When it comes to making your way in any career the bottom line is that it is not what you know but who you know that counts. And IT is no exception.
Even with the plethora of ways of differentiating between job candidates, such as qualifications, track record, interview performance and references, at the end of the day recruiters are just people. There is a good chance that if you appeal to their human side (yes, they do have one!) you can hurdle every barrier to getting that longed-for job.
The IT industry is as incestuous as any when it comes to career networking and job-hopping. The only grades at which it is harder to circumvent established recruitment methods to get a job that, on paper, you are not qualified to do, are those in which core technical skills are required - programming, for example.
For all other jobs, especially where there is a sniff of business analysis and general acumen required, you can leapfrog other candidates if you pull strings with the right people.
That is where career networking comes into its own - setting out to meet and cultivate decision-makers and influential people who are your stepping stones to meeting the person who can offer you the job you want. There is even a theory to prove there are only six degrees of separation between yourself and the one person on the planet you most want to meet - be they Hugh Grant, Pamela Anderson or the IT manager of a blue chip company.
"Good networking is more important in furthering your career than your skills and ability - far more important," says David Taylor, former IT director at Cornhill Insurance, and president of Certus, the UK association for IT directors.
Career experts confirm that simply by working through the influential people around you, you maximise your chances of achieving anything you want to in your working life. Tap into others' spheres of influence and your circle of useful contacts will widen until it embraces the people who you most want to impress.
Occupational psychologist Margaret Stead, managing director of Career Design International and a self-styled "dream architect", says, "IT professionals particularly need to plan for tomorrow, given the fluctuating nature of the IT industry, but it can be an overwhelming task. Nevertheless, successful IT professionals place enormous importance on networking - going to trade shows, attending lectures, conferences and social events, joining industry and management organisations.
"All these initiatives present unique opportunities to trade business cards, meet new contacts, pool resources, and swap valuable information on jobs and what companies are really looking for."
What you are trying to achieve is an introduction to the person who holds the key to your dream job. Get that introduction from someone highly respected by your target and they will bathe you in the same light. You become transformed from being just another job applicant into being the only interviewee recommended by a valued colleague.
Being recommended can overcome a CV that doesn't match the advertised criteria for the job and get you that interview. Seize your advantage and be confident as you walk through the door and you are already halfway to getting the position.
The most productive approach to networking is to do it subtly and honestly. Don't overwhelm people on the first meeting and never make huge demands on your contacts unless you know them very well. Always give something in return - information, a great idea, free advice, a valuable contact.
Also, be clear about what you're trying to achieve. Take personality and skills tests to ensure you have not overlooked some latent talent you have never exploited. Think about what help you need to achieve your goal and don't limit your horizons. If you want to be the big cheese, you can be, with help from the right people.
Research the area you want to move into so that you can impress those you meet who are already working in the field. Discover who the major players are, who others respect, and home in on meeting them with a bright idea offered unconditionally.
Above all, don't use people without giving something in return. Rest assured that either way, they will never forget you and they just may have the ear of your ultimate contact.
The last word on networking has to be don't let any contact go cold. Keeping them warm need only be a case of sending a Christmas card.
Remember, people change jobs rapidly in the IT industry and you never know where they will go next or who they will want to take with them.
Case study:Robert Meadows
Robert Meadows has successfully changed career direction as a result of networking among his acquaintances and using the services of professional advisory firm Career Design International.
Meadows has a degree in agriculture and worked in farm management on a 4,000-acre estate after graduation, gaining valuable man management and enterprise planning experience. From there he moved to work as a management consultant advising small agricultural businesses on financial planning and control.
But after nearly eight years in the job Meadows recognised that the agricultural sector was in deep decline. He decided to change career to improve his prospects.
To realise his ambition, Meadows took a general MBA at Aston University, learning about finance, marketing, organisational behaviour and operations. Career Design International, which works with Aston University to support postgraduates, polished his CV and presentation skills and introduced him to key people in various industries.
Meadows also consulted the Association of MBAs, which was happy to advise on possible careers and provide contacts through its alumni.
From this pool of advice, Meadows identified the IT sector as the best place for his talents - in the role of business analyst. He took courses in IT project management and then attended IT recruitment fairs, networking with potential employers.
Today, Meadows is a business analyst with Cap Gemini and is pursuing a career in project management.
His advice to others is, "Don't get despondent and be open to professional career advice. Networking is essential - it's all about talking to the right people and presenting yourself, which is always good practice for when you finally meet your potential employer."
Networking: plan of action
This was first published in May 2000