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Professional networking tips for the age of remote work and social distancing

Developer relations specialist Wesley Faulkner explains how to avoid the biggest professional networking mistakes people make and how to effectively make contacts when everyone’s working from home.

Professional networking can be a challenge during the best of times, and doing it in the age of remote work and social distancing can seem impossible. But it’s not. On this episode of  Dynamic Developer , I had a chance to talk with Wesley Faulkner about the biggest mistakes developers (or anyone) make when networking and how to successfully make those all-important professional contacts as telecommuting becomes more the rule than the exception. Wesley is a public speaker, developer relationship specialist, worked as a social media and community manager for Atlassian and held a variety of roles at AMD, Dell, and IBM. He’s also a founding member of the government transparency group Open Austin and ran for Austin City Council in 2016. So, he knows a lot about how to make connections. The following is a transcript of the interview (edited for grammar).

Biggest professional networking mistakes people make

Bill Detwiler: So before we talk about networking in the age of social distancing, let’s just start with the difficulties of networking in general. It’s not that easy in the best of times. As someone that looks at this a lot, and has talked about this, and written about this, what are some of the biggest mistakes that you see people making?

Must-read developer content

Wesley Faulkner: The biggest mistake usually is that people feel like their worth is based on what they do. I think that brings up a lot of insecurities and they don’t really think that who they are is something of value that should be presented. So they’ll give you a business card because that immediately says… it has the VP label, CEO label, executive director label or whatever. And they want you to know that, saying that I’m important enough to speak with. Some other people, they are only networking with people that they feel can give them value, which is extremely shortsighted. Because what you need today, or that hour, or the next week… you might not want to do that trade off long-term.

If you give a bad impression saying, “You can’t help me meet my quota, so I’m going to move on to the next person.” That person you just spoke with, and is in the same room as you, which means that whatever you found was important to be there, they found [it] important to be there. And five years from now they could be the CEO of a company that could be your biggest target in the future. So everyone is valuable no matter what they do now or what they will do in the future. So you can’t measure people just based on their titles or accomplishments of that day.

Avoid “transnational interactions” and make lasting connections

Bill Detwiler: Now one of the things that you’ve talked about in the past when it comes to networking, is around moving away from transactional interactions. Not actually talking, but just sharing information. Maybe, “Hey, these are the skills that I have,” or, “This is the knowledge that I have.” Talk a little bit about maybe that as a mistake.

Wesley Faulkner: The reason why this is a mistake is extremely situational. Like the previous example, if you’re a sales person trying to make that sale. What if you decide because of this economy, because of this current pandemic, you need to pivot to a new role and you decide to go into architecture, or you want to be an artist? Every connection you made as a sales person, if it was based off that transactional relationship, is now gone. You just have to start all over.

The same as if you are the person who is in a position to help other people. You are the CEO, you are the IT exec, and you circle around your network around people who rely on you. So you’re like, “Everyone needs me, I am the golden calf.” And so your network is based on people you feed or give business to. Something happens, you lose your job and now the tides have turned and you need to rely on them. Now they’re like, “Well, you can’t help me anymore, so you find your own way.” And so your network, if it’s based on the situation, based on position, based on transactions, that is a very brittle bridge and it could break at any time.

But people connect with people who they like, and who they relate to, and have a shared value with. So if you connect on that level, no matter if your job changes, if your position changes, or you go from helping people to needing help, that is a relationship that is more of a bond of friendship and connection, like your family, where it doesn’t matter if you lost your job or not. Rather than a transactional thing like where you’re at a store and you don’t have any money, they’re not going to give you anything. So that’s why it’s important to base relationships on the long-term goal of having a bond that lasts.

SEE: 10 ways to prevent developer burnout (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Bill Detwiler: So how do you encourage or advise people to do that? I mean, that’s something I think a lot of people struggle with, not just in their professional lives, but also in their personal lives, is building lasting connections. It almost sounds like we’re talking about a dating show here, but there are some similarities in how you relate to people. So what advice do you give if people say, “I want to do that. I want to make a lasting connection. I don’t want it to be just purely about the next quarter, the next job, the next opportunity, but I want it to be something that lasts for years.” How do you recommend people do that?

