The idea of connection is the single strongest thread in tech, both literally and metaphorically. Connecting computers to make networks. Connecting devices to make the Internet of Things. Connecting people or interests via targeted app functionality. The list is endless.
But when it comes to people in tech, I think we often have a poor grasp of connection. It’s often too easy to do too much of what only looks like connection. We have so many avenues now, from in-person events to location-based apps. What seems like connection is frequently more like just collecting names.
The problem is that once the collection reaches a certain point, you ignore/forget about most of them and any potential dies on the vine. You continue your business with the people you already know.
What makes this more unfortunate is that one of the most valuable things you can do with your connections is share them. As great as your relationship is with someone, even greater things might be possible if you connect that person with others. (And they’ll be more likely to do the same for you.)
I would also argue that automating connections, or at least putting a lot of the heavy lifting of developing them into the hands of technology, cheapens them. We lose sight of how people actually think, feel and function. (Does an auto-DM reply to following someone on Twitter feel like a real connection?)
Reading this article on the “roots and branches” of PixStream catalyzed this train of thought. I’m familiar with those companies and people mentioned in many convoluted ways. Additionally, I did a LinkedIn connections cleanup recently after looking up a former co-worker.
I pruned based on whether I could recall when I’d last had contact, or if I even recalled who a person was. Perhaps some people can confidently shoot an email off to everyone they connected with seven jobs ago. Not me. Let’s face it, human connection, professional or otherwise, doesn’t work the way apps and social networks imply that it does.
That said, there are people I still have lunch with 15 years later, and still will 15 years from now.
As far as records saved in your email address book go, there’s no difference between your dog groomer and your career mentor. But you know better. You might have 20 new contacts from a really good event, but a year later, you’ll know which ones you would hire or ask for a favour.
And there’s the crux of it. About the best that tech tools can do for us in terms of categorizing our connections is put labels on them. But even labels’ accuracy changes over time.
You can’t tag for “Was totally going to approach that guy about investing in my startup except then I got a bit too drunk in front of him at the golf tournament last Friday.” Or, “She seems somewhat junior and her portfolio is a bit thin, but folks who’ve worked with her say she works really hard and she seems like an amazing fit with our team.”
How all of this applies to you depends on where you may be in your career.
A friend of mine just got her first job in her field after graduating. She doesn’t know a lot of people in tech in town yet, but she will over time. In the meantime, I contacted several people I know where she was hired to give them the “be excellent to each other” heads-up. How much nicer is it to come into a company as the new-ish acquaintance rather than the full-on awkward New Kid?
Particularly in Waterloo Region, that introduction you need, the scuttlebutt on that company you’re interested in, or the background on the work ethic of that supposed rock star developer – they’re all a minute away, whether by phone call, email, or BBM message.
Ponder that for a moment. I’ve seen people who plan to have long and illustrious entrepreneurial careers saying and doing things that they think are “just business,” apparently oblivious to the people they’re doing “business” to. No thought to their resulting reputations and declining opportunities in the tech community here (and the other tech communities to which their “connections” are connected…)
There are people who’ve built “careers” on just making fancy and important contacts. There’s little evidence that their projects ever do anything, and the kinds of people who get their hands dirty wouldn’t come anywhere near them. But hey, the optics are good… for a while.
Tapping into tech’s tight-knit network can also be a mess if you haven’t tended to your network over time. Apps and social networks can’t do it for us.
Yes, it’s OK for plenty of people to just be acquaintances, and for people to drop out of our lives. But we need to make a regular effort to build and maintain relationships, even if it’s sometimes inconvenient. We need to use those apps to get in touch, then actually meet for rock climbing or beers.
You’re not just doing it now so you can ask for stuff later, though very likely you will need to ask for stuff later. But so will the people in your network. (To those who go on a big LinkedIn update rampage right after you’ve been laid off: you’re doing it wrong.) It’s just as valuable to simply be in the loop and in touch. Humans need to connect to others. Isolation kills people.
Enjoy the company and knowledge of people with similar interests and disparate skills. Meet a co-founder or a life partner or a golf buddy. It takes effort, but doing so can get you access not only to your own network, but your network’s network, which broadens your horizons substantially.
Adding contacts to your phone is just the first step, but not even remotely the last.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org. She does not rock climb.