Take the “Work” out of Networking

I get stressed when I think about networking. How can I make the process easier?

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I remember going to my first recruiting event in college. I was nervous. My heartbeat quickened walking into the room, words from my elevator pitch danced in my mind, and I viewed the people around me as competition for a coveted interview. Once the hosts gave the initial presentation, attendees scattered throughout the room and tried to be the first to talk to a company representative. I awkwardly joined a small group and asked surface-level questions without retaining many of their answers. After attending the event, I tried to connect with the people I met on LinkedIn, sent a thank you email to the recruiter, and proceeded to never talk with any of them again. The whole experience felt transactional and disingenuous.

As I attended more networking events during the rest of my university years and into my professional career, I realized I had approached networking all wrong. The key first step was to not think of it as an obstacle to overcome, but rather a steppingstone. Networking is a chance to connect with people and share perspectives. Changing my attitude from “pay attention to me” and “how soon can I leave” to “what can I learn today” and “how can I make the most of my time here” was a positive shift in mindset. Be present, be curious, and be sincere — and that means putting your phone away, asking personalized questions when possible, and actively listening. My fellow editorial board member Sarvenaz Myslicki has shared a great perspective: “To be good at networking, you don’t need to be interesting. You just need to be interested in the other person.”

Bringing a friend or colleague along can ease any qualms about going alone. By attending networking events together, the experience is less nerve-wracking. You can support each other as you ease into the event, exchange tips and introductions as the event goes on, and debrief afterward. That being said, be mindful of not relying on your companion the entire time. Stay open to chatting with others in attendance. Embrace the freedom to branch out and have your own conversations, with the option to reconnect throughout the evening if you want to chat with a familiar face.

The power of a single interaction

Networking events are also not limited to your typical cocktail hour with people in suits. Maybe you’re attending a SWE general body meeting, playing on an intramural sports team, volunteering, participating in a hackathon, joining a crafting community, or going to a conference. All of these scenarios are great places to casually meet new people or build relationships further with those you already know. For example, during my junior year, I hosted a resume review workshop for my SWE collegiate section in partnership with a company’s recruiting team. It was fun planning the event, collaborating with people working in industry, and bringing a professional development activity to our section. When I later saw that recruiter at a SWE conference career fair, she kindly extended an interview opportunity since she was familiar with my resume and work ethic. I eventually interned at the company! You never know what one interaction may lead to down the road.

One other approach to consider is setting up one-on-ones with individuals you’re interested in getting to know more about. This is an excellent way to spend quality time with someone, ask specific questions that are relevant to both of you, and remove the intimidation of a large networking event. You can either reach out on your own or have a person you both know make the introduction (also known as a “warm intro”) to make the initial connection easier. Be proactive in scheduling time and have a few questions ready, but also be flexible so that the conversation develops naturally. During another internship, I set a personal goal to set up one-on-ones with the 20+ people in my department. This may have seemed ambitious, but it boiled down to two 30-minute conversations each week. Even if I didn’t work directly with them, it was cool to learn about their journeys in career and life, what they worked on, and any best practices or tips they wanted to share. Spending an hour each week for my personal growth and relationship-building was well worth the investment. You might be scared to reach out in the first place, but the anticipation is more anxiety producing than taking action itself. The worst they can say is no — and if that happens, then at least you won’t be wondering “what if.” The best way to build your confidence and get over that fear is by doing it more regularly and making it feel natural.

By reframing how you think about networking, you can take the “work” out of networking!

Are you a collegian or young professional looking for advice on a personal or professional matter?

Submit your questions to “Ask Alice.” Individual members of the SWE editorial board will answer questions on a rolling basis, drawing from their own experiences, insights, and expertise.

Nicole Woon, SWE Editorial Board, provided the answer to this question. She is a SharePoint program manager at Microsoft and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.S.E. (mechanical engineering) and two B.S.E.s (bioengineering, entrepreneurial management). Woon is an active SWE life member and currently serves on the nominating committee and SWE Magazine editorial board.