Wesley Faulkner: So it’s funny you brought up dating because it’s kind of the same similar thing, where you meet someone and you’re in the same place. And so you have a common interest at least from where that starts. But then there’s a little lever that you turn where you’re becoming more and more vulnerable. You give out more information about yourself and by the end of when you decide to continue with the relationship, you have basically exposed who you are.

We all have three people in us. We have our public self, we have our private self, and we have our secret self. Right? And when you can be more open about who you are publicly, like, “Yes, I have this job. I live in this city,” to your private self, where it’s like, “You know what? I just really hate Mondays. I actually, if I’m going to take a four-day weekend, three-day weekend, Monday better be part of it or else it’s going to throw my whole week off.”

And then your secret self, where you have these strange secrets; things that you enjoy like burning ants with a magnifying glass or are you like peeling the labels off your bottles before you recycle them. They’re kind of quirky, they’re strange, and you don’t really share that openly. If you can start letting some of that stuff out as you continue through a relationship, as the other person reciprocates and earns that, then you both have that exchange because you’re both taking chances. And the reward pays off when the connection doesn’t sever. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of time to workout on that lever, how far to turn it. But you also don’t want to tell your life story within the first five minutes of meeting someone.

So in order to start that journey, is make sure that some of the things that you present about yourself, and some of the things you also listen for are the things that are deal breakers. Where, “Hey, if you’re a racist, I kind of don’t want anything to do with you.” It’s something that if you find out that the person that you’re speaking with is possibly a racist, but then could get you a job, then you’re like, “Well, we can just be friends until you get me the job,” then you’re reverting back to transactional.

So you’re hiding part of yourself. You’re hiding part of the things that you value just to get something you want. And ultimately, it gets into the thing where that relationship, you are bonded by reputation, too. So if someone is known to be a racist and you’re, “Hey, don’t you know Bill, or Tom…” not Bill… bad example. And, your relationship is like you might be associated with that person. You’re like, “Oh, yeah, I knew about that.” “Wait, you knew about that, but yet you still…” It’s one of those things where you don’t want to tip toe in if you can avoid it.

So where people are scared in a relationship, at the very beginning, where I could be silencing this future prospect of something great by putting this thing that is really important to me up front, what you’re doing is saving yourself a lot of trouble with figuring that out later on. So for some of the big boulders that you’re like, “This cannot go forward if this person fits in this category,” make sure that’s something that you front load but not in an overwhelming way. So that’s a good place to start.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah. I guess it’s about thinking more long-term and making sure that the relationships you’re building in your professional life, just like hopefully in your personal life, are there to last. And it’s not just right… about this next thing.

How to make professional contacts in the U.S.

Bill Detwiler: So is there anything kind of, unique when it comes to networking for people in the U.S., or who people who come from the U.S., and maybe people outside the U.S. … We have, at TechRepublic, a big international audience. And so, I’m interested in your take on how maybe those people approach networking differently. And kind of what advice you would give people to bridge that divide, whether they’re someone from the U.S. trying to network outside, or whether they’re someone from outside the U.S. trying to network inside the U.S.

Wesley Faulkner at MongoDB.local Chicago

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Wesley Faulkner at MongoDB.local Chicago

Wesley Faulkner: Yes. I think the culture here in the United States is extremely individualistic. And overseas there might be also protocol for… you have to say this, this, this, before you even get to the point of what your needs are, or your inquire, what you’re looking for in terms of finding a job or a position or getting a connection. And there’s some places where that is the first thing you say. “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m looking for a job, are you hiring?” And that comes off odd.

