When Linus Torvalds had questions regarding a project using a variant of Unix, he turned to the open-source software community for answers. "I'm doing a [free] operating system [just a hobby]," he wrote in an e-mail to a Minux discussion group in July 1991. "I'd like to know what features most people would want." By September, he had incorporated those suggestions into what we now know as Linux, the open-source operating system.
IT pros are natural networkers when it comes to their projects. Networking has been the core ingredient in such industry-shaping developments as Linux, the Internet and peer-to-peer file sharing. But when it comes to career development, IT workers don't take a systematic approach to networking. Perhaps it's because the term evokes images of the uncomfortable-looking conference attendee with the plastered grin striking up awkward conversations while passing out business cards.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Tapping my own network, I brought together a team of five colleagues to create LinkedIn, an online service that gives professionals tools to build and manage a network of peers, mentors, partners and potential employers and employees.
Remember the old shampoo commercial, "I told two friends, and they told two friends and so on"? That's how LinkedIn works. You create a profile, entering career and education history, and LinkedIn's search engines pull up a list of people from those institutions who are already members. You can invite those people and others to join your personal network, which consists of your contacts, and their contacts, and their contacts and so on.
For networking to be truly effective, however, you need to be clear on what you want out of it as well as what you have to offer. After all, business relationships at every level involve some sort of exchange.
A college student, for instance, would probably be best served by a mentor who could offer advice, contacts or a job. In exchange, the student could work as an intern. Having grown up with computers, many students have technology expertise that may be very valuable to a small business.
When I was in college, I worked at Inglenook Vineyards. I got a great wine education and an introduction to business. In exchange, I helped the company sort out its information technology so that it could reconcile the accounts payable/receivable system.
Mid-career professionals might find more value from a network of senior business people and peers. The senior-level mentors can offer some pointers on what lies ahead, while the peer group can share common experiences and problems.
As a CEO, I use my network to find other CEOs of Silicon Valley startups who are connected to me through one of my contacts or a friend of one of my contacts. If I want to get in touch with a CEO, I ask our common connections for an introduction. From there, I can invite him or her to a breakfast meeting where we can discuss issues we're all facing.
Although it's possible to make these connections the old-fashioned (offline) way, being able to see for myself exactly who my contacts know and what their backgrounds are puts the power of my existing network into my hands, rather than relying solely on chance meetings. And I don't have to ask my colleagues the uncomfortable question of whether they know so-and-so because LinkedIn will tell me whether they know someone I'm looking for.
But whether using tech tools or the telephone, IT professionals should take a Linux-like approach to developing peer- and senior-level connections.