These days, forging an IT career has as much to do with who you know as what you can do. Building a network of contacts can work wonders when seeking a new job or contract.
In a recent survey on career choices by outplacement and career management consultancy Drake Beam Morin, 60% of former job hunters said they had found a new position through networking. The survey, which covered staff at all levels from junior roles to senior management, also found that networking allowed people to find a new role more quickly.
However, effective networking skills do not come naturally to everyone, and it takes planning and effort to make the right contacts. So what does successful networking involve and how do you go about it?
Diana Westlake, managing consultant at Drake Beam Morin, describes networking as gathering information that you can then use to help you move on in your career. "You can network with anyone," she explains. "It is about tapping into what people know and who they know. Don't go cap-in-hand and ask for a job, just ask for advice.
"You do not have to be manipulative, people are happy to share information."
In its simplest form, networking is about staying in touch with people you have worked for or worked with.
David De Vita, a senior Web developer based in Cambridgeshire, is actively looking for work at the moment. He has been contracting for the past few years but is now looking at both permanent jobs and contract opportunities. De Vita got his first break in IT by being proactive while he was still at university. Well before the end of his course he got into the habit of cutting out job adverts as a means of collecting contact names and numbers.
"When I started to look for jobs I would contact companies I was interested in even though it was some time after their adverts had appeared. It was a good way of getting to talk to people - and there might be new job openings," he says.
De Vita recommends networking as a way of taking some of the pain out of the application and interview process. "It is definitely easier to get work with someone you have worked with before," he says. "Talk to friends to find out what is going on. From to time to time I will contact everyone in my e-mail address book, asking them what they are doing at the moment."
But there is more to networking than keeping your address book up to date. If you are going to join a professional body or attend forums it is worth taking time to think about what networking opportunities they present and matching them to your career aims. Avoid events that are not relevant to your career path.
Once you are at an event, the challenge is to start talking to people. We have all seen seasoned networkers "working" a room - meeting the movers and shakers, having a chat and a joke and leaving them with a smile and a business card. But what if you do not have their confidence?
Celeste Rush knows the feeling. She is currently studying for a masters degree in IT security at the University of Westminster. A former professional violinist who opted for an IT career after suffering a shoulder injury, Rush got involved with the local branch of the British Computer Society in North London. Her aim was to attend seminars relevant to her degree and broaden her range of IT contacts. She is now an active branch committee member.
"I felt apprehensive at first but I was surprised how welcoming people were," says Rush. "I was new to the industry and I wondered what I could offer. But, because of the seminar's subject, everyone had a shared purpose for going to the event. It was a chance to meet like-minded people and we had something to talk about."
Of course, not all networking takes place outside of work. Creating informal internal networks through the people you talk to in the canteen or by the photocopier can be equally valuable. It is also worth volunteering for working groups that will bring you into contact with people at all levels from across the organisation.
Make an impact within your own department too, advises Anne Cantelo, project director at IT industry skills body E-Skills UK. She recommends that, apart from doing the day job well, it is worth taking opportunities to get noticed. "Don't be afraid to speak up in meetings. Managers do not always want people to agree with everything. You do not have to tell people they are wrong, but do not be afraid to challenge and ask questions," she says.
It may sound like successful networkers have to be calculating. But it is far more subtle than that. The key lies in consciously using day-to-day interpersonal skills such as asking questions and listening to what people say. It is also a two way street - a successful networker will be generous with their time and advice when others ask for help. In short, those who network well use their people skills well.
This may take practice, but it can pay off, says Bridgette Cameron, director of IT recruitment agency Drax Generation. "There is no magic formula," she says. "Be on the best possible terms with people. If you are not a natural networker, get to know people with better networks than you. They may not be more senior than you, they might just be better at building networks. Make use of their knowledge and contacts. After all, if you make contact with one person, you are potentially in touch with 20 others."
Nine rules for successful networking
- Update your address book regularly
- Be professional and make a good impression
- Stay on good terms with the people you work with
- Attend conferences and seminars, but make sure they are relevant to your career path
- Be generous with your advice and time
- Remember that people at all levels have networks, use their contacts as well as your own
- Build internal networks across your company, not just in your own department
- Be patient, networking is an investment that takes time to yield results
- Don't ask for a job, ask for information and advice.