So I’d like to start about, firstly, if someone is outside of the U.S. and is trying to network inside the US. Since our culture is very into the individualistic, it is actually not bad to tout about how you’re good at something or how you’re different. And especially in this economy where jobs are a little bit more scarce and people are more discerning, one thing you can use to stand out is that some people think… they say, “I’m the best at something.” But funny enough, the best way to stand out now, is not say that you’re the best at something. It sounds weird. You’re like, “What?” Yes, I saw your eyes.

So what you need to do, or what’s more important, is to become as honest as you can about your actual skill sets, what you’re good at, and with the same weightiness say what you’re not good at, or what you’re willing to learn, or what you’re weak in. Let me tell you why. Because the natural tendency is when people are competing for a role is everyone says, “Hey, I excel at this. I’m the champion at this. I’m the best at this.” The person who is evaluating those positions, those resumes, are all seeing the same thing.

And so what they’re thinking, or what they’re geared to do is saying, “Okay, I see this, let me find the flaws. Or let me see how they wrote this in order to make it seem like they did something.” And so there’s mental work that they’re doing to evaluate all these people and try to understand. Like, “Okay, you’re the best at doing Node.js. Okay, I guess I’ll hire you.” That’s not how it works. But they have someone saying, “Hey, I have four years of Node.js, but I also have 12 years of COBOL. I can’t really use that. I took a lot of the learnings-”

SEE: Learn COBOL with these online training courses and tutorials (TechRepublic)

Bill Detwiler: Well, you can now.

Wesley Faulkner: Not for a Node.js job. But, yes, if you go to New Jersey, they’ll hire you.

But what you could say, is you can put things in perspective to give an accurate picture of who you are. And whenever I did… I used to do tech support. And the biggest delta from people who would be happy and pissed off are the people who had a salesperson that sold them everything, told them it was amazing. And they’re pissed off that it didn’t do everything or set their expectations to the point where it was no longer attainable. The people were happier would say, “Hey, here’s the good things and here’s some of the bad things. If you’re using this use case, then it might not work. It’s the same with Amazon reviews where you read it and you’re like, “Oh, it doesn’t work for people who are in North America. Well, I’m in South America. So I see it’s a problem there, but the wattage here works. So I’m going to use it here.

It’s the same when you’re putting forth as accurate a picture as you can about yourself saying, “This is where I’m strong. This is where I’m weak, but this is the tools that I have to help augment me and put me through those times where I get confused or lost.” So you’ll stand out because you’ll come off as more genuine, more truthful, more transparent. And if you check all the boxes that they’re actually looking for, because let’s face it, no one’s looking… when someone posts a job description for someone who checks all those back boxes, they’re just… that’s their wishlist. So if you check most of the boxes, the ones that they feel are most important, what that does is says, “Okay, I know what I’m getting with this and this actually fits what I need.” And it automatically gives you more credibility on the rest of your resume and through the interview process.

On the flip side, if they see it and it’s not a good fit, it’s doing you a favor by them saying, “You know what? This isn’t right for you.” Then you can… Because you don’t want to have a job where you’re miserable, where like, “They expect me to do all this. And this is the… my triggers. This is where points where I stress and it causes me anxiety. I know I said I could do it. I can do it, but only for short periods of time. I can’t have this be my job.” Then you’re in the job, but then either you’re trading off by longevity, or you’re trading off by your mental strain and stress, and you’ll burn out quickly.

So it seems counterintuitive, but try to be as representative and as transparent as you can about what you offer and what you bring. And go ahead and talk that up, but don’t hide the things where you feel like you might be a little bit weak on.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah, definitely that… As a hiring manager myself, I’ll echo that a hundred percent, which is you want someone that’s authentic. You want someone that’s sort of open and honest. Because as a hiring manager, the last thing that you want to do, and that’s something I always try to do, is get to the… is to tell people, “Look, if… I don’t want to hire anyone that isn’t right for the job and isn’t… You got to be brutally honest with yourself about whether you want this job. And this is what the job is.”

