My Journey from an Introvert to a Networker
Or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Networking
Last summer, I wrote about how professional networking is one of the most important and least appreciated skills for your career. At that time, I’d promised to write a follow-up article on how to network well. Nine months later, what I’m delivering is not really a HOWTO but rather my own story. This is an account of how I went from an introvert whose career arguably suffered from a lack of networking to one of the more recognizably networked people in my little pond. Although there are a lot of aspects of this story that are specific to me, you’ll find some general principles here that you can apply to your own situation to improve your networking skills.
The Anti-Perks of Being a Wallflower
I have always been an introvert. I find it difficult to start or sustain conversations with strangers and I feel drained by parties with a large number of people I don’t know. As you might guess, this is not good for networking. But this is just one symptom of a more fundamental problem that probably did affect my career in the first half.
This section lists three phases of my life when I didn’t network when I was supposed to be doing that. All readers who are not good at networking should recognize some of these situations at least.
MS Applications and Suck Letters: In my final year of Engineering, like everyone else around me, I applied to US universities for admissions to MS programs. The conventional wisdom at that time was that after your application, you were supposed to send “suck letters” to the professors in the colleges you had applied to, extolling your own virtues, and professing your fervent desire to work with them. The belief was that this would improve your chances of getting a scholarship/teaching assistantship/research assistantship. I don’t know if such suck letters actually work, but at that time I believed that they did and yet I was unable to write a single suck letter. More importantly, due to my introversion, I never managed to make friends with seniors in my department who might have helped me with the admissions process, including sensible choices of universities and better essays. In any case, it is also probably true that given my academic performance, I shoulda-coulda gotten into a higher-ranked university than I did.
Internships and Jobs and Schmoozing: During my PhD, I was lucky to have an advisor who sent all his students on paid trips to the top academic conferences in our field. The most important reason to attend the conferences, he explicitly told us, was to “schmooze” the other attendees—either senior industry execs (who could give internships and jobs in the most exciting companies in our field) or senior professors (who would be on the selection committees in case we chose to apply for a faculty position after the PhD). Would you like to guess what I did there? At each and every conference, the only thing I did was hang out with my existing friends, attend the talks, and eat the food. Did I mention that (unlike my better-networked colleagues) I never did an internship during my PhD? Also, the first two jobs I did after my PhD were ones that fell into my lap? (Teradata bought the software that our group developed as a part of our PhD work so I ended up working for Teradata for a while and after that, I joined a startup started by one of my professors (whom I’d known for 7 years by this point)).
Return to India and My First Ever Interviews: I returned to India in 2001 (for reasons wholly unconnected with my professional career) but did not look for a job here. I continued working for my professor’s startup remotely until a year later when it died because of the dotcom crash of 2001. During this time, I did not network in the software industry here and knew nobody. So when it came time to search for a job locally, I interviewed with precisely three companies: Veritas (because my neighbour to my left in my apartment complex worked there), Kanbay (because my neighbour to my right worked there), and Persistent (because Anand Deshpande is a phenomenal networker and he had connected with me). I want to pause here and point out something: the two neighbours I’ve mentioned were literally my next-door neighbours. I hadn’t even networked with people in my apartment complex who were more than one house away from mine.
In all three cases above, you’ll notice how much role luck played, and how little is the contribution of my contacts/networking. Note for others: do not try this at home. The more senior you get, the more difficult it is to find a good job if you haven’t been networking. And no matter how secure your current job is, you never know when you might suddenly need to start looking for a job through no fault of yours. (India center gets shut down; your entire group/business unit is eliminated; company gets acquired and the new company has different plans; etc. I know first-hand examples of people struggling with each of these.)
The Accidental Networker
Things changed unexpectedly a few years after I joined Veritas.
First a bit of background: I moved back to India because I wanted to be in India. As such, I was convinced that this move would result in my career taking a hit because the opportunities in the software industry in India were nowhere close to those in the US.
The conventional wisdom (at that time) was that only low-quality work happened in India. Thus, when I joined Veritas, I did so assuming that I would do low-quality work. Imagine my surprise when I found out that there was actually quite a lot of great work happening in the group that I joined in Veritas. Part of my job involved talking to the other groups in Veritas and getting a good understanding of what they’re working on and their plans for the near future. Here I realized two things: 1. Most of the other groups were also working on interesting things, and 2. Most of the people in these groups were not really aware of the interesting things happening in other groups.
I found it surprising that so many people didn’t know about the cool things happening in their own company and I felt that this was an easily fixable problem. Around this time, blogs and wikis were just getting popular and I decided to createan internal blog in the company (“TechForum”) which would contain articles about the interesting work being done in different groups within the company.
Earlier, I would meet the other groups in the company once every 2–3 months as a part of my job duties, and these meetings were usually set up by my boss. However, after creating TechForum, I started meeting other groups on a weekly basis, and I would set up the meetings myself because I needed material for TechForum.
TechForum was a hit, but not long after this (for reasons related to Symantec’s acquisition of Veritas) I decided to quit Veritas.
By this time, I was convinced that the problem that afflicted Veritas (not enough awareness of interesting work being done in the company) was also true of the Pune software industry at large (not enough awareness of interesting work being done in various Pune companies). Thus, it was a logical step for me to consider starting something similar to TechForum, but for all of Pune.
This is how PuneTech.com was born.
Over the next few years, just as I had done in Veritas, I began seeking out people in interesting companies in Pune and asking them for meetings where the agenda was to find out what interesting work their company was doing and then write about it on PuneTech. A little baby step further was to organize talksby such people for the tech community in Pune. Around this time, Amit Paranjape, my hostel-mate from IIT-B days had moved to India from the US and, having liked the idea of PuneTech, joined me in the initiative.
