In the previous post I talked about why you should build a network of people to both help you in your career and to improve your own skillset. How does one build this network of people?
There are endless ways of building a network and the ways I describe here are based on my personal experience. That said, I do believe that there are some common factors regardless of what approach you take.
Interacting in Forums – There are a lot of forums available, forums for Cisco Learning Network, Cisco Support Community, training vendor forums, product forums, vendor forums. These are often the best resources for getting help on a product and finding those golden nuggets of information that are not always available from the official documentation. There are often very skilled and experienced people in these forums answering posts and writing posts. Try to contribute to the forums and to learn from them and start interacting with these people. Many forums have some form of ranking which makes it easier to spot the people that are the most active on the forums.
I started writing a lot on CLN several years ago and that has been very benificial for me landing me a Cisco VIP award. Through CLN I have gotten to learn brilliant people like Paul Stewart and Scott Morris and several more. I also get to talk to the great community managers Matt Saunders and Brett Lovins. These guys are great and have a lot of reach inside of Cisco. I’ve also been able to meet with the executives of Learning @ Cisco and through Webex sessions get to know a lot of other people inside of Cisco. In short, forums is a great resource if you use them the right way.
Social Media – Social media is just about posting pictures of cats, trolling and spamming. Right? Wrong! Twitter is a gold mine for anyone working in IT. Before social media we were limited to our real life network. This would often be based on geography and area of business. If you didn’t know person X in real life or someone that knew person X, you would not be able to get hold of person X. By using Twitter, you can now reach this person X by sending a tweet to them. First a word of caution though, just because you’re typing online does not mean that you don’t need to have good manners or that you can shortcut building a relationship with someone. You can write a tweet to say Ivan Pepelnjak and say “Ivan, I read your book and was wondering about xyz”. That is more likely to generate a response than to simply tweet to someone with a question with no background.
A lot of the people I look up to in the networking industry are present on Twitter. Some of them are Ivan Pepelnjak, Russ White, Scott Morris, Wendell Odom, Denise Fishburne, Pete Lumbis, Peter Paluch and several others. I never imagined I would get the chance to interact with these people.
Twitter is also great for asking questions like “Has anyone worked on this product? What’s your opinion of it?” or “I was setting up technology xyz and ran into this issue. Has anyone seen it before?” Using social media you can build a much larger network than you would ever be able to do only based on people you have met in real life.
Conferences – A lot of the vendors have their own conferences. I try to attend Cisco Live and I’ve written posts about why in the past but in this post I’ll focus on why from the PoV of this blog. First off, I understand that for some people it will be very difficult if not impossible to attend a conference based on costs. By going to these conferences, you will meet with brilliant engineers, product managers, Technical Marketing Engineers, certification managers and with friends from both real life and online. Don’t underestimate the learning experience of going to a conference. It’s the best way to learn and it’s really like drinking from the firehose.
I always try to meet with people I’ve learned to know from online, don’t be happy with just knowing someone from online, try to meet with them when you have the chance. At Cisco Live I’ve met with a lot of awesome people. I’ve been able to talk to Bruno Van De Werve, the CCIE RS Program Manager and Elaine Lopes, the CCDE Program Manager to learn about the certification and to give my feedback of the exams. It’s great being able to meet these people in person and discuss with them.
Last year I also met with Jeremy Filliben, I wanted to learn more about his CCDE offering. Sure, I could just have sent him a tweet or e-mailed him but a conversation in real life is always worth more than interacting online.
Don’t be afraid of interacting with people. Did you have a question for the instructor of your session? Ask it! Do you have a design you are working on that relates to the session you just attended? Ask the instructor if he has any input. Get to know these people. Once again though, use good manners! These are very busy people so don’t assume they have the time for an entire design session with you but if you approach them they will try to assist you in some way.
Study Groups – Study groups are also a great resource to learn and to meet and interact with people. In my area there aren’t really any real life user groups like the Cisco User Group (CUG) available so I setup online groups instead. Otherwise, CUGs and VMUGs etc is a great way of meeting with people and learning. These are often cheaper to attend and more local to you than say, Cisco Live.
I’ve started to use Slack for collaborating with other people studying for the same certification as I. I have to say that even I was surprised at how efficient this can be. Having several people working towards the same goal and interacting is a powerful thing. Not to mention that being to tap into the experience of other people is really beneficial for work life related tasks as well.
Writing – Writing is another great way of getting to learn people. I’ve blogged for many years now and I’ve gotten to learn to know a lot of people thanks to the blog. It’s always great to meet with someone in real life that says they are reading your blog and it’s also a great ice breaker to get a discussion going. You don’t have to write your own blog, you could blog at a place like the Packet Pushers or through a forum or vendor. Writing a book is another great way to get to know people but requires a lot more than writing shorter posts of course.
I really want to emphasize that you will never get more out of a network than you put into it. Don’t be a leech. Don’t expect to get answers to all your questions if you never do anything to answer questions from other people. So to quote Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Engage!”