Because what usually happens, is in my experience is exactly what you described; is someone gets into the job, they weren’t honest with themselves about what their skillset was, or what they could do, and then they’re unhappy. And then as a hiring manager, you’re unhappy. And then they don’t last for very long and they’re quickly looking for someone else.

How to make professional contacts many places outside the U.S.

Bill Detwiler: So it really is… I think authenticity, honesty, has become even more important now than maybe it was in the past. I don’t know, but it seems that way. We were also talking about… So that’s sort of focusing on individualism and sort of being here in the US. What about internationally? We were going to talk about that, too.

Wesley Faulkner: So if you’re running the other way and you’re more of an individualist and you’re trying to talk to an audience that’s more overseas, what you can do to fight that is to put everything in terms of your resume and in terms of any of your work into context. So you can’t say, “I launched this product.” You can say, “My role in this launch is to bring this piece in and this is what metrics we put together. And this is how I’ve contributed to that,” in order to not take all the credit.

So put whatever you’re doing into context. And that’s kind of the same advice the other direction. It’s just that you have to… Meaning that if you’re more of a generalist and you want to stand out more, being truthful, this is another way of being truthful, but from a contributor standpoint.

So when you approach a job, give them the gross part of it, the larger picture of saying how big of a project was it, how long did it take, how big was this lift? And then you can easily see like, okay, I contributed this. So if it’s not time, it’s skill. You also want to talk about cost avoidance. So because you did this, you didn’t have to do that and that saved time. You moved quicker. So even though it may not… It might have been just a quick suggestion, that one suggestion could save you weeks or months of development depending on how important that is.

So figure out how to measure yourself; be it time, be it contribution, being organization, or if it’s just your expertise and not reliving or redoing mistakes because you were part of that project. So I would say if you’re looking to go the other direction, like from the U.S. to overseas, make sure you put it in context. And once again, it’ll be honest representation of what you’ve done. You’re still able to talk about your contribution. But it also shows like, is this company looking for that type of skillset? Then it’s easy to see how you would fit into their organization.

SEE: 3 essential hiring kits for key developer jobs (TechRepublic)

Bill Detwiler: Yeah, it’s so important because not just [in the] U.S., outside [the] U.S., but I often think there’s… You get similar reactions here in the U.S. in different regions. I’ve had colleagues from the Northeast, and I could always tell when they would come in and they would ask me for something. It’s like, “Hey, can we do this? I need you to do this. Can you do this for me?” That was the first thing they would come in. And in their minds, it would be disingenuous for them to come in and start with, “Hey, how you doing? What’s going on today? How is your family? Oh yeah, that project did really well. Oh by the way, can you get me this?” That would be… They would see that as hiding their real intention and they would want me, if I came to them, to do that with them.

And then, if you can’t tell from the accent, I’m from the sort of South, Southeast in the U.S. and we’re exactly the opposite. So the way we were raised is you don’t just come up and ask to borrow someone’s ladder. You’ve got to come up, and there is a social… There’s a series of kind of social niceties that you have to undertake. And so you would ask, “How’s the family? What’s going on? Oh, the yard looks good. Hey, by the way, I need to clean the leaves out of my gutter. Can I borrow that ladder that I’ve seen you use?”

Always be honest, transparent and know your audience

Bill Detwiler: So I think you hit on a point that’s really important, which is knowing your audience. Be honest, be transparent, but know your audience and know how they want that information delivered to them, and how they’re going to respond.

Wesley Faulkner: Absolutely. It’s the same as setting expectations. If someone’s expecting that conversation, the small talk, some people would say, before the ask, then you can throw them off and they can think, “Well how rude. They’re not observing our social etiquette.” The same is true online. If you click on a famous actor’s bio and it just says, “I play the banjo,” you’re like, “What?” So it’s-

Bill Detwiler: A little Steve Martin there, right?