Before long, we started volunteering with other organizations which were doing similar work in adjacent areas, for example, the Pune Open Coffee Club which was started with the intention of doing the same thing but for startups in Pune, TiE Pune, Software Exporters Association of Pune, and more.
As you might guess, these activities quickly made me one of the more networked people in the tech community in Pune.
Anatomy of a Transformation
How did this happen? Where did the introvert go?
My initial inability to network was because I thought networking was primarily self-promotion. I was brought up to think that self-promotion was a shameful activity that wasn’t proper behaviour for people like us who believed in education and merit and being the strong-and-silent types whose good qualities should be obvious from their work and achievements. Some of you probably have no idea what I’m talking about but I’m sure there are many who will identify deeply with this thought process.
Sending suck-letters to professors during my MS applications was clearly self-promotion and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Schmoozing people during the conferences I attended also seemed to me like self-promotion. By the time I moved to Pune, I was the kind of person who’d be happy with 5 close friends and putting effort into cultivating more relationships did not seem like a reasonable thing to do.
However, when I started TechForum in Veritas, I began to go out of my way to meet strangers and talk to them about their work. I would look forward to doing this because:
I wasn’t talking about myself; I was asking these people about their work
I wasn’t doing this for personal gain (or so I thought). I was doing it because I genuinely wanted the readers of TechForum to learn about all these cool things that I could easily find out about and write about
I didn’t have to make small-talk, something that terrifies me even now
I did not change. I remained an introvert; My understanding of “networking” changed and I found activities that aligned with my personality (as opposed to activities that require forcing myself to do things I don’t want to do)
Apparently, when I don’t have to do self-promotion and when a conversation with a stranger has a clear goal (related to my area of expertise) introversion is no longer a problem. Keep in mind that in any such conversation the other person naturally asks you questions about what you do, and answering specific questions is not as much of a problem for introverts.
Do you see how the “self-promotion” happened even though I wasn’t trying to do that? And more generally, do you see how the “networking” happened even though that wasn’t my intention?
The Principles of Networking
The entire article until now is just my specific story and parts of it might or might not apply to your situation. So let me try to extract some general principles of networking. Try to correlate each of the principles below with the TechForum/PuneTech example I’ve given above to understand the principle better
First of all, make sure you understand the importance of relationships for your career. If you’re like young me, then you don’t appreciate this point, and you think your work, your capabilities should be self-evident. You think that relationships are all nepotism, best avoided. So read my previous article again. Unless you’re convinced of this, the rest of this article is useless.
Networking as a side-effect: The best networking (i.e. relationship building) happens when it is the side-effect of some other activity. It is not necessary that you must also start a blog or newsletter; find an activity/format that works for you. Here’s a different example. (This also explains golf.)
Networking as giving: The best networking happens when you don’t approach it as “What am I getting out of this” but instead as “How can I help”.
Networking as a long-term activity: The best networking has little or no immediate gains for you. In fact, assuming you’re doing the “networking as giving” thing, initially, you’ll be giving more than receiving. But it works out in the long term. So don’t think of networking in transactional terms.
Networking as a compounding effect of small steps: If you read the “The Accidental Networker” section carefully, you’ll see that each step I took was just a small increment over the previous one. And like compound interest, such incremental steps appear to have a small impact in the first few years but give huge returns as time goes on. You just need to stick to it consistently. Remember, “Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”
Networking as weak links: The people in your network aren’t “close” friends or even “friends”. Your network is all the people who have had some good interactions with you and generally think of you as a good person. In fact, when you really need your network (for example, when looking for a new job) your casual acquaintances are likely to be of more help than your close friends. This is known as the power of weak ties.
Networking as karmanyevaadhikaraste: The best networking is when you get to know interesting people (without thinking about whether they’ll be “useful” to you or not). In that sense, there is a strong “karmanyevaadhikaraste” flavour to good networking: it works better if you’re not focused on what fruits you’re getting out of it.
A corollary of this, of course, is that networking works best when you are an interesting person. How to do that? Be curious. Be open to new experiences. Specifically, don’t approach your information diet with a mindset of “is this useful for me” but instead just focus on “is this interesting”? In other words, don’t be transactional about how you approach learning/reading/podcasts.
Many of you might have experience with building networks and would have additional suggestions. If you do, please leave a comment for the benefit of others:
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Many thanks to Amar Prabhu, Keshav Jindal, Manoj Deshpande, Rajat Joshi, Shadma Shaikh, Vaibhav Tulsyan, Vinod Patil for reading early drafts of this article and providing feedback.
How does an introvert feel comfortable creating a blog? One important aspect of this was that I wasn’t writing about my opinions or my knowledge—at that point, I still had enough impostor syndrome that I wouldn’t dare do that. But just summarizing the work being done by other groups did not seem as intimidating.
Someone pointed out that “organizing talks” is quite a big step for an introvert. How did that happen? While in Veritas, I first started TechForum as a blog with articles. Then internal company events seemed like a small incremental step, especially since I already knew the people involved. Later when I moved out of Veritas and started PuneTech, I wasn't doing anything new: just recreating Techforum outside.
A great post!
While I am not that young but networking is relevant to a wallflower. Thanks taking the efforts for sharing some of the principles, something that never ever get mentioned. I have a gut feeling that things will be different now on.
Beautifully written. As your roommate, I knew you were super knowledgeable. Relatively you were more an extrovert ... you and others recruited me in as the 4th room mate on one (rare) sunny afternoon in Madison.
That said, I agree with all the things you wrote here. Very good inputs for a lot of engineers, who tend to postpone "networking" :-)