it's easy to get out of the habit, especially if you're not a natural networker. Like anything else, it's practice that helps.”

Large industry events are a good way to form new connections, but as with any industry, our panellists report that much of the most impactful networking goes on at informal private events. McDermott cites a handful of corporate golf societies he used to belong to, saying “those connections were more powerful than anything from LinkedIn”. 

“When my laptop broke at 5PM on a Friday night or I needed more storage for an urgent analytics project, the 14-handicapper CIO was my best friend, even though I was merely a senior analyst. Equally, when he wanted some (secret) Excel help, I was his best friend!” 

One of Scruby’s connections runs a weekly “CEO pub club” (although he quips that he’s not rich enough to merit an invite), and he points out that the relative privacy of these kinds of events makes them much more appealing to C-suite executives, as does the deeper level of discussion they can foster.  

Exclusive events like these generally aren’t where people are first introduced to networking, however, and managers can help staff get their feet wet by sending them to conferences with the objective of making new connections and bringing back new ideas, or by taking them along within them and making introductions on their behalf. Putting metrics in place to help proactively foster this can be a useful way to help staff develop their networking skills, suggests Scruby, who notes “people in IT often need the nudge”.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that although networking can provide a range of benefits, you don’t always need to make connections with an ulterior motive behind them. In fact, as Pell says, networking is often best when done for its own sake.

“I find the most value in approaching a networking conversation without too much of an agenda to cover,” he explains. “More often than not people share their recent challenges and wins. This often triggers an experience from someone’s past; it’s the perspective and lived experience of others that I find most valuable.” 

“It’s a bit like software engineering; you pick your battles, reusing the hard work of others where you’ll add little additional value, leaving you more time to concentrate on the key differentiators.”

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