Wesley Faulkner: Yes, yes. Good catch. Good call. So, it’s like… When you separate expectations from reality, and if it’s too far of a gap, then you can do one of two things. One, you can have that surprise and delight saying, “Wow, this is different.” And then it causes you to rethink. Or you can put someone off depending on the context or how important it is.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah. Now is there anything unique about networking as a developer? Maybe to compare it to networking as someone in product management, sales, or maybe even another IT field.

Wesley Faulkner: One is that developers are not a monolith. I think generally, people who are outside of development might say, “We need more developers.” And they’ll use that term like it means something. I think it’s one of those terms where it sounds… And you have a picture in your head like you know what you mean, and know what you’re talking about. But then you say it to someone else and they could have a total different meaning and understanding of what that is.

Same with programming. Some people think if you do JavaScript, you’re not programming. But if you’re doing C#, then it’s too abstracted. But if you did C, now that’s a real programmer, right?

Bill Detwiler: If it’s not Fortran, it’s not programming. Right?

Wesley Faulkner: Right. If you’re not moving bits and assembly, then I don’t know what you’re doing.

Bill Detwiler: That’s right.

Wesley Faulkner: It’s a… I would say if… The difference between people who are developers is that some are extremely narrow and deep, they’re super experts in one thing. And there are some people who are wide and shallow, meaning that they know a lot, but maybe once you get to a certain point that they… it seems kind of cloudy and they can’t expound on that little thing. So there’s a whole spectrum for developers.

But one thing is that usually they are either super knowledgeable about systems saying like, “I know where my piece slots in the whole thing.” And so they can talk to you a long time and questions come out about like, “Okay, if you say that you put in a drop and it turns blue, is that a chemical reaction? Or is that some sort of other catalysts that change?” You can go deeper into questions based on one little thing and then it has a really good conversation.

But there are some people who are just like, “Okay, I know how my thing works, and I know the parameters that are coming in, and I know the output I need to go out. I’m a total black box, and I can control that, and I work in that mechanism.” But the good thing about looking at things that way is that they’ll understand if things aren’t clear when you’re talking to them. So kind of like in networking. They’ll say, “Hey, you said that you are the best spoon in the business. Can you tell me what verticals that business is in? Can you tell me what use cases the spoon is used? Is it disposable or is it multiple use?

They’ll understand how a perimeter ties things and so in conversations they kind of work that way, too. And so they’ll all be especially sensitive to someone that they’re networking with who put out a premise that seems false, or it’s not specific enough. They could be easily confused by that because it could not work in their system.

So in terms of people who are “developers,” quote unquote, air quotes, they can fall in different variations of different things. And so in terms of someone else who may not be a developer, they might pull to other gravity’s based on their profession or what they do. Like, “How much does it pay?” might be one of the first questions. Or like, “How much free time do I get?” Artistic expression, where they have like, “I don’t want any constraints on what I do.” So in terms of networking, when you’re outside the profession, trying to network with developers, those are some people that you might not come across in other walks of life.

SEE: Hiring kit: Python developer (TechRepublic Premium)

Social networking: Your LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social accounts are your public face, be thoughtful and keep your bio current

Bill Detwiler: Now, how important are social networking sites like LinkedIn, or maybe having a personal website, or a blog to the networking process?

Wesley Faulkner: I’m going to say that I am personally biased towards Twitter on that question. But LinkedIn is equally, if not more important, especially if you’re talking about getting a job. What you want to do, personally, is have an inventory of where you are online. So you need to have a full accounting of how you’re presenting yourself and update those as needed.

Wesley Faulkner TwitterWesley Faulkner Twitter

So your MySpace page, you might want to let that go. Your GeoCities page, it’s okay for those to be outdated. But those that you know people can find, that are going to be representative of you, it’s really important to make sure that one, your picture’s there, if that is something that you’re comfortable with, or your picture is universal so that people can connect things. Two, that your name is accurate, if it’s possible. Like once again, there are some people who are in… let’s say vulnerable communities where these things you can’t necessarily do. But those who are able to do that, make sure your name is accurate so that you can be found. So people are looking for you, your work product can speak for itself.

