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Get out of your "shell" and exercise your people muscles for fun and profit

As programmers, we often have the luxury of focusing on interesting and challenging technical problems, without having to worry too much (depending on your work arrangement) about the external factors that make this kind of sheltered life possible. However, it turns out there are some big pluses to developing our people networking skills and getting out and meeting folks. This is especially true when we move out on our own (or become part of a very small team). These advantages include:
  • More business,
  • Unexpected opportunities,
  • Great product ideas and directions, and
  • Improved health and life satisfaction.
(There's a longer list here.) Most of these advantages stem from the basic ideas that 1) we humans thrive in a more deeply connected world, and 2) opportunities for new ideas, new projects, and additional work can come from surprising places, once you start putting energy into expanding your network. The down side? You may have to develop some new skills, you have to put in time and energy to meet folks, and you have to stay open to possibly unexpected opportunities (i.e., to be ready to say yes).

So how does one go about growing her network? I started with three books, which jump-started my efforts:Why these three? First, Sanders' book is inspirational, and encourages us to freely share our knowledge, our network, and our compassion. This can be hard for us, especially the knowledge bit, because as Susan Jeffers puts it (from Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway):
So much of what we learn in life comes to us with great difficultly. And, for some reason, we have a tendency to want to see others struggle as much as we did. Turn this around and begin giving others as much help as you can possibly give them.
As a programmer, I think of this book as how to look at others as partners in work and life, and how helping them ultimately helps me and my business.

In the second book, Ferrazzi and Raz teach us about the good kind of networking, i.e., the kind involving unselfish giving, not the kind in which I stand at the exhibit hall and pass out 300 business cards. Again, as geeks, this book shows us that networking is very powerful, and demonstrates how to get started.

Finally, Boothman's work gives us some crucial skills on establishing rapport with people in the early seconds of a relationship, which apparently matter quite a bit. It covers mysteries like eye contact, body mirroring, and asking open-ended questions when first meeting someone. As a technical type I found myself thinking "Where the hell was this book when I was in high school!?" Think of it as a social skills user manual.

Great. So given all that, how do we put this into practice? As with anything new, there will be trial and error, and - as with anything social - "error" can feel uncomfortable at first. One strategy I found useful was to start by being conscious of each personal interaction, and looking at these as little opportunities to get to know the other person.

For example, I used to interact with people only when necessary, and only for the minimal time needed to deal with the task at hand. Very much Just the Facts. Say I needed to talk with a user. I'd spent a few seconds in obligatory "How you doing?" mode, then jump right into the fray - "Which version of the JDK are you using?," "Is the server running?," etc. However, I now spend a little time asking about the person either before or after the technical stuff - things like how they like their jobs, where they live, what their passions or issues are, etc. While some folks are all business (can't help that!), most welcome the chance to talk about themselves. And guess what? That connection persists, both in my mind and theirs. (Early on I forgot to do this, so I called the person back, apologized for being so hasty, and asked to hear a bit about her life. She was fine with it.)

The bottom line? Brush up those social muscles, dust off your English (non-programming) language skills, and reboot yourself a bit. You never know what a connection with someone might bring, either to you or (better yet) to them.

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