And the most important thing is that your description, or your bio, is up to date. So if you want to represent yourself as a person who is in an industry, or what you choose to pursue, like, “I’m looking for a new career in,” or, “I’m pivoting towards,” or, “have a history in,” or, “with company X,” make sure it’s there. If you just put, “I play the banjo,” then you’re not really adding to much of what people are finding about you.

Keep in mind when you’re interacting online, that’s the face that you’re presenting. When you’re in a physical event, of course, there’s a lot of assumptions that people make, some positive, some negative, but you want to control that as much as possible. So change your bio, change your history. Also, like I said, your strength and weaknesses, and your individualism. Whichever route you go, try to make sure that is updated, too, on how you’re presenting yourself, that you can speak to it.

I think there’s some things that are cute. Like people say, “Where are you located?” And they put, and he was like, “Oh, I get it. That’s cute.” But if you’re not looking for a remote job and you need a job in a specific location, or if you want to speak at a certain location, that might be useful information where you might want to present that.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah. I think the theme that’s riding through all this is to do the best you can to be authentic, to be transparent, to be honest in whatever way you’re presenting yourself.

How to make professional contacts in the age of social distancing and remote work

Bill Detwiler: So let’s get into sort of the current situation that many people are facing. Especially now in the age of social distancing, how do people still make contacts as remote work becomes the norm, or at least a greater part of the norm?

Wesley Faulkner: Yeah. Not a lot of people expected to be here, even four months ago. So there’s some things that you can do if you didn’t do the things that I mentioned before, which you establish the networks, establish a long-term connection with people. You can also start that now. And do you start that is actually go back to the people that you did work with, or have a relationship with. Formalize it if you need to, like get them added to LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, whatever, if you don’t already have that connection.

Especially on LinkedIn, if you can reach back out, get a recommendation from them. That does two things. One, gets you feedback on like, “I thought we worked well together,” and they might have an even better impression of working with you. And that’s something that I’ve personally have gotten that experience where people have written recommendations on LinkedIn. I’m like, “I am about to cry. This is beautiful.” I had no idea that I had that kind of impact on someone. The other thing is it lets them know, “Hey, I’m looking for a job, so if you hear anything.” It gives them a good feeling about you and puts you on the top register of people they might think of when they hear, or see another job, or have their connections.

So LinkedIn is a great way of getting in there in a casual way, but it has these side benefits, too. The other is LinkedIn… sorry, Twitter, which is my personal favorite. If you are interested in an industry or in a company, I use Twitter lists personally, and TweetDeck to keep an eye on that. If you haven’t heard of TweetDeck, it’s just like Twitter, but you log in at and you use your same Twitter login. And it brings up a different interface and allows you to make columns of things you track.

So it’ll give you a better sense if you’re looking to work for a company, what kind of people who already work there, what they do, what they’re interested in, what they’re sharing, the kind of people that the company hires. Two, it gives you a better sense of what you need to be in that company. So do you need to tweet all the time, do you not? Can you have a lower profile? Do they only tweet about work? Are they really buttoned down and serious? Or did they talk about their personal lives, and that’s something that you can bring to that job, right? A little mixture of who you are and what you do.

Also, it gives you a pulse of the world, especially if you’re talking about an industry. So if you’re interested in blockchain, or if you’re interested in databases, or if you’re interested in machine learning, or artificial intelligence, or autonomous driving specifically, follow all those people, put them in a list, and see what they’re talking about. If you…

The pace of change nowadays, it’s easy to get lost and also get sidetracked. But if you have a list of people who focus on your niche, and then two people mentioned the same article, or the same advancement, or the same white paper, that’s a big signal to you that you should learn that, too. And when you’re in that interview, if you’re trying to get in that company, you can understand that might be something that might come up. Or it might be something where you can bring it up and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I saw that article, too,” where you can connect with someone on the level with that same vocabulary, and the same expertise and know how, that their own people are being excited about and talking about.

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